Jamaican Child-Rearing Practices: The Role of Corporal Punishment

Article excerpt

Parents in all societies grapple with how to raise their children in a way that prepares them for the complexities of life (Yorburg, 2002) and equips them to one day become parents themselves (Hamner & Turner, 2001). In order to accomplish this daunting task, parents rely on their own socialization into parenting, their intuitive sense of right and wrong, and their overall cultural beliefs (Hamner & Turner, 2001). The sanctions of these influences create a prerogative that confers upon parents the responsibility to guide their children to become competent, responsible, and fully functioning members of society.

Culture guides parents' beliefs about child discipline, behavior management, and control. In Jamaica, a small island nation of 2.5 million people, cultural beliefs have given rise to a parenting style that has been shown to negatively affect children's psychosocial outcomes, leading to serious concerns about the psychological adjustment of Jamaican children and adolescents (Crawford-Brown, 1999; Leo-Rhynie, 1997).

According to ecological theory, the overlapping influences of the various cultural environments impact the individual's development and overall well-being (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Although there is no research specifically showing a causal link between problem behaviors and emotional well-being in Jamaica, the popular assumption is that the increase in antisocial behaviors in that society emanates from an impaired sense of self-worth and psychological maladjustment among youth. From that assumption arises speculation about the source of that impairment and its concomitant problem behaviors. The most forceful conjecture centers on cultural socialization practices, particularly child rearing (Evans & Davies, 1997; Leo-Rhynie, 1997; Sharpe, 1997).

The purpose of this article is to examine the plausibility of speculations regarding harsh child-rearing practices and the psychosocial adjustment of Jamaican children and adolescents. It reviews the research literature on the effects of harsh physical punishment and offers recommendations for addressing the issue of excessive and inappropriate discipline. Recommendations are also offered for preventing and, perhaps, reversing the trend of antisocial and destructive behaviors that are thought to be linked to Jamaican child-rearing practices.


The dominant Caribbean parenting style is authoritarian, an approach consistently found to thwart optimal child socioemotional outcomes in Western cultures (Baumrind, 1991). In keeping with this authoritarian style, Jamaican parenting has been characterized as highly repressive, severe, and abusive (Arnold, 1982; Leo-Rhynie, 1997; Sharpe, 1997) and the disciplining of children described as inconsistent and developmentally inappropriate (Sloley, 1999). In fact, the sparse literature on Jamaican family processes has attested to the pervasiveness of corporal punishment and other violent disciplinary measures meted out to children by adults (Phillips 1973; Evans & Davies, 1997; Walker, Grantham-McGregor, Himes, Williams, & Duff, 1998). Flogging, the most common response of adults to perceived misbehavior in Jamaican children (Leo-Rhynie, 1997; Smith, 1989), has been vividly described. Arnold (1982) has stated: "At times the 'beating' as it is commonly called can be severe and bears no relevance to the age of the child nor the stage of its development" (p. 141). The flogging of children "is carried out in such a way as to appear almost brutal. The hand, a stick, a belt, a shoe, or a tamarind switch are used to beat children to ensure compliance" (Leo-Rhynie, 1997, p. 44). Discipline 'becomes severely enforced through 'shouting' and 'flogging' or 'beating.' Children are punished in this way for lying, stealing, disobedience, impoliteness and not completing their chores. 'Playing in the house,' 'crying too much' and 'not eating the meal provided' also constitute misdemeanours which warrant a 'beating'" (Barrow, 1996, p. 400).

The extent and prevalence of such harsh disciplinary measures have been examined empirically. Landmann; Grantham-McGregor, and Desai (1983) reported that 59% of the Jamaican mothers in their study indicated that they used a belt or stick to beat their children. Grant (cited in Leo-Rhynie, 1997) found that 84% of mothers of preschool children in his study admitted to beating their children. In Smith's (1989) study, 71% of rural parents and 55% of urban parents reported flogging as the most frequent response to perceived misbehavior in their children. To emphasize his point, Smith noted that spanking (a milder form of punishment) was virtually unknown, being practiced in only 3% of families. Walker et al. (1998) noted that 53% of the adolescent girls in their study reported that they had been physically punished by their parents during the previous year. In addition, children complained that adults, especially their parents, often publicly humiliated them.

