A World Fit for Children

clovis corporal punishment
Clovis, Jamaica Observer, November 30, 2017

In the midst of heated discussions in the public sphere about the proposed abolition of corporal punishment in Jamaican schools the 12th annual Caribbean Child Research Conference took place under the theme “A World Fit for Children: The UN 2030 Agenda”. This agenda aims to promote a global movement that will ensure that children worldwide are protected from poverty, harm and exploitation, war and disease among other things. It also promises to create an environment that listens to children and allows them to participate in decisions that affect them.

Clearly the world is a long way off from achieving even a quarter of these goals. Still the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the University of the West Indies Mona has been holding a conference annually in which schoolchildren participate alongside adult scholars in presenting their research, thus at least partially fulfilling the mandate about child participation and listening to what they –the primary stakeholders in this conference–have to say.

This year the adult papers ran the gamut from “The Disappearance of Self-initiated Play and Playful Learning from the Early Childhood Landscape: A Guyana Context” by Godryne Wintz to “Exploring the Knowledge of Parents about Child Sexual Abuse within a Jamaican Suburban Community: A Case Study” by Viviene Kerr. The latter explored changes in parents’ knowledge of child sexual abuse within a Jamaican suburban community and was prompted by an increase in sexual abuse cases from a low of 121 in 2007 to a high of 2,671 in 2011 (OCR, 2011).

That is a huge increase by any standards which begs the question has the reportage of such cases increased or has the incidence?

In “Trouble with Neketa: Drama as a Force in Early Childhood Professional Training Programmes” Grace Lambert dealt with the rejection of Creole language or mother tongue in early childhood settings in Guyana. As she pointed out this practice of rejecting children’s home language breaches the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child which promotes the principle of development of and respect for children’s language. More significantly, this practice contradicts developmentally appropriate early childhood learning experiences which dictate that children’s home language is probably the best medium for early interactions. Using a case study approach, Lambert’s research examined the impact of the first Early Childhood Development (ECD) professional development programme offered by the University of Guyana on ECD practitioners’ interaction experiences with Guyanese Creole speaking children. It highlighted how practitioners’ knowledge of language acceptance principles influenced their recognition of Creole as a legitimate way of speaking. The research emphasized the extent to which dramatisation effected change in consciousness and enlightened attitudes to first language recognition.

In “Counselling gender-nonconforming students in Jamaican high schools: The guidance counsellors’ perspective” Halcyon Reid explored how Jamaican high school guidance counsellors treat with gender nonconforming students. The study focused on the factors impacting how they approach service to these students, how their training helps them deal with issues surrounding gender-nonconformity and sexual identity, and actions that may be necessary to improve counselling services to gender nonconforming students. The aim was to identify gaps in the training of guidance counsellors in their preparation to serve sexual minority students and provide recommendations that may lead to a larger study which can inform policies governing guidance and counselling in schools.

The second day of the conference was devoted to child researchers who presented findings from their studies. The subjects were varied as the following titles indicate: An Investigative Study on Trusted Adults who Sexually Abuse Children – Thea-Moy Hill, Westwood High · An Analysis on the Link between Dysfunctional Families and Deviant Children Disability – Sandrene McKenzie, Westwood High · Investigating the Effect of the Zone of Special Operation (ZOSO) on Children in Mount Salem St. James – Aniska Christie, Westwood High.

There was also An Exploration of the Impact of Parental Migration on the Development of Teenagers in Rural Jamaica by Dylan Baker, Westwood High · An Investigation on the Impact of Gang Violence Among Teenagers in Jamaica (Underlying Reasons for Teenage Boys Joining Gangs and the Negative Impact on Jamaica) by Julleyne Sewell, Westwood High and An Investigative Study into the Impact of Gang-Related Sexual Grooming on the Academic Performance of Teenage Girls on the Community of Highgate Gardens by Breanna Julal, Glenmuir High. Ms. Julal won the overall award for the best research study and presentation.

With the elimination of corporal punishment in schools Jamaica will have gone some way towards achieving a world fit for children. Although none of the papers given at the Child Research conference dealt directly with this subject, investigations into abuse and violence dominated the presentations. “If we cannot have a world fit for children, we will not have one fit for adults,” cautions Professor Aldrie Henry-Lee, the conference convenor. Spare the rod and improve the world.

‘At this school we slap kids’…

An aside on corporal punishment in Jamaican schools with a quote from Professor Orlando Patterson on the terrors of Jamaican childhood as he experienced it.

