The stomach-turning findings of the official autopsy on four-year-old D’Onya “Bella” Walker who was beaten to death last week, bring focus to the use of force by adults to discipline, punish or control a child.
Protests emerged as residents called on government to strengthen child protection laws, but what was critically missing from such outrage was an overt recognition that the first responsibility of child protection lies not with government, but with parents and guardians.
Laws and penalties come into play only after an offense has occurred; therefore, it is essential that parents and guardians take more personal responsibility for the extent to which their acts of commission or omission make homes across this country unsafe for children.
Commenting on public outrage which originally emanated from unsubstantiated social media claims about sexual assault against Bella, National Security Minister Wayne Munroe said yesterday, “The physical abuse of children is as reprehensible as the sexual abuse of children. You shouldn’t do either of them.”
The subject of corporal punishment meted out on children in the home is one that draws fierce viewpoints on both sides of the debate, with proponents arguing the benefits of belt whippings and beatings so long as adults do not “go overboard”.
But going overboard means different things to different people, and since most beatings occur when a parent or guardian is at the height of anger or frustration, the degree of punishment can be both excessive and severe, causing varying forms of physical injury.
Often citing their interpretation of scripture as support for beatings in child rearing, proponents typically do not view corporal punishment as violence unless it results in a subjective level of physical damage.
Discipline in the minds of many Bahamians is almost exclusively synonymous with beatings, and beatings are viewed as a most effective way to develop well-mannered children who steer clear of danger and social ills.
To begin to educate parents on alternative methods of discipline, it is useful to know the researched history of child beatings in post-colonial countries such as The Bahamas, where the majority of the population is of the African diaspora.
An October 2019 article in Nigeria’s Premium Times quoted Sonia Vohito of the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children as saying, “The beating of children was brought to this continent through missionaries and missionary schools and the custom became entrenched across the continent.”
A publication by Stacey Patton PhD on corporal punishment in Black communities, which appeared in the April 2017 edition of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) children, youth and family news, also found that the beating of children was not an intrinsic cultural tradition.
Patton pointed out that “no evidence that ritualistic forms of physical discipline of children existed in precolonial West Africa”, adding that African-Americans adopted the practice of beating their children from their slave masters who viewed slaves as property rather than human beings.
Patton noted that West African societies held children in high regard, believing children came from the afterlife for the good of the community, and that “coercion and hitting a child could scare off their soul”.
It is a noteworthy contrast to the way many in our culture view children today.
Since scores of Bahamian parents believe beating a child is for the child’s own good, a cultural shift spurred by deliberate education is necessary to broaden recognition of the ways physical discipline can harm children well beyond bruises and welts, as well as the merits of alternative disciplinary methods.
Child protection begins with providing a safe home environment where the physical, mental and psychological well-being of a child are nurtured and defended in both word and deed.
Parents must pursue child protection by exercising wisdom and carefulness in the adults they allow into their home and around their youngsters, and they must have safe spaces in society to seek help if they are struggling to control their temper, or manage their emotions in child rearing.
To avert another tragic killing of a child, we must have frank and ongoing national conversations about corporal punishment and violence against children.
And we must accept that child protection is personal, and personal accountability in the home is fundamental to keeping our youngsters safe.