Baptiste, Hardy, and Lewis (1997) reported that Caribbean immigrants in the United States tended to be overrepresented among parents charged with, and convicted of, child abuse and neglect. They noted that, in therapy, these parents expressed anger and confusion about the punitive measures they faced in the United States for employing "generous doses of corporal punishment" (p. 296) and other harsh disciplinary methods against their children. Further, Baptiste, Hardy, and Lewis maintained that the sanctioning of corporal punishment in the culture of origin put these parents in serious conflict with the dominant culture, leading them to feel that their authority to discipline their children as they see fit had been eroded by the laws of the United States. These dynamics take a great mental toll on these fAmilies and often lead them to, uncharacteristically, seek professional counseling (Baptiste, Hardy & Lewis, 1997).

The Jamaican practice of beating children is culturally sanctioned and extends to the larger society. Accordingly, "the sociocultural norm 'the right to beat the child' embraced by parents, teachers, and parent surrogates does lead to instances of abuse and neglect, and to repeated cases of abuse and the accompanying psychological damage" (Sharpe, 1997, p. 267). Evans and Davies (1997) pointed out that corporal punishment is, indeed, a convention in Jamaican schools--not only used as a means of discipline for misbehavior, it is very much a part of the pedagogical strategy. Further, numerous Jamaican newspaper stories and letters to the editor have attested to the pervasiveness of the severe corporal punishment meted out to children by teachers. For example, Clarke (2000), in a newspaper article entitled "Please teacher don't beat me," related adults' recollections of extreme treatment from teachers and provided examples of the punishment meted out to schoolchildren in present-day Jamaica. One nine-year-old boy stated, "Sometimes my teacher beats me with a belt, sometimes a board.... Anytime I don't do my work, she hits me with the board, sometimes on my hand, sometimes on my head." An eleven-year-old girl related the story of her fourth-grade teacher, who beats students for coming to school or returning from lunch late and for being disobedient: "She uses a ruler, the long ones; some teachers use leather belts." Clarke also noted the case of a high school student who had to be hospitalized after being caned by a teacher.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many parents agree that children should be punished in school. Clarke noted one father's remarks: "I've never seen any statistics that show that flogging doesn't work. I send my boy to school for the teacher to take over; if she feels he should be whipped, then so be it; if he complains, he gets more at home." These dynamics have led Evans and Davis (1997) to express concern that Jamaican schools validated the use of the severe punishment that children received at home. They bemoaned the fact that "the school, charged with an important social and developmental role in society, does not act as a countervailing force to the family; rather, it reinforces a punitive, power-assertive, authoritarian approach to relationships and to resolving conflicts" (p. 19).

This kind of child maltreatment is not only socially endorsed, but sometimes also legally sanctioned. A Jamaican judge, in a family court hearing, advised a father that all the child needed to correct his behavior was "two good licks" (Sargent & Harris, 1992).

Communication Patterns

Authoritarian parenting is not conducive to open parent-child communication. Caribbean parents, and Jamaican parents in particular, as a rule do not engage in positive verbal interaction with children, neither do they offer warm and gentle guidance and direction. Evans and Davies (1997) contended that Caribbean parents lacked the propensity to have extended conversations or to reason with their children. Evans and Davies noted that parents often complained about their children talking too much or asking too many questions, ideas reinforced by the cultural belief that "children should be seen and not heard." Research has supported such views regarding parent-child communication. A study commissioned by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) cited poor parent-child communication, corporal punishment, and physical abuse as central to the serious social problems facing Jamaican society ("Unfriendly Parents in Jamaica," 2001; Sloley, 1999). Specifically, the study cited a serious lack of friendly communication between Jamaican parents and their children and highlighted the severe physical punishment and public humiliation meted out to children, dynamics that seriously hindered the development of positive socioemotional development. The study attributed the lack of positive communication to parents being handicapped by cultural practices that limit their ability to engage in cordial discussions with their children. The study noted: "Some of the factors central to [the country's social problems] are the lack of balanced communication between teenagers and parents, an unwillingness to engage in discussions with children, lack of information by parents and a lack of understanding of adolescent behavior" ("Unfriendly Parents in Jamaica," 2001). According to Arnold (1982), 'They need to learn to talk 'with' their children, rather than always 'to' or 'at' [them]" (p. 144). Clearly, many JAmaican parents lack the know-how of establishing trusting and cordial relationships with their children.

