Tough Love, Jamaican Style

Many Jamaican parents believe that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. Are they right?

By Bria Barrows | Featured image courtesy of David Peterson via Pixabay | Updated April 20, 2020

My dad, Charles Barrows, leans his back against the ledge of our kitchen sink in Toronto as he recalls growing up in Jamaica as a young boy. At age 56, he’s tall and sturdy and has a youthful grin. His thick, black hair is speckled with gray. The creases of his smile go upwards as he laughs and the sound of his voice echoes throughout the room. He’s been in Canada exactly 46 years, but his Jamaican patois accent is still thick as he speaks about his childhood in the lush Caribbean nation. 

“I’m about six years old and I come home after walking about ten kilometers from Font Hill Primary School [in Saint Thomas Parish]. I’m panting and sweating. My heart beats fast from running. I haven’t even got into the house when my mom comes out and tells me to get firewood,” he says.

“I am hot and tired and I don’t want to get firewood after travelling all that way from school. So, I mumble something under my breath loud enough for my mom to hear. She realizes I’m backtalking her instead of doing as I’m told.

“My mom begins to chase me with a piece of stick to beat me. In Jamaica, you do as you’re told and backtalking my mother is not acceptable. I run away and I think I’ve gotten away until a young man who lives in the district sees that my mom is chasing me. He hops off his donkey and grabs me, [which allows] my mom to beat me repeatedly.”

I’m stunned that at only six years old my dad was asked to do things like get firewood and water. 

“If your parents send you to get water five miles away, you have to get it,” he says. “Sometimes our parents even sent us to get water for the house at night when it’s pitch black.  If it isn’t done we get beaten.”

When it comes to discipline in Jamaica, corporal punishment has been practiced in households for a very long time. An article published in 2017 by the Western Mirror, a local Jamaican newspaper, noted that: “Corporal punishment, as practiced in Jamaica, has been with us from time immemorial. Older folks, in retrospect, still believe that the spankings they received back in the day have made them the  law-abiding citizens that they are now.”

Many Jamaican children, whether they live on the island or in other countries such as Canada, experience physical punishment for misbehaviour. While some, who are now adults, believe this focus on discipline and structure is beneficial, others say there are negative consequences to being raised this way.

I ask my dad if he thinks that doing chores in the house and getting beatings at a young age old benefited him at all.

 “It instills fear in you,” he says. “Nowadays, with kids, there’s no consequence for anything  they do. The fear teaches kids not to do wrong and to be on the straight and narrow. It’s beneficial because it makes you respect your parents. If you don’t beat the kids they will run you out of your house. You need tough love because the world is not soft.

Looking back as an adult now, I’m who I am because of how I was raised. I wasn’t allowed to sleep in. My dad would come in the room to wake me and if I didn’t wake up I would get beaten. My upbringing gave me my work ethic.” 

“Sometimes our parents even sent us to get water for the house at night when it’s pitch black.  If it isn’t done we get beaten.”

I next talk to Paula Taylor, a neighborhood friend, in early December 2019. She’s big in stature and her face is round. She wears a colourful hair wrap, the bright yellows and oranges a contrast to her plain, black winter jacket.  For Taylor, 42, structure was a big part of her childhood.

“Coming from a Jamaican background, especially as a female, I was required to take care of the home. Being a young child, I thought, ‘This is so hard, I’m not having fun like my friends.’ But going into the workforce today, I appreciate the structure that my mom taught me,” she says.

Taylor agrees that having to do chores and being forced to attend church regularly are the types of responsibilities today’s young generation need.

“My upbringing taught me to be realistic and hold onto things that are valuable and eliminate the things that aren’t,” she says. “If we, as parents, don’t teach our children a certain foundation such as chores, we should not be surprised that as they get older, they may struggle to get certain things and retain information at work, etc.,” she says.

As I explore this topic, I speak with 29-year-old Crystal Hackett, who was born in Toronto and still lives there. She has a small frame, belied by her strong, assertive voice. Her skin is a dark, chocolate complexion and her long black hair drapes over her shoulders.  Her warm smile brightens her face.

 Crystal recalls her mom, Karen Hackett, telling her about being punished as a child in Jamaica.

