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Caribbean Families

Parent-child Relationships

Children are seen as desirable and highly valued in Caribbean society. Parental success is measured by children's ability to sit still and listen and be clean and tidy, and by their helpfulness and cooperation. Many Caribbean parents adhere to the biblical teaching to not "spare the rod and spoil the child," and feel that "children should be seen and not heard." In general, parents use a punitive approach to discipline. As a result, qualities such as obedience and submission are valued, especially with girls. Parents are often extremely protective (possibly over-protective) of girls and restrict their activities outside the home, for fear that they might get romantically involved with the wrong person, or get involved in sex which may result in pregnancy and shame to the family. Boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to become involved in activities outside of the home (Evan and Davies 1996).

Although corporal punishment is given to both boys and girls, boys usually receive harsher punishment. Punishment is used to curb inappropriate behaviors, and may be over-used because other forms of discipline have not been learned or are thought to be ineffective. In low-income families, especially where the parents are absent because of work situations, communication with children is limited and punishment may be used to gain control. Parents who are more educated use a variety of disciplinary measures, and are usually more communicative with their children and reason with them more. Children who have lighter skin complexion are favored and treated better than children with darker skin, irrespective of their sex (Leo-Rhynie 1996).

Children may sometimes be conceived for the wrong reasons, such as to enhance the image of the parent, and not for the welfare of the child. In 1984, 28 percent of all live births in Jamaica were to girls who were sixteen years or younger. A 1988 survey reported that 50 percent of Jamaican males and 15 percent of Jamaican females were sexually active by age fourteen. In some rural communities in Jamaica, girls who do not produce a child by age seventeen are called mules and are pressured to not use contraceptives (Leo-Rhynie 1996).

The practice of shifting the responsibilities of childrearing from the biological mother or parents to relatives, close friends, or neighbors is an established pattern of family life in the Caribbean, and is known as child-shifting. The shift may be permanent or temporary; it may last anywhere from a few days to several years (Russell-Brown, Norville, and Griffith 1996). It usually occurs because of the inability of the parents to take care of the children, and is more common among low-income African-Caribbean families. It is estimated that approximately 15 to 30 percent of children grow up with relatives or neighbors and not their parents (Evans and Davies 1996).

The child may be shifted for a variety of reasons. These include: migration of the biological parent; death of the biological parent or other caretaker; birth of another child (or pregnancy); formation of a new union where the child is not wanted; or the individual receiving the child having no children of her own, being more economically capable, or being able to provide a better life for the child (Barrow 1996; Evans and Davies 1996). In most cases, the child is not shifted because the mother has a lack of affection for the child, but because she recognizes her inability to effectively care for the child, and wants the child to be in a relationship where there is better care and support. The experience is often painful for the mother because of the separation from the child, but she is willing to make that sacrifice in order for the child to have a better future (Russell-Brown, Norville, and Griffith 1996).

Child shifting occurs most frequently with teenage mothers and the children are often shifted to grandparents, aunts, or uncles (i.e., someone within the extended family): individuals who share similar values to the mother, and who are more competent in raising children. A child-shifting study conducted in Barbados found that fathers were actively involved in both the decision-making process and the outcome (Russell-Brown, Norville, and Griffith 1996).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsCaribbean Families - Family Structure, Extended Family, Mate Selection And Marriage, Role Of Religion, Parent-child Relationships