Jenna Corneo felt she had reached the end of a very long rope. She had talked over and over again and there was very little she felt she could do to control the outbursts and indiscipline from her son, Simon. The last straw was when he began getting involved in illegal activities. The single mother felt she had no other choice. Simon would get the spanking of a lifetime.
Although fictional, Corneo story reflects the view of many parents in T&T who feel the only way to discipline a child is a “good licking”. It is the form of discipline that has traditionally been used to control children’s behaviour in T&T and the Caribbean. With a recent call by child advocate Hazel Thompson-Ahye to end corporal punishment, many are wondering about the alternatives.
Secretary of the Association of Psychiatrists of T&T Varma Deyalsingh said there is a thin line between abuse and corporal punishment. In an interview last week, he suggested that parents talk to the child or use positive reinforcement as an alternative.
Ill effects of corporal punishment
Deyalsingh said that Government needs to put strong systems in place for initiatives to be successful. He said organisations such as the American Academy of Paediatrics among others discouraged the use of corporal punishment since it had ill-effects on children such as aggression, delinquency, alcohol-abuse, greater degrees of depression in teens and problems in parental relationships.
Some studies indicated that boys are beaten more than girls and parents from a lower socio-economic strata are more likely to use corporal punishment. Part of the problem, he said, stemmed from society’s inability to fully address issues such as single parenting. Deyalsingh said while he supported Thompson-Ahye’s call for the banning of corporal punishment in homes, strong social services and infrastructure needed to be in place for the measure to succeeed.
“If there are the laws and no support systems it will not be successful. Government needs to strengthen its support systems and get more social workers to ensure that things are getting done,” he said.
Alternatives to corporal punishment
Asked what a parent should do in place of corporal punishment, Deyalsingh suggested, among others, that a parenting support group be developed for people who are unable to discipline their children. He also suggested after school/work activities for single parents to give them time to relax. Words instead of action should be promoted, he said as a way of addressing the child. “Parents should talk to the child, ask the child why did you do that. Listen to the child. Explain to them the dangers of what they did,” he said.
Deyalsingh said parents should also learn to utilise positive reinforcement, which would raise the child’s self esteem and mould character as opposed to shaming and hitting the child. Parents should also teach children to express their feelings and they should lead by example, he added.
Asked about how difficult it would be to achieve a paradigm shift and get T&T parents not to use corporal punishment, Deyalsingh said there has already been a paradigm shift when corporal punishment us banned in schools. He said the population needs to be educated to achieve the shift needed. He said, however, he believed a shift is impossible for this generation and society needs to focus on next generation.
Cummings: Teach alternatives to spanking
Criminologist Renee Cummings, who has a ten-year-old child, does not believe in corporal punishment. “In an ideal world, we could ban corporal punishment from every home in every country but in a real world we know that isn’t going to happen. We must teach parents and caregivers alternatives to spanking and let them know that hurting a child is not a necessary part of discipline,” she said Cummings said it would be unrealistic to expect that banning corporal punishment would stop crime.
“However, corporal punishment could create a cycle of hostility in families. Parents and caregivers need to know that those who use physical punishment could be setting an example of using violence to settle problems and resolve conflict and that’s not good,” she said. “What we need to do as a society is reduce children’s exposure to violence because too many of our communities are layered with frustration, rage, free-floating anger, and multi-generational anger.
“Corporal punishment could contribute to violence by teaching children that physical violence is an acceptable way of dealing with problems. This often creates a cycle of violence. The best predictor of future violence is exposure to past violence.
“What contributes to our violent society is a deeply alienated youth who has no respect for authority; young people with deep-rooted, persistent, personality distortions; disorganised households where there’s a lack of respect and limited warmth; a non-cohesiveness that prevents the development of an effective mechanism to control conduct which leads to very unhealthy and socially toxic environments,” Cummings added.
Verbal methods to control behaviour
Cummings suggested the use verbal methods to control behaviour in children. “Verbal methods of behaviour control work best. Verbal expressions of disappointment and condemnation, loss of privilege, grounding, time-outs, allowing the child to spend time alone to reflect on misbehaviour and applying penalties to inappropriate behaviour continue to deliver effective results when it comes to helping children adjust their behaviour,” she explained.
Asked what else is needed besides legislative change for T&T to become a non-violent society, Cummings said: “”Too many of our children are being inadequately socialised and are developing persistent antisocial personalities and personality distortions. Too many children are developing an identity in socially toxic and violent contexts.
“What we are seeing are some young people with poorly oriented consciences where their development is greatly hampered by negative parental attitudes and behaviours. There’s also less of an effort among some families to set decent standards of conduct.”