If you were raised in a Jamaican household chances are you’ve gotten a good beating from a parent at some point, whether an aunt or an uncle, a grandparent, or some other relative. If you didn’t then I’m willing to bet you know someone who did. We Jamaicans ‘nuh ramp wid pickney.’ Our mantra is that ‘Dem fi get lick when dem bad!’ And while there is nothing wrong with punishing bad behaviour, what is worrying is the culture that glorifies the kind of violence that we often practice in the name of discipline. It is not far from the gory practices carried out by the various religious groups in the name of converting or enlightening non-believers.
When I was younger I had a neighbour whose grandfather used to beat him mercilessly. On one occasion, in a bid to escape his grandfather’s wrath he fled under the bed. This miscalculation on his part spurred the grandfather to also make a fatal error in judgement which eventually compromised the child’s vision in one eye. Not wishing to be outwitted, grandpa proceeded to poke him with a mop stick under the bed and just like stones, ‘mop stick nuh av yeye.’
Sure my neighbour was a troublesome child, and got into countless quandaries growing up – multiple suspensions, numerous parents showing up at the gate to complain or ‘cuss’ and at one point even the police came in a case of unlawful wounding – but the beatings did nothing to curtail them. If anything, I secretly felt like they only served to make him more violent and rebellious.
My neighbour is one of many, and I’m sure you know them too; perhaps you too lived next door to one, or had a sibling who was one, or maybe you yourself know firsthand. Some never live to tell the story, but that point will be quickly shot down – before I’m done making it – in the name of averages, because if the numbers are too small to make the news each week, then we convince ourselves it is not enough of a problem. I hear you, and I hear your follow-up argument, meant to bolster your earlier rebuttal. “Nuff a wi get some r@*s lick an wi nuh dead! Suh wah?” And all I can say to you is I’m glad you made it out unscathed.
I myself was always sent for the belt by my father and was then commanded to stick my hand out for a few slaps. In retrospect, the actual beatings were unnecessary as the terror that gripped me on that journey to my father with the belt had a greater impact than the feel of that belt against my soft palms anyway. But that’s just me. I don’t assume anyone else shares that perspective. My mother on the other hand, took a more hands-on approach, using whatever was found lying in her path to punctuate the sentences she shouted to get compliance. If there was nothing nearby, she never hesitated to use her hands. Even with her methods, I only feared my father, but perhaps that may be attributed to a whole other phenomenon which I’d do well to leave for a separate article, lest I digress.
The UN has recently called for a ban on corporal punishment, citing the practice as inhumane and many Jamaicans are up in arms about the whole thing (at least those of us who are in tune with the news and have an idea of the goings-on in society). There are those among us who believe it is one’s inalienable right as a life-giver to ‘fling lick, kick an’ box’ any way one pleases. These parents believe they have earned that right and no one should be allowed to take it away. Now before you hasten to dismiss me as ‘Eurocentric’, ‘Uptown’ or ‘Americanised’ (I assure you, none of the three labels fit) allow me to bring home my argument. I am not proposing that we acquiesce to the UN and ban the form of punishment all together, simply because they’re demanding it. I am proposing a less traditional approach than the one of treating the symptom, which we have a history of resorting to.
I submit to you that there is something dreadfully wrong with a society that has no qualms with a grown man or woman kicking or boxing a helpless child (or even a feisty misguided one who thinks he/she is too grown to behave) to teach them manners or to coerce them into respecting this same individual who can only be described as an aggressor. We are also dreadfully abnormal – I submit to you, maybe even to psychotic proportions – for thinking it’s ok to then boast to friends and neighbours how ‘mi nuh ramp fi kick dung ar backside when shi backansa mi!’ as if such violence is worthy of commendation. This kind of behaviour is neither normal nor healthy, no matter how many times we try to justify or explain it away. It is NOT tough love. Abuse by any other name is still abuse.
Perhaps the conversation that our Minister of Youth and Culture Lisa Hannah has been calling for should be more about the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ instead of just whether or not we should beat. Frustration is a helleva ting! And the reality is that some children are as difficult as they come, making talking alone a waste of time. As is often echoed, there is no manual for parenting. Still, the absence of a manual cannot be the justification put forward for all the things we do that are dreadfully and obviously wrong.
Worthy of note, is the fact that a significant number of parents who resort to this kind of discipline do not necessarily utilize any degree of violence as a means of conflict resolution in any other area of their lives. Think about that for a minute. We teach children to resolve issues peacefully and live lovingly with family and friends yet the very people charged with protecting them are often the worst at conflict resolution whenever they are involved. In fact, as a bystander it can often feel like the parent gets gratification from these ‘beating sessions’, treating it almost as a sport or a recreational activity.
For many parents it seems the goal is to strip the child of their personhood and debase them to the point where they are no longer seen as human beings. My description sounds extreme, but I assure you it is not false. Many children are stripped naked in public for their beatings and are beaten to the point where they can neither move nor control their bodily functions. How is that discipline? Why should any human being be granted a right that infringes to such an extent on the basic rights of another human being?
Patrick Gaynor, in his recent autobiography “The Road to Zion,” addresses the issue of tough love and discipline in his own exploration of his relationship with his mother, and in a separate incident that he recalls from his earlier years where a teacher from his primary school beat a student to death. Incidentally, just last year in 2014 another teacher from this same school faced the court in a case of physically abusing a child under the Child Care Protection Act. Gaynor, in one passage where he explores his mother’s parenting style, which was based on the ‘tough love’ stance, argues that “The role of the parent is … to find a balance…” in matters of discipline. And this echoes the point I am making.
Gaynor recently made another valid addition to the discussion via social media, appealing to Minister Lisa Hannah to ensure that this conversation that she has been calling for includes all social groups within society. That means Munchie and Pinkie should be allowed to be a part of the dialogue, even if our biases lead some of us to believe they have nothing to add, as they are among a significant percentage of the parents who have trouble making the distinction between discipline and abuse.
Ultimately, like the minister, I don’t get to decide whether or not the UN will win this battle. Whilst I am entitled to my opinion, this is a democracy, and so the correct approach to a decision should involve the masses – rich and poor, loquacious and inarticulate. We must be careful though, that when we assemble to speak that we also be prepared to listen. Above all else, we must be prepared to have the right conversation because even with the best of intentions and all media outlets present for grandstanding, the conversation will be pointless if we’re not talking about the right things.
This article was original penned during my role as Publishing Manager at Ghetto People Publishing – a subsidiary of Whirlwind Entertainment.