Vaneisa: Parenting and punishment—“discipline is often equated with physical violence”

EPL Infrafred Sauna

He was telling me about a group discussion about childhood. In an unfamiliar environment, he’d told those strangers that he had experienced what he’d considered a typical West Indian approach to discipline. Licks.

When they pressed for details, they concluded that it had been abuse.

“I learned about a thing called trauma,” he told me afterwards.

Tears of a child.

We were talking on the phone, and I didn’t catch what he was saying. It sounded like charmer. I had to ask him more than once what he meant, until it hit me.

He has had a rough time of this life, and now as he tries to put things behind, he tends to gloss over specifics. He is very articulate, so when he begins to talk in vague, general terms, I know he is avoiding reliving the horrors.

He’d told me then that he cannot bear to hit his four-year-old son (who does not live with him), cannot see violence as a form of discipline. It stuck with me.

The trauma, the violence, the isolation wrought by having a brilliant mind that was stifled at every turn—the dreadful impact of poor choices during the wilful teens. His life has been a harrowing journey.

Image: A father “disciplines” his sons.

I asked him today to tell me what form the discipline took and he immediately steered himself towards generalities. Coaxing him managed to excavate a little.

He was staying with relatives in England, a child of five or six, in a household of adults who all felt the freedom to “discipline” him mercilessly. He took a piece of watermelon from the fridge, he was stripped naked, and whipped on his back, because he would not confess to the crime. Another time, he was beaten with a computer keyboard and when it broke, he got “kicks, cuffs, stamps”.

It didn’t stop when you are stooping in a corner, cowering. It went on until whoever felt they had had enough. It was like gang beatings, he said. “You know?” I didn’t.

Almost every day he was pummelled and battered, because it was a fairly large household, and everybody got a turn when it suited them.

Is abuse against children a substitute for discipline in Trinidad and Tobago?

He thought that was normal behaviour. He knew he was wayward. He knew he would be punished no matter what he did, but he thought this was the way it had to be.

He returned to Trinidad and, remaining without a nurturing environment, he fell into a life of petty crime, and mishap followed him.

He is one of the most resilient people I have ever met, this 32-year-old, who is struggling without complaint to restore himself to himself. But he has been handed a dirty, ravelling crocus bag to carry on his shoulders, and although it is heavy, he has a determination and tenacity that I wish I could see in people more frequently.

I know there are times when it must seem bleak for him, but he keeps his focus on moving ahead and contributing meaningfully to the communities he inhabits.

A mentor spends time with a child.

It is a remarkable thing that in the middle of ketching his nenen, he is always helping out somebody when we talk. He feels his unfolding purpose is to mentor young people so they can bypass the easily accessible life of the underworld.

Perhaps his wry sense of humour allows him to skip ahead past the drudgery into the realm of the big picture. As we were talking about his approach when it comes to the idea of parenting and discipline, he said, “I’m a talker parent. I will talk your ears off and then come and talk your ears off again.”

I could see it. He can talk, and he connects things in a kind of free-style order that makes you see how well-threaded he really is.

We talked about the word discipline, so abused and misunderstood, that has more often than not been equated with physical violence. It really isn’t about teaching a youngster values and appropriate behaviours. It is usually about venting by adults.

Angry teacher with whip.

They take out their anger and frustrations on their hapless charges, fortified by the feeling that they have the moral authority to do so. There is an element of ownership involved as well. More than you know, people consider children (and women) as chattel.

This young man was telling me that the physical abuse he received as a child was not as bad as what he experienced later on. Then he stopped himself, and thought another thought. But that experience was what made all the other things happen, he said reflectively.

The traumatic period of his life started from as early as when he was five. And its origin was within the bosom of what we carelessly call family, when we really mean people who are our blood relations. People who inhabit powerful spaces in our lives, and have great autonomy over us, simply because of a biological connection. And because we are conditioned to bestow upon them some kind of respect and obedience, we tolerate all kinds of abusive behaviour.

A victim of child abuse.

It is a merciless yoke, because it creates an inner world of unrelenting conflict. One is often torn between the ideas of parental homage and personal freedom.

I had intended to write an entirely different column, making some observations about the fatherhoods I have witnessed, and the profound impacts on childhood. It was derailed by the conversation I had this morning—or maybe not.

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About Vaneisa Baksh

Vaneisa Baksh
Vaneisa Baksh is a columnist with the Trinidad Express, an editor and a cricket historian. She is currently working on a biography of Sir Frank Worrell.

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