Origins of Harsh Parenting Practices

The etiology of such harsh disciplinary practices in the Caribbean has been pondered. Although many arguments have been forwarded, the most pervasive and often cited explanations point back to heritage, history, tradition, and socialization. Several authors have expressed the view that the extreme authoritarian style, along with the excessive discipline meted out to children, stems from the region's West African heritage combined with learned behavior, specifically from the brutality of slavery. These dynamics are bolstered by the religious sanction of "saving the rod and spoiling the child" (Arnold, 1982; Barrow, 1996; Leo-Rhynie, 1997).

The psychoanalytic concept of displacement has also been forwarded as a plausible explanation. Displacement involves shifting or redirecting anger or hostility from a threatening object to a less threatening target (Freud, 1965). It is often purported that harsh, stressful social and economic conditions create anger, frustration, and hostility in low-income parents. Parents in turn displace their anger and frustration on their children by administering unjustifiable physical punishment (Arnold, 1982; Sharpe, 1997), to the point that the beating of children has become ritualized (Arnold, 1982; Barrow, 1996). Although displacement theory seems fitting at the lower income levels (Arnold, 1982), it must be questioned in light of the fact that these extreme disciplinary practices are not confined to the poor but are pervasive at all levels of society (Leo-Rhynie, 1997). One might expect parents of better social standing to have the capacity to employ nonviolent forms of discipline, such as time-out, withholding privileges, or grounding. However, cultural values and beliefs supersede personal perspectives and provide the blueprint on how children ought to be reared (Barrow, 1996, Evans & Davies, 1997).

Effects of Harsh Disciplinary Practices

There is disagreement about the effects of physical punishment on children. While some researchers have noted a direct relationship between physical punishment and psychological maladjustment (Frias-Armenta, 2002; Swinford et al., 2000), others have contended that the outcomes are culture-dependent (e.g., Barrow, 1996). Still others, while not specifically refuting the relationship, have maintained that the mediating role of the child's perception of the punishment as rejection by the caretaker is substantial. A study of the effects of corporal punishment in one Caribbean locale found a modest, direct relationship between physical punishment and psychological adjustment. However, the indirect impact, mediated by the child's perception of rejection by the caregiver, was significantly stronger (Rohner, Kean, & Cournoyer, 1991).

More recent studies, conducted in a variety of settings and societies, have indicated that physical punishment, used even in moderation, has an adverse effect on psychosocial adjustment and behavior. Use of physical force against children has been found to predict impaired cognitive processes such as intelligence deficits and academic failure (Cicchetti & Toth, 1998), socioemotional dysfunction (Evans & Davies, 1997; Cicchetti & Toth, 1998), low empathy (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1998), hostile, aggressive, and oppositional tendencies, severe depression, conduct disorders in childhood (Frias-Armenta, 2002), and violence and criminality in adulthood (Swinford et al., 2000).

These outcomes not only have deleterious consequences for the individual but for families and society as well. In one study, 66% of the boys and 50% of the girls rated as highly aggressive were from home environments where physical punishment was the preferred disciplinary approach (Headley, 1994). Other studies have documented the long-term psychiatric and behavioral outcomes of physical maltreatment in childhood. Kamsner and McCabe (2000), in a review of the literature, found evidence of a strong link between physical maltreatment in childhood and later promiscuity, prostitution, teen pregnancy, and criminality. Specifically, male felons reported significantly higher rates of child physical abuse than their noninstitutionalized peers. The review also noted significant associations between child physical abuse and adult psychiatric illnesses such as Anxiety disorders (panic disorder, social phobia), posttraumatic stress disorders, and depression. Further, Kamsner and McCabe, in their own investigation, found that child physical abuse was "the dominant abuse variable to contribute significant]y to the prediction of trauma related outcomes" (p. 1255). Sharpe (1997), in addressing the issue of mental health and socialization in the Caribbean, focused on the problem of parental discipline and neglect. Based on clinical observations, she indicated that "conduct disorder and childhood depression were common among victims of abuse and that the only cases of posttraumatic stress disorders seen in the clinic were in victims of abuse" (p. 268).

Heimer (1997) hypothesized that when adults use power assertive and violent disciplinary methods, they teach children that coercive force, aggression, and violence can be used to resolve conflicts and problems. Using longitudinal data, Heimer demonstrated that violent disciplinary measures against children translate into violent delinquency later in life; violence experienced in childhood accounted for 39% of the variance in subsequent violence. Similarly, Paschall, Flewelling, and Ennett (1998) found that exposure to violence put children at increased risk for violent behavior. Crawford-Brown (1999), although not specifically studying physical punishment, examined the impact of parenting on conduct disorders in Jamaican adolescents. She found a significant link between inadequate parenting and conduct disorders, with the child's perception of the parent as a negative role model as a contributing factor. While Crawford-Brown's research did not indicate the expressed features of the negative role model construct, Rice (2001) contended that parents are positive models for their children when they restrain their expressions of anger and demonstrate that hitting and other forms of violence are unacceptable. Conversely, parents become negative role models when they model aggression.

