Psychologist: Discipline, punishment not the same

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

San Fernando Central Secondary School students. FILE PHOTO –

Counselling psychologist Sonji Harris-Guppy has said Caribbean parents need to understand the distinction between discipling and punishment.

Harris-Guppy was speaking during a panel discussion on Thursday hosted by the Faculty of Law, UWI, on Child Abuse or Discipline: An Interdisciplinary Examination of Corporal Punishment.

“We need to understand there is a clear difference between discipline and punishment.

“Punishment is based on control, compliance and aggressive behaviours. Discipline focuses on cause and effect.

“How do I allow my child to understand right and wrong, understand the morals and values of the family and recognise they have a choice in their behaviours?”

She said research has shown the long-term effects on children who are beaten and its impact on their future relationships. She said such children often grow up to view violence as a way of solving problems.

“In talking to parents, many will say, ‘I got licks and I am ok.’

“You’re lucky that you are, but what about the unlucky ones who can’t manage their emotions, or grow up with little to no emotional intelligence?

“If you’re ok, that’s wonderful – but what about those who are unable to function and, in some cases, some who have not survived?”

She said a child who is beaten does not always internalise that behaviour as love.

“They will think the parent does not love them. Those of us who got licks learned how to hide and have behaviours that are maladaptive to functioning in society.”

Harris-Guppy also said, “How do we define a slap, hit, or punch? If we can’t clearly define what a slap is, then we should not be engaging in this type of behaviour.”

She added that physical punishment is not about the child: a parent who is overwhelmed and unable to manage their own emotions may feel embarrassed by the child’s behaviour in a public setting and release anger, frustration and fear onto the child.

Harris-Guppy said in doing so, the child would learn to stop the wrong behaviour but would not have learned a replacement behaviour.

Senior counsel and senior lecturer at UWI John Jeremie said there is need for reform of the Children Act. He cited the act, section 22, subsection one, which says, “Nothing in this path shall be construed to take away or affect the right of any parent, teacher, or other person having the lawful control or charge of a child or young person to administer reasonable punishment.”

He said while the section allows the use of reasonable force as a means of punishment, it does not trump the general law, which does not permit corporal punishment.

“There is no direct authority at this point,” he argued, “but, in my view, general provisions can be used creatively by judges to trump the very modest protection offered by the Children Act.”

He said Trinidad and Tobago is also bound by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has a firm stance against corporal punishment.

“The law has not settled. We have our international obligations, on the one hand, which says do not use (force), and then the Children Act, which says you can, and the general law, which, in my view, says, ‘Don’t.’ There is a need for reform in which direction we need to go.

“I am in favour of the view that we ought to set high standards on human integrity and protecting the dignity of human life. That means respecting the integrity of the child. The act needs some reform and the reform ought to go in that direction.”

Family law practitioner Nadiya Gower de Chabert also addressed the use of corporal punishment during the pandemic, citing the death of eight-year-old Mukeisha Maynard in February 2020.

Maynard was murdered by her father before he ended his own life. Police said Maynard was beaten to death with a cutlass because she had urinated on a mattress.

Gower de Chabert noted that a month after that murder, covid19 made its appearance in TT and the country was sent into lockdown, forcing parents to balance working from home and managing their children.

“I have observed (in the pandemic) this situation of parents being stressed and not knowing how to discipline their children has been severely exacerbated. If you don’t know how else to safely discipline your children then you resort to corporal punishment.”

She also cited the amendment of the Children Act in 2018 that corporal punishment should not be used in children’s homes and foster homes. She said the act says a child placed in a children’s home shall not be subjected to corporal punishment, restraint or force, reduction or change of diet, restriction or denial of contact with family as forms of punishment.

Gower de Chabert said there has been an increase in reports in the last few years on children’s homes and recommendations in a recent report highlighting the issue have said it is essential to align the functions of children’s homes with the statutory mandate. The report also recommends clear and reliable means for children to register complaints.