Haitian Parenting: Between Discipline and Abuse

This post is also available in: Kreyol

I have vivid memories of being awaken in the middle of the night with kout rigwaz right down my spine because I didn’t bring home the grades expected.

Growing up in any Haitian household, one is likely to have had some form of excessive corporal punishment imposed on them as a child. Haitian parents are known for doing the wrong things with the right intentions when it comes to discipline. Most Haitian parents feel that baton will fix the negative behaviors of their children. I have vivid memories of being awaken in the middle of the night with kout rigwaz right down my spine because I didn’t bring home the grades expected. Days following those beatings, my school uniform would always get stuck to my marks and bruises causing more pain. I also recall being left ajenou or kneeling for hours with two big rocks in each hand in the middle of a Saturday afternoon on the dry, hot concrete. Now that I work in child welfare, I can’t help but to wonder about the true definition of abuse. Can Haitian corporal punishment be seen as abuse in the U.S. or even in Haiti? What is your definition of abuse?

Child abuse is defined as, “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation”; or “An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” This definition of child abuse and neglect refers specifically to parents and other caregivers. A “child” under this definition generally means a person who is younger than age 18 or who is not an emancipated minor. Based on that definition, can we say that most of us Haitians have been abused in some way shape or form? More than ever before, we are seeing an increase in the population of Haitian children entering the foster care system for allegations of abuse, neglect or abandonment. Such increase is due to lack of education, and lack of knowledge of appropriate disciplining methods.

There are four types of parenting styles:  Authoritarian, Authoritative, Permissive, and Uninvolved. In the Haitian community, we lean more towards the Authoritarian parenting style. Authoritarian parenting styles generally lead to children who are obedient and proficient, but they rank lower in happiness, social competence and self-esteem. How many of us can honestly say that the punishments imposed on us as children have left us with no signs of anxiety or posttraumatic stress disorder? As I come across the Haitian American Productions videos, the comments from every viewer are so similar, it is as if our parents all sat in the same parenting course. Mom and dad get in a verbal or physical altercation, a Haitian child is bound to get a beating out of rage. You didn’t put the meat out to be thawed out before they get home from work, you are bound to get a beating or yelled at. You are left in charge of your younger siblings as the oldest, and one of the children misbehave, you get disciplined instead. You don’t come home on time for curfew, you get a whooping. If you don’t earn A’s and B’s you get a spanking. If your room is a mess, you get a beating. As depicted in some of the videos, some parents will find an excuse to give you a beating because they have had a bad day at work. Now we are a culture of people where “what happens in this house, stays in this house.” Fortunately, laws in the US put children under the radar of teachers, bus drivers, nurses and after care specialists. In the event, any visible marks and bruises are suspicious of abuse; an abuse report is then called in because everyone is a mandated reporter.

Many Haitians are under the impression that sexual abuse is an “American thing”, when in fact sexual abuse in our culture is almost as prevalent as the U.S.; the only difference is we don’t talk about it.

The common allegations in cases involving Haitians generally involve physical abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. Sexual Abuse is a common one for multiple reasons. For one, it is a cultural taboo. Sex is such a sensitive topic that we fail our children over and over. We fail them by not teaching them that they should not be touched in any body parts that make them feel uncomfortable. We fail them by not listening to them, and when we do listen, we doubt it and don’t believe them.  The perpetrator is oftentimes, a family  member or friend of the family. They are usually someone that the children trust. Parents do not establish boundaries between their children and adult family members; we allow girls to sit on uncle’s laps while developing into womanhood, or share bedrooms with older cousins or friends visiting from Haiti. These are all avenues where a child can begin to be groomed to be molested. Many Haitians are under the impression that sexual abuse is an “American thing”, when in fact sexual abuse in our culture is almost as prevalent as the U.S.; the only difference is we don’t talk about it.

We live in a society where disruptive behaviors in early childhood (including oppositional, aggressive, and hyperactive behaviors) are often predictive of negative mental health outcomes later in life, ranging from school failure to substance abuse and criminality. Low levels of parental praise have been associated with internalizing behavior, including social withdrawal and anxiety. Low levels of warmth and supportiveness have been linked with child insecurity and emotion regulation difficulties, including frequent child temper tantrums, whining, stubbornness and noncompliance. Low levels of parental warmth and positive involvement may also contribute to the development of behavioral problems. Studies have shown that parents who rely on physically aggressive discipline to gain control of their children are likely to have children who are engaging in more severe forms of aggressive behavior.

