Correlation cited between violent discipline and high propensity for violence in-country
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
KINGSTON, Jamaica — As a child growing up in a vividly violent Jamaican ghetto, Ian Salmon remembers being regularly beaten by his father, who once reached for a hammer while holding a nail in his ear after a family friend complained the boy had cursed at her.
Decades later, Salmon, now a father of two boys and a girl, has chosen to break the cycle of violence, even though he still believes the “more than 5,000 licks” he estimates he received from his father were a saving grace.
“He beat me to change my ways and I think it worked. I was a bad boy, a big troublemaker,” said Salmon, 43, who admits that he didn’t like the beatings. “I don’t beat my kids. I take away their phone, their tablets. I talk to them.”
Child advocates and the country’s prime minister, Andrew Holness, would like to see Salmon’s view of disciplining children embraced across Jamaica, as the island nation, known as much for its laid-back appeal as its bloodshed, once more finds itself trying to curb a spike in murders and shootings and stymie its culture of violence.
Holness, who last month declared a state of emergency for parts of the capital so the military could be deployed to help the police, believes there’s a correlation between Jamaica’s pervasive use of violent discipline to punish children and the country’s high propensity for violence.
Jamaica’s homicide rate last year was three times higher than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean. And between Jan. 1 and July 13, there were 1,911 violent crimes including 722 homicides, according to Jamaican police statistics. The violent-crime total was 82 higher than last year during the same time period.
Rulers and paddles
The belief that a culture of violence within Jamaica’s households is at least partly to blame for the violence engulfing its streets is fueling a growing push to ban the use of corporal punishment in schools, and at home. The effort is finding support not only among child advocates and some educators, but also in the United Nations.
Maureen Samms-Vaughan, a child development and behavior specialist at the University of the West Indies, said corporal punishment in Jamaica needs to end.
Samms-Vaughan cites her own research and a controversial two-decade study by UWI researcher Herbert Gayle, who argues that severe beatings of boys by their mothers is a root cause of their criminal behavior later in life.
“Exposure to violence does impact both children’s academics and children’s behaviors,” said Samms-Vaughan, who notes that in schools children are often hit with rulers and paddles by teachers trying to instill classroom discipline.
“If we look at what’s happening in our society, we see that the majority of our violent and aggressive behavior is going straight into our homicide rates and it’s primarily boys. This is not the only factor, but it’s a significant factor contributing to the aggression.”
A UNICEF priority
Advocates of ending corporal punishment say children are taught from a very young age that violence is OK.
“When you’re beating a child, in effect, you’re kind of telling them, ‘I have a problem with you,’” said Allison Brown-Knight, spokeswoman for UNICEF Jamaica.
“They’re learning from a very young age that violence produces a quick result; violence can get you what you want; it can accomplish something for you quickly and violence can be used to solve conflict.”
Tackling violence against children, especially violent discipline, is UNICEF Jamaica’s top priority this year, she said.
Told beatings ‘deserved’
According to a 2018 UNICEF survey of Jamaican children, 80% have witnessed violence in their communities. And the same percentage has been subjected to some form of psychological or physical violence administered as discipline.
Corporal punishment, BrownKnight said, is defined as any infliction of physical harm on a child no matter how slight — even a tap on the hand. Violent discipline, meanwhile, incorporates corporal punishment as well as emotional abuse, which includes shouting and name-calling.
“That psychological abuse, children tell us is worse,” BrownKnight said. “Half the time when we ask kids, they’re like, ‘Me need the beating. I want to get the beating.’ They believe it’s right because again, we’ve perpetuated this idea that’s the way to do it. They also believe it’s what they deserve.”
A few years ago, UNICEF teamed up with the Jamaican Ministry of Education to tackle the question of corporal punishment in schools with a goal of replacing hitting with a reward system focusing on positive behavior.
Beverly Gallimore-Vernon, the principal at Maxfield Park Primary School, said the pilot program is making a difference.
“We have seen changes in attendance, punctuality, improvements in academics,” GallimoreVernon said, sitting in her office after a packed parent-teacher meeting. “Some of them you beat and they still don’t change. Beatings are not the end all and be all.”
Program paying off
The school is located in one of Kingston’s toughest neighborhoods, which frequently has to deal with gang violence. Protected by a chain-link fence, the school’s brightly colored courtyard and walls are covered in positive slogans: “A child who reads will be an adult who thinks.” “Respect for Self.” “Respect for Others.”
Gallimore-Vernon said her 579 students are already coming from harsh environments where their fathers have been gunned down, or they are traumatized because of their exposure to other forms of violence, including domestic abuse in the home.
The pilot program, currently under evaluation, has paid off, said Gallimore-Vernon, who spent a decade working in Chicago’s public schools before returning home to Jamaica.
“You used to walk in here and we used to have fights and cursing. We don’t have it that much,” she said. “I believe if we really put our minds to a positive-behavior program and we are consistent in teaching the core values and rewarding, we will be able to put aside spanking.”
To be sure, violent discipline in homes and at schools isn’t a uniquely Jamaican experience.
Worldwide, 3 in 4 children are regularly subjected to violent discipline by their caregivers, according to UNICEF. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where only 10 countries have banned physical punishment of children in all settings, one of every two kids is subjected to corporal punishment.
Even in the United States, 19 states still allow corporal punishment as of January 2018, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health.
Florida is among them. A bill filed by state Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, earlier this year to outlaw paddling in Florida public schools died before it could reach a floor vote.
In Jamaica, the Ministry of Education has said it wants to discontinue the practice, but so far parliament has yet to vote. Holness has been one of the most vocal critics, if not the most high profile, of corporal punishment.
In 2017, after two videos of Jamaican children being violently beaten — one by her half-naked mother wielding a machete — went viral on social media, the prime minister lent his voice to the growing chorus of outrage about the country’s culture of harsh discipline.
“The use of violence as a means of discipline, as a means of control, and the use of violence as a means of resolving discourse is disproportionately and unreasonably high in Jamaican society and much of it is underpinned by our cultural experience,” Holness told the Miami Herald in an interview shortly after.
Legacy of slavery
That experience is rooted in the legacy of slavery, he said. The crown jewel of the British empire, sugar-producing Jamaica was also where English planters commonly turned to whippings and other brutal punishment to keep enslaved Africans in line.
The government, Holness said, is cognizant that there needs to be a greater level of public education and social intervention.
“We need a gentler, more caring, respectful society. And that’s part of reducing the propensity to violence so not everything that is happening can be solved by reliance on the police force, or the justice system,” he said. “It has to be a conversation on what kind of society do we want as Jamaicans. Is violence an absolutely necessary part of our social transactions?”
But getting Jamaican parents to give up their harsh disciplinary practice wont’ be easy, especially when so many say: “I was beaten and I’m fine.”
“Not everyone who was beaten turns out bad,” said Taneisha Rodney, 34. ‘Yes, you have some mothers who abuse their children, but not everyone.”