In my final year of university, coming up to my last Easter holiday, my parents made the trip over to England just in time to witness the arrival of my nephew. It was a time of great celebration but also of great exhaustion for my sister, who was grateful that we were all around to help in these tiring first months.
It was not just normal that I was helping because I was family but because it was also fair; my sister who is eight years older than me, had practically been my second mother. This was an opportunity to help raise another smart, well-behaved West Indian.
I remember the attitudes that made my childhood – our own mother was an expert at making us fear for our retribution without shouting or hitting, our father was giving but reserved a booming voice for when we really crossed the line. And my sister was the one who promised ‘you will feel my hand’ and I felt it for my own good.
Now there I was, a ‘good’, educated almost-adult, being asked by people (who didn’t know me…at…all) when it was my turn to pop one out. I think it was being in the city of London that threw me off. We were at a different pace to back home, where quite a few of my peers did have children earlier or were getting married. I figured these things would be on my radar in about ten years time, and I was happy to practice with my nephew in the meantime.
Before then, I’d survived babysitting and even worse, attempting to discipline my 20-something year old male roommates, who desperately needed constant clean up time, severe scolding and potty training. “Would you behave like this if your own mother was here?!!” I screamed, getting ready to set up an elaborate a booby trap to force them into cleaning. (Like real children though, I still love them).
“I do believe there needs to a real punishment at the end of the line – usually a good slap.”
I do believe there needs to be a real punishment at the end of the line – usually a good slap. I’ve seen some very peculiar and distressing forms of discipline here in the UK. I remember, being on a bus and a white mother telling her daughter every time a black man came onto the bus, that if the little one didn’t behave, “…that man will take you away.” I’ve seen children still being given a treat just to placate them, even though they’d been behaving terribly.
I feel sorry for kids who are stuck in just a small garden playing alone in the London weather and lack of space, but also lose my patience for children allowed to knock a ball against the fence constantly or stay up late just because of the extended daylight hours.
“I remember, being on a bus and a white mother telling her daughter every time a black man came onto the bus, that if the little one didn’t behave, ‘that man will come take you away.'”
It’s part of my honest concern about raising a child in England. Of course all of my British friends seemed to have had fulfilling childhoods and grew up to be polite, well-rounded adults, but still…English children tend to confound me, and English teenagers straight up scare the shit out of me. I tell myself I would have to be the stricter parent and tell my boyfriend that I fully believe in giving a kid a little ‘licks’ when needed.
“W.I discipline, she reminded me, has its roots in slavery and readily acknowledged, can border on abusive.”
My sister, in a way, has experienced both worlds: spending the first year or two with my nephew in London before moving back to Barbados. We had an in-depth discussion about West Indian discipline and her approach to raising her son. Asking her what “West Indian discipline” means to her, she revealed her perspectives are changing now that she’s become a mum. W.I discipline, she reminded me, has its roots in slavery and readily acknowledged, can border on abusive. Barbadians rely heavily on lashes, which is called ‘flogging’ at school with any number of tools people have described: belts, pot spoon or even the flat edge of a cutlass, whatever is nearest. She has a problem with this type of usage and points out that we often believe it is the men inflicting the most punishment when it’s actually a lot of women.
She points out another key social issue in the Caribbean – the old-fashioned idea that children should be seen and not heard; and the lack of communication leading to an undue punishment. This is something she says she tries to expand on with her son, trying to understand from him why exactly he’s misbehaved. Though young, she understands that he too can have frustrations and simply wants some attention. We recognise that this is something introduced by our own mother who rarely, if ever, gave us a smack but rather spoke to us calmly about the issue.
There’s also managing all of the different suggestions and opinions on raising a child from friends and family. I wonder too if we’re a little more vocal in the Caribbean when we think someone is doing something wrong, even to strangers.
My sister believes that in Bajan/Caribbean society, you can often be frowned upon for taking a gentler approach and I almost blush realising that this is exactly how I’ve been judging those English parents in public.
“You certainly second guess yourself slapping your child in public and worry that even a small one might result in child services being called.”
So can she notice a difference between raising her son in England and back home? She replies that in England you certainly second guess yourself slapping your child in public and worry that even a small one might result in Child Services being called. She does appreciate the love, support as well as shared values and culture, she gets from family, friends and community back home.
Finally, I ask her if she remembers dealing with me when I was growing up. I can definitely remember her threats that I would, ‘feel her hand’ more so than my mother. I also remember coming up with new ways to make her snort (especially during my Harriet the Spy phase).
In any case, she has always been there for me like a second mother, helping me to understand firmness and respect but also openness and gentility. I am confident then, that she will be able to balance history and the present to raise a great Caribbean child, after all, she did such a great job with me.