May this article serve to bring awareness to the Haitian community that some of our child rearing practices and ways that we use are considered abuse under the law in the United States and also in Haiti. These conversations need to happen with open minds, to learn and adjust our parenting styles. The conversations need to begin in local churches, local Haitian organizations at a community level and college level because we become our parents if we don’t identify the flaws and defects in our parenting styles. This is by no means to bash Haitian parents.  This piece is simply to begin conversations amongst ourselves to see how we can break the cycle of severely abused children who are left to deal with trauma in their adulthood, or those who are lost in the foster care system with little to no guidance.

Photo Credit : Gio Jules

Barbara Alcena

Born and raised in Haiti, Barbara moved to Florida when she was 13 to live with her father. At age 15, she entered the foster care system, until she aged out. Barbara is a social worker in child welfare advocating for abused and neglected children. Barbara believes that no children should become the adults spending a lifetime trying to forget a few minutes of their childhood.

  1. I’m a Haitian American in Law Enforcement (Sex Crime, Detective) and at least two to three times a month we are getting cases of sexual abuse in the Haitian home. Not only it’s happening but it’s on the rise in my opinion. Awesome article!

  2. Congratulations on your courage in addressing such a critical issue in a clear and concise manner. The only thing I would add is the relationship between some of our child rearing practices and the legacy of slavery. We may have defeated our physical masters over two hundred years ago, but the violence and sexual abuse that affects many of us are a direct leftover from crimes inflicted on our ancestors. Part of the healing process, and the conversation around mental health in our communities, must acknowledge the historical underpinnings of abusive practices in our diasporic communities and back home in Haiti. Kudos to you!

  3. I am a Haitian Counselor working in the school systems as a Preschool Intervention Teacher. This article rings so true for Haitians as well as other Caribbean islands. There is a definite need for discussion on how effective these methods are. Even when Haitian patents see success in thier children as a result of strict discipline, they often don’t recognize the emotional scars that are left behind. Thank you for bringing this matter to the forefront.

  4. Well written and informative. I hope that people, Haitians and non-Haitians read this with an open mind of reflection. There are a myriad of wonderful things that happens in a traditional Haitian household, However this is not one of them. We must educate ourselves!

  5. This is one of the most well-written and thought-provoking articles that I’ve ever read. As one who is among the 1st generation in my family born in the U.S, this discussion is long overdue. This article indirectly brings up something that I’ve observed growing up in a predominantly Caribbean neighborhood in NYC: There seems to be a level of ethnocentrism from our parental generations with an underlying and misplaced fear that the younger generations are progessively xenocentric. That may be at play from those who defend excessive discipline and/or simply think that sexual abuse is only “an American thing.” As much as I am proud to be of Haitian descent, this has to be called out. Thank you for invoking this discussion.

  6. Thank you for including the Haitian law (link in red) of 2001 forbidding corporal punishment of children. I have read one journal article (sorry that I don’t have the source) which says that strictness, including verbal scolding, is part of the structure of a good childhood in Haiti. Adults who grew up in Haiti report that they felt safe, not just from external danger but from internally generated dangers such as bad or risky behavior. But that article did not condone, or even discuss, physical/corporal punishment. I have never read or heard a justification for that.

  7. Very good article. I was Born and raised in Haiti in a Wealthy Family, moved to New Jersey in 1991. I remember those type of beatings growing up in Haiti. But, for the Haitian Community I would not call it child abuse. In my opinion its called using excessive physical force on a child. Because, those beatings didn’t happen because I was a burden or couldn’t afford to care for me financially, those beatings let me know that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. And for the record I am not mentally or emotionally scared from those beatings. In fact, I am 38, Business Owner, first child on the way, and I WILL USE LITTLE OR NO CORPORAL PUNISHMENT TO COMMUNICATE WITH MY CHILD. CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM!

  8. I grew up in Haiti until the age of 17 and have very found memories of my childwood.

    I also have chilling memories of a chamber pot full of urine being poured on my head to teach me some kind of lesson and being stripped naked for a whipping at the age of 13 because a neigbour saw me walking down the main road from school, after my mother told me not to.

    When I was suspected of having a boyfriend I was given a ‘finger test’ to make sure I was still a virgin.

    My father never used corporal punishment and used to comfort me. I adored him and silently resented my mother. We, thankfully got to talk about my feelings before she passed away and I miss her terribly. She worked very hard to provide for her family.

    What I’ve learned during our highly emotional talking sessions is that she too was brought up that way and wanted to insure that, as her only daughter, I turned into a respectable woman. I studied and worked my butt off and made her proud.

    I made the decision to raise my children differently and corporal punishment was not part of their upbriging. They are both responsible and well adjusted adults.

    Some of the beatings were unecessary and scarred me emotionally in my formative years but I understand where my mother was coming from.

    We must ensure that vulnerable children are not abused by their keepers, whether aunts, cousins or grandparents because that’s the way its been done for generation. We must educate, provide support for young families so their children can flourish.

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