In general, research has confirmed that physical force as a means of punishment increases children's vulnerability to psychosocial dysfunction. The reliance on physical punishment to control behavior inhibits children's development of internal controls, conformity to rules, and concern for the welfare of others. It also creates in children the propensity to misunderstand how power is appropriated and wielded, and teaches them to become beaters themselves (Swinford, DeMaris, Cernkovich, & Giordano, 2000). However, some studies have shown a differential effect of physical punishment along gender lines. While physical punishment predicts externalizing behaviors, such as later violence, in males (Kamsner & McCabe, 2000), internalizing effects, such as depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, and psychosis, are more prevalent for girls (Frias-Armenta, 2002). The Jamaican context does seem to lend credence to gender differences in behavioral outcomes; the overwhelming majority of violent crimes occurring in Jamaica are committed by males (Robotham, 1999). However, there is controversy regarding the discipline meted out to each gender. Some have noted that boys are flogged more often and more severely than girls, while girls are subjected to more verbal abuse (Leo-Rhynie, 1997). Others have maintained that mothers are more restrictive of their daughters, to protect them from sexual contact with boys and potentially deleterious outcomes (Barrow, 1996; Evans & Davies, 1997; Phillips, 1973).


Research has demonstrated that reliance on physical force as a means of discipline and punishment to control behavior leads to child maladjustment and deviancy in adolescence and beyond. The extant literature has also shown that the optimal environments for fostering healthy growth and development are a nurturing family and supportive community, both of which appear to be missing from the lives of many Jamaican youth (Arnold, 1992; Leo-Rhynie, 1997; Phillips, 1973; Sloley, 2000). Consequently, the concern expressed by the Jamaican populace about the sense of worthlessness among young people may be warranted. Harsh disciplinary practices, typical of the Jamaican culture, exact a heavy toll on children and evoke powerful and negative reactions in adolescents, with serious and far-reaching social implications. Indeed, poor socioemotional functioning has been found to be an important consequence, if not the cause, of problem behavior (Kaplan & Lin, 2000). Furthermore, healthy psychosocial functioning acts as a deterrent to conduct disorders such as drug and alcohol use and abuse, delinquency, school dropout, precocious sexual activity, violence, and criminality (Harter, 1993; Kaplan & Lin, 2000).

The foregoing, then, calls into question the efficacy of traditional child-rearing practices in Jamaica. What might have been perceived as appropriate discipline is now criticized, publicly discredited, and deemed inappropriate by the media, researchers, and social science professionals, locally and abroad. It is clear, then, that harsh disciplinary practices beg for a reexamination in terms of their impact on child and adolescent outcomes. Both the public and policymakers must make the protection of children from mistreatment a priority.


Undoubtedly, the traditional Jamaican parenting modus operandi conflicts with current knowledge. Prevailing socialization practices, guided by cultural beliefs and values, are contrary to modern thinking on child rearing (Crawford-Brown, 1999) but there is obvious resistance to change (Leo-Rhynie, 1997). Therefore, consideration should be given to culturally palatable strategies to respond to the growing needs of children and families. Indeed, educating the populace about the detrimental effects of certain practices on optimal child development would be a first step. The provision of relevant social services is also a necessity.

Parenting education. Parenting education programs have shown promise as both a prevention and intervention tool in changing parental behavior and protecting children from physical abuse (Gomby, Culross, & Behrman, 1999). These programs not only provide critical information to families about the developmental needs of their children, but also help families learn how to meet those needs. They may also educate families on how to find resources (e.g., training) in behavior and stress management techniques. However, at present such resources are almost nonexistent in Jamaica (N. Gordon, personal communication, February 25, 2002).

Parenting education might be especially helpful to adolescent parents, considering the high rate of adolescent pregnancy in Jamaica (Wyatt, Durvasula, Guthrie, LeFranc, & Forge, 1999). Parents tend to imitate the disciplinary practices of their own childhood, thereby perpetuating a cycle of abuse and mistreatment, and their attendant psychological distress and negative behavioral outcomes (Frias-Armenta, 2002, Cicchetti, & Toth, 1998). Young parents in particular may be ignorant of alternative methods of guidance and discipline. In a discussion of children's behavior management, Jamaican parents asked, "If you do not beat them [children], what do you do?" (Arnold, 1982, p. 143).

