I was an ughly child, but I doubt that you would think that by looking at my grade school pictures. For the most part, I suppose I looked like any other kid. Nothing about me was exceptional in either direction. I wasn’t exceedingly attractive nor was I noticeably unfortunate looking.
But ughly children know who they are. They are the children teachers prefer not to see on their class rosters at the beginning of the fall semester and the ones who cause parents to grimace when they realize “that child” will be attending a birthday party. Even most therapists don’t like seeing these children’s names on their agenda for the day.
Ughly children demand others’ energy. They break things. They often rub people — including their peers — the wrong way. That is what makes them “ughly” — they cause us to go “ugh.”
Consequently, they are never the first ones chosen for games, and often their comments and thoughts go unnoticed, as if they weren’t there at all. Over time, they learn that they are irrelevant, sometimes even at home.
I run a camp for grieving children every summer. We always have a few children who demand far more of our time than do others. Some require a dedicated staff person 24/7. They force us to use all of our skills and, often, all of our energy.
It would be far easier if all of my campers were cute, cooperative and fun to work with. But ughly children are my favorites. I would be lying if I said that I looked forward to the hard work these children require of me. Camp is exhausting enough given the outdoor conditions, poor sleep and, of course, the energy required to help children through their grief. I would also be lying if I said that I haven’t sometimes thought “ugh” upon seeing certain names on my own therapy agenda.
I realized long ago, however, that these children are accustomed to the exasperated inflection in the voices of those who speak to them. The world these children live in is full of adults and kids alike who give clear indication that life would be much easier if ughly children weren’t in it. Mostly, that message is unintended, but it is the message these children receive nonetheless.
I work hard to communicate a very different message. I make sure to pick them first, to listen carefully to their stories, and to show patience that they sometimes don’t know what to do with. It is amazing how quickly I build rapport with these children and, consequently, how hard they will work to please me. That makes behavior modification much easier.
So, whether it is for a few days at camp or throughout months of therapy, I commit to acting like I might be the only person that day (or maybe ever) who makes these children feel that I am glad to see them rather than perturbed that they need something from me.
It would be a mistake to think that ughliness is limited to children. It isn’t. Adults can be ughly too and, like the children I’ve described, they know who they are. Their lives have been replete with rejection, and that is often at the core of some of their troubles.
Many years ago, a client of mine was an ughly child. I know because he told me so. “My teachers don’t like me,” he said on the first day we met. He wasn’t complaining. Just stating the facts. This young boy had endured several major life events that would have challenged any adult.
He was rambunctious and broke something nearly every time he came into my office. Upon his departure each day, the sand from my sand tray was always all over the floor and most of the toys were off the shelves. He was hard work, but I loved that child. I was his lifeline to a more peaceful future. We worked together for several years as he weathered many storms.
Today he is approaching 30, and I occasionally see him in the community. He is 6-and-a-half-feet tall and outweighs me by at least 50 pounds. Yet each time I see this very successful young man, he hugs me with the deepest affection. I’ll always be his “Dr. Gregory.”
Anybody can work with easy children. Professionals take on the challenge of the hard ones, and that is why ughly children are my favorites. Maybe they can become your favorites too.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.