Worldwide there has been significant movement toward the democratisation of childhood. This has led to increasing recognition of the rights of children, more attention to child maltreatment, and to stepped-up attempts to arrest the lost developmental potential of children due to difficult social and economic circumstances. At the same time, several societies (e.g. Sweden) have taken the bold step of implementing legislation against the use of physical punishment and the humiliation of children. Depending on economic resources and political and social will, efforts at protecting the rights of children have met with varying degrees of success across the world.
Discussions about physical punishment at the societal level in Caribbean are much needed and necessary to address parenting in a contemporary global community. Across cultural communities, parents/caregivers use different levels of psychological control (make children feel worthless, guilty), physical control (restraining, hitting children) and behavioural control (setting limits, offering structure) during childrearing. It is fairly well established that high levels of psychological, physical and behavioural control negatively affect children’s social adjustment and academic performance.
There appears to be a good deal of confusion among parents across the Caribbean about physical punishment and discipline. At a basic level, physical punishment is meant to inflict pain in the child as a way of dealing with behavioural difficulties and noncompliance. By contrast, discipline is meant to teach children desirable ways of behaving through redirection, explanations,
reasoning, and induction.
As the debates and discussions continue about the merits of and risks associated with physical punishment, I thought it might be beneficial to weigh in on what we know about the impact of harsh parenting in Trinidad and Tobago in particular.
Impact of physical punishment in the Caribbean
Over the last ten years, my colleagues and I have conducted several studies on harsh parenting practices and childhood development in different Caribbean countries. Regardless of the Caribbean country, there is high endorsement and use of physical punishment among parents and other caregivers. I share the findings from three studies on parenting practices in Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana that were published in the International Journal of Psychology, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, and Interamerican Journal of Psychology. My hope is that the findings of these studies will encourage a reasoned debate about the use of physical punishment and the attendant risks to children in Trinidad and Tobago and the broader Caribbean region.
Among 180 heterosexual couples from different ethnic groups in Trinidad, 78% of mothers of pre-schoolers reported spanking the child, 42% slapped the child, 19% shook the child, 16% made the child stand for a long period of time, and 7% shoved the child; among husbands/partners, 64% reported spanking the child, 31% slapped the child, 15% shook the child, 15% made the child stand for a long period of time, and 8% shoved the child. Basically, similar rates of physical punishment were reported by 139 rural Indo Guyanese mothers: 60% of mothers of pre-schoolers reported spanking the child, 30% slapped the child, 30% shook the child, 19% made the child stand for a long period of time, and 14% shoved the child. Sadly, some parents used multiple modes of physical punishment with their pre-schoolers. These tendencies have been observed among parents in Barbados and Jamaica as well.
In these two studies, and a third that involved a national representative sample of 1504 families in 45 communities across Trinidad and Tobago, we analysed the parenting styles of caregivers—the emotional aspects of childrearing that involve sensitively-attuned parenting. In all three studies, parents/caregivers used high levels of warmth with high levels of control that involved quite a bit of rule setting. Again, in the third and larger study, parents/caregivers in Trinidad and Tobago used high levels of harsh parenting in the form of physical punishment. Although parents displayed a good deal of warmth toward young children, these parenting strategies are far from democratic. Nor did we find that all parents are autocratic or authoritarian in their approach to parenting. What we did find was that parents fell into two clusters: one group was warm and low in control and the other was warm and high in control.
What implications might the harsh parenting in the form of physical punishment have for childhood development? Harshness of punishment had direct negative associations with Guyanese children’s prosocial behaviours (e.g., helping, cooperation, empathy) and had positive associations with behavioural difficulties in children in Trinidad and Tobago. Parental warmth did not temper the negative association between harshness of punishment and the expression of prosocial skills in classroom settings in the Guyanese sample. Likewise, ethnic socialization, viewed as a protective factor in difficult home and neighbourhood environments, did not mediate the association between harsh parenting and behavioural difficulties in the Trinidad and Tobago sample. Further, children of Guyanese mothers who were warm but used lower levels of control did better on academic tasks and teacher reports indicated that they exhibited more prosocial behaviours than children whose mothers were warm but used higher levels of behavioural control.
Caribbean parents resort to physical punishment because they believe that it is a corrective measure against inappropriate behaviours among children. There are those in the Caribbean who even argue that it leads to “proper conduct” and the internalisation of moral standards. Our findings and those of 88 studies conducted over 62 years that were analysed by Professor Elizabeth Gershoff of the University of Texas indicate that the effects of physical punishment are generally negative and poor. Physical punishment is associated with antisocial and delinquent behaviours, aggressive tendencies, and poor mental health. It does have a positive association with immediate compliance in children. The latter is not surprising given that young children are helpless and may comply out fear of further pain.
Trinidad and Tobago, and indeed other Caribbean nations, should take a hard look at methods of parenting practices and discipline currently employed by parents. The psychological and academic risks associated with physical punishment may become magnified in home and neighbourhood environments in which children witness inter-partner and neighbourhood violence. It is difficult to teach children kindness and consideration for others while hitting, slapping and shoving them.
Do you believe that laws should be implemented that prohibit parents’ use of physical punishment across Caribbean countries?
What methods of disciplining children are more in line with democratic principles of childrearing?
Do you think that physical punishment hinders the internalisation of moral principles in children?
Roopnarine, J. L., Jin, B., Krishnakumar, A. (2013). Do Guyanese Mothers’ Levels of Warmth Moderate the Association Between Harshness and Justness of Physical Punishment and Preschoolers’ Prosocial Behaviors and Anger? International Journal of Psychology. DOI:10.1002/ijop.12029
Roopnarine, J. L., Krishnakumar, A., Narine, L., Logie, C., & Lape, M. (2013). Relationships Between Parenting Practices and Preschoolers’ Social Skills in African, Indo, and Mixed-Ethnic Families in Trinidad and Tobago: The Mediating Role of Ethnic Socialization. Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology. Online October 30, 2013 DOI:10.1177/0022022113509894
Roopnarine, J. L., Yang, Y., Krishnakumar, A., & Davidson, K. L. (2013). Parenting practices in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago: Connections to preschoolers’ social and cognitive skills. Interamerican Journal of Psychology, 47, (2), 313-328
About the Author
Dr. Jaipaul L. Roopnarine (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin) is a Pearl Falk Professor of Child and Family Studies, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, USA and an Adjunct Professor of The University of the West Indies-Family Development Centre of Trinidad and Tobago. He has thirty-five (35) years of experience conducting observational and survey studies around the world on father involvement and childhood development (e.g. India, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brazil, US, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand). He (along with colleagues at Syracuse University and the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine) recently conducted a national study on childrearing, mental health and family belief systems and childhood outcomes in Trinidad and Tobago.
A former Editor of the journal Fathering, he has published over one-hundred (100) articles and book chapters on children across cultures. His recent books Caribbean Psychology: Indigenous contributions to a global discipline (with Dr. Derek Chadee; American Psychological Association, 2015) and Fathers across cultures: The importance, roles and diverse practices of dads (Praeger, 2105) are currently available from Amazon.