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Caribbean musings #4 "Behave! Or you gonna get some licks."

A few months ago I sat in a church hall just outside Bridgetown. My nine year old daughter was taking part in the Barbados National Primary Schools Speech contest and had spent quite a bit of time preparing a speech on the subject of Cricket (the subjects were randomly assigned). When one of the other contestants, a girl about Lila's age, stood up and said she was going to talk about corporal punishment, I was filled with curiosity.

'Have you ever seen a small child throw themselves on the floor, kicking and screaming?' she asked the 100 strong audience.

'That's because their parents don't beat them,' she explained, wagging a single finger in the air.

I struggled to take in what she was saying.

'Our country needs corporal punishment," she went on, misinterpreting the line from the bible 'spare the rod and spoil the child' (in the original hebrew version of the bible 'rod' is 'shebet' meaning shepherd's staff - a tool used to guide his flock - not a stick for enforcing physical punishment).

She then went on to tell us about a survey she'd carried out at her primary school among the teachers and students. Who all, apparently, agreed that flogging was completely necessary to maintain discipline and control.

She received rapturous applause. And astoundingly, was one of the wining speeches.

There's no denying that the attitude towards discipline is much more authoritarian here than the emphasis-on-feelings-and-understanding-them approach that I've been used to in the UK. And I know, from reading the local papers, that corporal punishment is favoured here.

Indeed, physical punishment is currently being used within the country's 74 state primary schools, state secondaries and care homes (for orphaned children) and everyone, it seems, condones the practice, from the lady who packs bags at the supermarket checkout ('You got to cane them hard to make them listen') to the man who sells fruit by the side of the road ('I give him licks till he got blue marks on his behind,' of his two-year-old).

But I haven't just heard about it. I've seen it. I've seen one-year-old's being smacked in public for not holding hands in the convenience store or running ahead a little bit on the boardwalk. I've witnessed an older child being slapped around the back of the head and hit again (pretty hard - and I wasn't the only one looking) at the shopping mall.

I've even gauged the subject with my hairdresser, the girl at the juice bar and the ladies at the beautician's. And of course, there are plenty of people who oppose it. But they are, predominantly, Bajans who were educated in the private system where corporal punishment was banned some time ago. And in the context of the country's 300,000 population, they are a minority.

It is an issue that I find deeply worrying. Because ultimately, children are vulnerable and need to be protected from violence, not have it inflicted upon them.

One of the reasons that corporal punishment needs to be legislated against is because it can be very difficult to set a standard of reasonable physical force. Aside from the fact that individuals have different ideas on what constitues a 'lick or a 'lash'', it is proven that once a society condones corporal punishment, children's exposue to abuse dramatically increases.

One notable 2008 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that parents who admitted to using an object such as a stick or paddle to spank their children were nine times more likely to inflict serious physical abuse on them than parents who used other, non physical, methods of discipline. And sadly, an example of this was reported in the local press in May this year when 12-year-old Barbadian, Shamar Weekes, tragically hung himself after a lifetime of domestic lashes and beatings.

Put simply, corporal punishment humiliates children, breeds resentment towards people in authority, destroys trust and teaches young people to use violence to get what they want.

Just think how powerful it would be if the Barbadian government invested time and money in promoting awareness of a much more effective form of discipline?

A form that enables children to think for themselves, to fully understand what sorts of behaviour are right and wrong and develop a strong moral compas based on their own experiences.

Because study after study has proven the negative consequences of corporal punishment and a 2002 review of the body of research on the subject published in the US Psychological Bulletin lists anti social behaviour, increased likelihood of delinquency and violence towards a spouse in later life as three of the many detrimental outcomes resulting from the practice. Aside from immediate compliance and unthinking obedience there are no proven benefits to the society as a whole.

Interested in corporal punishment in Barbados and the detrimental effects it's having on society? So is UNICEF. It has produced an excellent short film on the subject and a comprehensive report.

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