We, like Arnold (1982), suggest that parent education begin in schools, where children could, beginning at an early age, be taught the basic principles of growth, development, and effective parenting. Further up the educational ladder, it is imperative that the curriculum in teachers' colleges focus on the relevant theoretical and empirical information about the long-term effects and dangers of corporal punishment on child outcomes. Training in guidance techniques and age-appropriate discipline should also be a prominent feature of teacher-training pedagogy. To break the cycle of violence against children, teachers, like parents, must be taught alternatives to corporal punishment.

We also advocate the use of the media (e.g., radio, and television) to educate the public by conveying practical and useful messages about best practices in child rearing. Media blitzes, similar to those employed in family planning advertisements and AIDS prevention and education, have great potential.

Counseling. The provision of counseling programs for parents and caregivers is a prudent strategy. Anxiety, anger, and emotional pain in parents' and caregivers' own lives often lead to child mistreatment (Arnold, 1982; Sharpe, 1997); therefore, providing counseling to help manage and alleviate persistent stress in families with children is appropriate and timely. Indeed, the severe physical punishment meted out to children might be, in part, an inappropriate displacement of adults' frustration (Sharpe, 1997). Bailey-Davidson (2001) noted that Jamaican children suffer from a wide range of psychiatric disorders and psychosis as a result of the parental abuse they suffer. Therefore, counseling and other programs to address the psychiatric needs of children, as well as families, are necessary.

Home visitation. The institution of home visitation programs is another option for policymakers to consider. Home visitation programs, using trained professionals, seek to create change in parents' attitudes, knowledge, and parenting behaviors "by providing parents with social support; practical assistance, often in the form of case management that links families with other services; and education about parenting and/or child development" (Gomby, Culross, & Behrman, 1999, p. 7). These programs, based on the premise that "parents who feel confident in their ability to be parents, who are less stressed, and who know a variety of ways to discipline their children will be warmer and more responsive to their children and less likely to resort to physical violence" (p. 10), have shown great promise in preventing and reducing child maltreatment.

Research. Sharpe (1997) maintained that the greatest challenge facing mental health professionals is "to map out ways in which to change those culturally influenced patterns of behavior toward children that endanger their mental health" (p. 270). Fortunately, some research on the mental health of Jamaican children (e.g., Crawford-Brown, 1999; Lambert, Lyubansky, & Achenbach, 1998) has begun to emerge, and has supported the findings of studies done in other cultures regarding the detrimental effects of certain parenting behaviors on child outcomes. However, much more is needed. For example, there is the need to better understand how Jamaican children's environments actually promote conditions of "alienation rather than connectedness and bondedness, distance in human relationships rather than deep and enduring intimacy, superficial rather than in-depth relationships, temporary rather than enduring solutions" (Burr & Christensen, 1992, p. 462). Although there is some research on the occurrence of physical punishment in the Jamaican culture, systematic examination of its effect on child outcomes is lacking. For example, some question that beg empirical investigation include: Does the cultural sanctioning of corporal punishment protect children from the adverse socioemotional outcomes found in cultures where physical punishment is outlawed (e.g., the United States)? What is the role of socioeconomic status? For example, do children from families of lower socioeconomic status have better outcomes despite the occurrence of physical punishment? The role of child outcomes along gender lines should also be explored.


The development of social policies to prevent and reduce the adverse effects of the mistreatment of children is essential. Bailey-Davidson (2001) stressed the need for policymakers to focus on the prevention of violence to reduce the loss of human resources. Therefore, child mistreatment should become an issue of national importance. However, this will take the utmost commitment from both the government and private sector. Unfortunately, according to Crawford-Brown (1999), "the child welfare system in Jamaica can be described as archaic and ineffective, modeled on an English system of a bygone era" (p. 434). Modern social services employing best practices in mental health for families and children are desperately needed.


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Gail Mosby, Department of Child and Family Studies, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Requests for reprints should be sent to Delores E. Smith, Department of Child and FAmily Studies, The University of Tennessee, 115 Jessie Harris Building, 1215 West Cumberland Avenue, Knoxville, Tennessee 37996. Email: delsmith@utk.edu


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