I find myself bemused by the latest subject of public discussion in Jamaica–whether corporal punishment is a suitable form of discipline for children or not.  Alas it seems that if a poll were taken there would be overwhelming affirmation for this cruel practice despite there being instances of severe abuse, including a young boy who lost his eyesight after being struck with a teacher’s belt.

The subject hit the airwaves after a parent objected to her nine year old daughter being hit for not performing well enough at a popular Jamaican school. The following report in the Sunday Observer tells it all:

At this school we slap kids

THE administration of Kensington Primary School in St Catherine is coming under fire from the parents of a nine-year-old girl who are taking issue with the school’s use of corporal punishment in its administration of discipline.

However, the leadership of the school, which is arguably the best-performing primary institution in Jamaica, is hitting back, insisting that it has done nothing wrong, as the flogging of students plays a key rule in ensuring that they focus and display the behaviours that are conducive to learning.

What I find disturbing is the number of people i know, talk show hosts, Facebook friends and others, who defend the use of corporal punishment. One friend asked:

Shouldn’t we define corporal punishment  I believe there is a qualitative difference between a slap/hit in your palm as opposed to caning on the backside. When my children consistently do something that is wrong, I slap them with a short belt, not to hurt them, but to remind them that that particular behaviour is not what is expected of them. Over the years it seems to have worked. What is the alternative to correcting bad behaviour away from this physical reminder?

I think what I’m dumbfounded by is the fact that normal, responsible, well-educated adults genuinely don’t seem to know that there are other ways to discipline or teach children right from wrong. Another argument that keeps being repeated is:  WE were all brought up on the strap, the switch and the whip and look how well we’ve turned out.

No bredren, you haven’t turned out well, you’ve grown up into someone who thinks that its absolutely fine to beat a child into submission! You’ve taught that child the lesson that violence is the solution to ignorant behaviour not explanation or reasoning or education but application of pain. No wonder Jamaica is such a violent place. Colin Channer even wrote a story once called How to Beat Your Child the Right and Proper Way.

In fact the whole sorry state of affairs reminded me of an email  I recieved from Orlando Patterson some years ago. He was responding to an interview I had done with Rex Nettleford in Caribbean Beat in which Rex had rhapsodized over his idyllic rural childhood in Western Jamaica. Orlando’s memories of growing up in the Jamaican countryside were altogether darker. I hope he won’t mind if I quote the relevant paragraphs here…

It was interesting to read a bit about Rex’s childhood although it is heavily filtered by him. I grew up in rural Jamaica too– May Pen mainly, (then a small village) and Lionel Town (a couple of horrible years; I can still recall the stench of the hospital which suffocated the entire town) and spent holidays in St. Elizabeth. Rural life at that time had its brutal side: hunger, beatings from parents and grandparents who firmly believed in not sparing the rod and spoiling the child; sexual abuse of young girls (and, possibly young boys, although I was spared that), overcrowding and just mindless boredom. Rex and myself were among the very, very lucky ones who escaped through education. What I recall are the farm kids who never turned up to school on Fridays, then never on Thursdays and Fridays, then by age 10 or 11 never at all. The teachers were nearly all pretty sadistic, all of them armed with heavy leather straps, some with forked ends. I just don’t see how one can romanticize most of that.  It was serious alright, seriously oppressive. Sure there were the good moments– the moist light of the early mornings; the evenings before sleep when the older kids told stories; the rainy days when the teachers briefly rediscovered their humanity and treated us like the children we were; the occasional country fair ( in my case, the early days of the Denbigh Agricultural Show). But they were few and far between, and even the public rituals and fairs had a scary element for a young kid: the Jan Cunu and Horsehead  mummeries were genuinely terrifying; the Hussay festival which the Indians in Vere enacted  annually scared me near to death as I gasped at grown men  flagellating themselves and seeming as if they were about to chop each other to pieces; the crop-over market dances which always had at least one fight or worse. For nearly all but the fortunate few, life for a kid growing up in rural Jamaica (it was a lot better in Kingston, then) during the thirties, forties and fifties, was raw, unhealthy, painful, often hellish, and for far too many, brief.

Sorry if this depresses you. I am still reeling from the shock of  New Orleans and the horrible ineptitude of the federal and local governments here.  In a better mood I might perhaps remember rural Jamaica in terms more like Rex’s, but I doubt it.

One good thing is that beatings are no longer administered in most schools in Jamaica after determined efforts by the Ministry of Education to discourage it. The outcry in the media concerning Kensington Primary’s use and defence of corporal punishment is also encouraging.  Hopefully the number of children living in terror of physical violence will continue to decrease.