The Word “Discipline” Means Teaching and Learning, Not Violence and Sadism

October 7th, 2017

Yet another furore has occurred over a “viral” social media post of a woman beating her daughter in her yard. This is most likely an everyday occurrence around the island; but this time, a Jamaican with a smartphone was nearby to record the child abuse. So, Jamaicans were shocked, as if they did not know that it was an everyday occurrence.

After social media, traditional media in its usual way played catch-up. Trying to out-sensationalise each other, traditional media houses even resorted to interviewing the young girl victim (why?); and asking “vox pop” questions like “How did your parents discipline you?” which sparked a volley of detailed descriptions of more abuse along the lines of “My Daddy burned me with a hot knife, but I still love him”; or “I was beaten with a hose, piece of board, strap, belt etc. etc. but hey, I turned out fine!” It was a veritable orgy of violence. At least half of the time, those who had endured such violence at a tender age seemed quite convinced that it was somehow beneficial; and, therefore, that it was their duty to inflict same on their own offspring.

Fortunately, saner voices also joined the chorus – including Government agencies such as the Early Childhood Commission, and the Prime Minister himself has come out unequivocally against corporal punishment.The Government was to amend the Education Act to explicitly prohibit corporal punishment in schools, but I am not sure if this has happened yet.

During the heated discussions online and elsewhere, the word “discipline” repeatedly turned up. As their slave masters inflicted extreme violence on them, many Jamaicans sadly still seem to believe that the occasional bout of carefully planned sadism is preferable to showing an example of empathy and compassion. This power play between parent and child is summed up in the word “discipline.” It is not always physical; verbal abuse can be equally harmful to the child’s fragile and still developing personhood. Cursing at and shaming a child can hurt almost as much as a heavy slap on the side of the head.

The word “discipline” comes from the Latin discipulus. We are, of course, familiar with the word disciple, which comes from the same root. A disciple is someone who sits at the feet of another older or more experienced person, and learns. It has a strong link with education, in general. Then, somewhere along the way, the violent side of discipline crept in. In medieval England, it came to mean self-flagellation – a religious practice – beating oneself up. There are still examples of this in modern day religion: Shi’a Muslims beat their own backs with chains on the day of Ashura, a sort of Remembrance Day.

Discipline is all about those in power inventing rule s to keep their subjects under control. Over the centuries, the word has not, however, acquired negative connotations. Rather, the remark “Oh, he’s a strict disciplinarian!” is spoken with veiled admiration and affirmation. It’s a good thing to be a man – a captain for example – with a stick or gun or sword in his hand, imposing discipline on his subordinates. And a man it usually is. Discipline keeps the patriarchy firmly in place.

Yet, in today’s society, it often falls on the woman to impose this discipline – to punish her child within an inch of his/her life. About 45 per cent of Jamaican families are headed by women, according to UNICEF. Moreover, female-headed homes tend to have more children. The pressure mounts, and the need – the absolute duty – for discipline. Many mothers (by no means only in the poorer households, by the way) feel this is almost their only way of asserting authority and keeping the household under control. According to UNICEF Jamaica:

A 2004 paper on Disciplinary Practices Among Jamaican Parents of Six Year Olds (Samms-Vaughn, Williams and Brown ) reveals that 46 percent of parents use physical assault (including spanking, beating, pinching and shaking) as methods of “discipline.” About 25 percent use psychological methods, including threatening to hit, undressing to underwear, scolding, shouting and spitting.

Perhaps the “undressing to underwear” (as the mother was undressed in the video) is another way of shaming the child. I’m not sure.

What is the answer? We are all looking for solutions. Broadly and very simplistically, I would say we need to have a change of heart. We also need to be honest with ourselves: corporal punishment has not worked for the Jamaican society, whether in the home or in education. Violence breeds violence. We only have to look around ourselves to see the results ourselves. So, we need to change things. Take a different track.

We need to shake off this illusion that because a more powerful person – whether a father, a mother, a boss, a teacher – is controlling our lives by violence or the threat of it – we are set on the right path. We are not. There are concerns about mental health, especially among the young; and with good reason.

The scars of violence are deep and long-lasting. And they don’t necessarily show on the outside.






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3 Responses to “The Word “Discipline” Means Teaching and Learning, Not Violence and Sadism”

  1. Evan Archer says:

    Note , that the ‘ mother ‘ , was wearing a lilly white underwear – might have even been wearing her best pair of earrings !
    She appeared ‘ primed ‘ for Prime Time – could have been a selfish participant , in a staged money-earner on You Tube ; anything to ” eat a food” .
    People within her community , had previously seen no indication of that outlandish ‘ exhibitionist ‘ behavior ; they thought it uncharacteristic .
    Definitely poor judgement , on the part of the mother !
    The child , in every way , the victim here !

  2. EmmaLewis says:

    Oh, no. I had never thought of the whole thing being staged. But whichever way you look at it – yes, the child is indeed the victim.