“My mom would get beat in public,” Karen told her. One consequence, Crystal believes, is that when Karen became a parent, she was not as nurturing towards Crystal as Crystal would have liked.  Although she used physical punishment on Crystal, she didn’t apply it in public. “I felt my parents were crazy for beating me in public,” Karen says today. “It’s negative because it’s something I’ll never forget. But that was the norm back then.”

Crystal doesn’t want to continue the cycle of punishments, and the possible alienation it could cause now that she’s a parent. “In raising my daughter, I want to up the communication,” she says. “I don’t want my daughter to feel like she can’t talk to me about certain things. In my childhood, the nurturing aspect was restrained.”

I also talk to Maxine (she didn’t want to give her real name), a physically strong 56-year-old despite having a small frame. Her brown skin glows and her high cheekbones stand out on her face. The curls from her black, twisted hair fall to her shoulders. Living in Saint Thomas, Jamaica, she’s witnessed children getting hit for even the littlest things.

“I saw people beat their kids with what we call the ‘coconut broom,’” she says. “They would take it off the tree and hit them until their skin had welts. I’ve seen kids publicly beaten and shamed. Kids would get cursed at and were beaten until their lips bust open.”

“Being a young child, I thought, ‘This is so hard, I’m not having fun like my friends.’ But going into the workforce today, I appreciate the structure that my mom taught me.”

She suggests that at the heart of the punishment issue is the belief, held by some adults, that children aren’t seen as people.

“Some kids back home are treated like nothing because the parents think they are their property and they can do what they like,” she says. “I’ve heard parents say, ‘I brought you into this world and I can take you out!’ The parents think that beating their kids will put them on the straight and narrow, but this isn’t necessarily true. The beatings for some kids have the opposite effect, which causes them to resent their parents for what they did. It is a form of trauma I believe.”

Maxine sees both good and bad resulting from her tough upbringing, noting that her mother provided for the house but did not express love or affection. “I’m not really sure my mom knew how to be affectionate, but I did feel like I was treated like an outsider. She spent most of her time with her church family as opposed to her blood family. There was no love, affection, bonding, I would have liked that. I always felt like my mom had a hands-off approach and kept me at arm’s length. She didn’t want me to get too close to her.”

When Maxine was still a youngster, her mother abandoned her, which caused her to withdraw from others. “When I was young, I had a hard time expressing my feelings to people,” she says. “I never asked people for favours because I thought I was capable of taking care of myself. However, my upbringing did give me structure, work ethics and discipline. It also kept me realistic and grounded.

The times might be changing in Jamaica, however. In 2018, Education, Youth and Information Minister, Senator Ruel Reid, called for it to be banned. “Corporal punishment is so entrenched in our culture and interwoven in our society that it has been accepted as a norm for many families and at a point in time in our schools. We have been able to repel that in large measure,” the Jamaica Information Service reported him saying. “Laws are being strengthened to protect children from corporal punishment and other acts of violence.”

“Some kids back home are treated like nothing because the parents think they are their property and they can do what they like.”

Two years later, corporal punishment is no longer permitted in Jamaican schools. According to the Global Initiative to End Corporal Punishment, “Corporal punishment is prohibited in early childhood institutions [daycares and daycares for older children]. This law also goes for public and private schools.”

After all these conversations, it seems to me that a strict upbringing can have benefits. As a millennial, I definitely think the rules and responsibilities and structure that some Jamaican parents instill in their children is needed. It allows kids to progress when they get older because they carry these values into their jobs. This type of focus is lacking for some kids and a certain level of structure is needed to be an active contributor to society. Some children also aren’t taught the importance of respect for their elders or the value of working hard.

In an age where it’s so easy to get distracted by technology and social media, knowing how to be focused on your goals and dreams and have a direction for your life is needed. I know I would have been so distracted growing up if my parents hadn’t taught me the importance of having an education. They raised me this way because in Jamaica they were taught discipline.

I also think being well-mannered, an attribute many Jamaican parents teach their kids, is noticed by people when they meet you for the first time; this, to me, is a positive.

On the other hand, beating a child until they have welts, with objects such as belts and tree sticks, can have a lasting psychological effect. I think some Jamaican parents today should understand that while beatings might have been viewed as helpful when they were young, talking to your kids and having open conversations are also effective, perhaps more so.

Although I can see the need to instill discipline, I have no intention of punishing my children, when I have them, in any harsh ways. To me, the negative effects far outweigh the benefits.

Bria Barrows, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at briasbarrows@gmail.com

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