Tue | Sep 28, 2021

Alfred Dawes | Sparing the rod

Published:Sunday | July 25, 2021 | 12:09 AM

I have never been against the use of corporal punishment. I always believed that a few good licks would straighten out any wayward child, and for some that would be the only thing that worked. Yet I have never physically disciplined my son. Not...

I have never been against the use of corporal punishment. I always believed that a few good licks would straighten out any wayward child, and for some that would be the only thing that worked. Yet I have never physically disciplined my son. Not that he’s an angel, but whenever the ‘need’ arises, I somehow hold restraint and find alternative punishments. I never grew up in a liberal household. My mother, a teacher, had her leather strap that formed a key component of the disciplinarian’s armament in those days. However, somewhere along my fatherhood journey, I subconsciously became a practitioner of alternative punishments and reasoning as a way of managing indiscipline.

The conversation on corporal punishment has taken centre stage recently with the proposal to make it illegal in Jamaica. My first response was outrage. We need to use physical punishment as a deterrent to bad behaviour. On closer introspection I found my stance hypocritical. I never liked getting the many beatings my mother doled out (there was only one from my father, but that was enough to strike the fear of God in my heart), and I don’t beat my child. So why should I defend the practice in others? The truth dawned on me that my baseline stance of supporting corporal punishment was due to the practice being ingrained in our culture.

We grew up hearing “spare the rod and spoil the child”. It was sanctioned by God himself that disciplining a child equalled caning them. This we got from our parents and they from their parents before them. With only five or six generations removed from slavery, it is not hard to see where our belief in the utility of whippings originated. Two hundred years ago might seem like a long time, but all it takes is for one generation of parents to pass down what they believe in to their offspring and in four parent-to-children-conditionings, end up with a society with a religious belief in corporal punishment.


So strong is our conviction, that persons who observe rude children who are regularly beaten say that they were simply not flogged enough. Flogging on the plantation took place for the simplest of infractions, such as losing tools. For Africans stripped of their homeland and identities, the fear of a flogging was the only reason they complied with their new masters. This reinforcement of beatings as a deterrent to undesirable behaviour was adopted as they themselves were living proof of its effectiveness.

Flogging was not only a creation of the plantation society. The English schoolmasters sent to Jamaica imported with them the practice of caning that defined discipline in British schools. Old boys and girls fondly reminisce of the times they or their accomplices got properly caned for misdemeanours in school. Some lament that the practice has diminished with time. The leather strap was notoriously used to discipline students up to recent times in schools. Some were christened names that betrayed their potency. Teachers drove fear into the heart of students because of the efficiency and sometimes savagery with which they carried out corporal punishment.

Then suddenly things began to change. There was a pushback from parents. It was no longer the case where if a child did something wrong and was beaten by a teacher, or any village adult, they wouldn’t tell their parents lest they receive another flogging for the same crime. Parents confronted teachers and in some instances physically assaulted them for utilising corporal punishment. School boards and the Government stopped supporting the practice and there was a paradigm shift.


Critics bemoaned this as a further death knell for society as a “generation of vipers” would be left without any discipline. What was the alternative for children who knew violence as the only means of respecting authority in their homes? Were schools equipped to psychologically engage the troubled child? None and no are the short answers.

Far too many teachers are learning more about their specialist subject matters in training college, rather than how to teach them. The skills required to facilitate learning across a wide cross section of abilities, attitudes and attention spans requires specialised training. What percentage of our teachers are pretrained without any knowledge of how to teach and discipline students? Where this is lacking, they inevitably default to what they know, beat and teach.

The situation is much worse in homes. The cases of corporal punishment that make the news consistently have extremely angry adults savagely beating children. When using a machete or any available implement to beat them, the children are not experiencing an attempt at inculcating discipline, but rather the explosion of the anger and frustration of the adult. In that sense, corporal punishment is not a means by which we discipline children, but a channel through which we vent our anger directly at the source. The punishment does not help the child as much as it is a cathartic for the adult.

The lack of emotional intelligence drives corporal punishment far more than the intellectual decision to mould a child. If you support corporal punishment and can say that in disciplining a child in that manner you have never been angry during the act, then I will retract my statement. Otherwise we must accept that it is less about their indiscipline, and more about our own shortcomings.

- Alfred Dawes is a general, laparoscopic, and weight-loss surgeon; fellow of the American College of Surgeons; Follow him on Twitter @dr_aldawes. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and adawes@ilapmedical.com.