Jamaican Child-Rearing Practices

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“The playa-playas always get a baby girl,” says Ogarry (Garry) Clarke, a 24-year-old Kingstonian. “And the girl always comes up just to show them how it is when someone else is trying to mess with their daughter,” he continues. “Not to say no one is going to be smart enough to do that with my daughter,” he laughs.

As a student of somatic psychology, I am always looking at how culture effects human development. One of my assignments last quarter was to interview someone from a non-dominant culture about child-rearing practices. Because of my involvement with the Jamaican community, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to talk to friends about how they were raised and how they raise their children. I interviewed my close friend, Ogarry (Garry) Clarke. Garry is a 24-year-old Kingstonian who moved to the States two years ago and just had his first child, Xavia Clarke, in November 2003. Garry and his wife currently live in San Pablo, California.

Although Garry and I see the world in very different ways, I love him like a little brother, and I’ve watched his excitement grow surrounding this child from the moment he found out he was going to be a father—parenthood is very important in Jamaican culture, and it is expected of everyone in the society. I was eager to hear some of his views on child-rearing.

Jamaica is a very religious country with roughly ten churches per square mile! The majority of Jamaicans are Protestant, about 7% are Catholic, with small Rastafarian and Pocomanian communities, and tiny Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu populations. Because Jamaica has a history of slavery (abolished in 1838), many of the African traditions and rituals have infiltrated the Christian traditions, so the end-result is a belief system that follows the King James version of the Bible closely, and also has many superstitions surrounding duppies (ghosts) and a rich practice of herbal medicine. Some people practice obeah, which is the Jamaican version of voodoo, or Santeria. One might be surprised at the conservative nature of the Jamaican people, but most of it (the anti-gay attitudes, superiority of men over women, anti-abortion, and disciplining through physical means) all comes from their religious background. Until 1962, Jamaica was a British colony and was very isolated from global influences beyond Britain.

Garry’s interview was fairly straightforward—no big surprises—but it was nice to hear some of the ideologies articulated. Garry speaks patois, a dialect of English that is local to Jamaica.

Laura Gardner (LG): Do you have any kids?

Ogarry Clarke (OC): Yeah, I have a pretty little baby girl. A likkle empress!

LG: How old is she?

OC: Four months right now.

LG: In Jamaica, what myths are told to children about how they were conceived?

OC: [laughs] Basically, it’s just… they drop from sky!

LG: Really?!

OC: Yeah, my mother told me that. Back home they really don’t have a myth that they tell children.

LG: Like here we have the stork…

OC: Nah, we no really have that.

LG: Do Jamaican parents tell their children about how babies were born? Or do they get that from the streets?

OC: We get that in the process of growing up, like in the schools.

LG: Oh, so they tell you at school.

OC: Yeah, we learn that when we reach a certain level of education, like 6th grade or 7th grade when we start learning about sciences and stuff. They touch a bit on the reproductive part of it.

LG: Do you learn about Adam and Eve in school or about Darwin?

OC: Well it’s a more Adam and Eve thing. God create man, and take a rib and from rib comes woman, and Adam and Eve get Cain and Abel, yeah! The evolution part is more scientific, newer…

LG: Do you learn both theories in school? Like about Adam and Eve in religion class and evolution in science class?

OC: Yeah, religious education they teach you about Allah, Brahman, Mohammed and teach you about the concept of all dem religion. But yet still when you’re doing science–biology, chemistry, physics–it’s a whole different twist about it. They tell you about this Big Bang Theory where molecules come together, they all collided and make the world and the universe. Man just appeared, which is foolishness, I think, but that is just my concept of life!

LG: So what is your concept?

OC: For me still it’s Adam and Eve. There is the Father, there is the Most High, there is a man who watches us all, the one who give us good from right. Not Adam and Steve! I need to put that part in it. But, yeah, I believe in the Father and the religious background of everything.

LG: I know there’s a belief in Jamaica that if a man’s extremely tired after sex, he’s impregnated a girl. Can you tell me about this?

OC: Yeah, what’s the name for that? Sympathy pains? I don’t think I’m pronouncing the word right, but yeah, anytime we see a guy sleeping a lot, or he get really tired a lot, or him eating a lot, is that he’s probably picking up the symptoms of his significant other—the lady that is pregnant who is having his child. Certain symptoms that a lady would be having, they don’t necessarily have it but the man will be going through it. For example, when my wife was pregnant, I get all dem t’ings! I started swelling up, which she didn’t. I started sleeping a lot, which she didn’t. I’m tired and my back hurts and all that, she didn’t. I was the one pregnant!
LG: How long did that last?

OC: Till about seven months and then it just switched! She started getting fat. She would go up the stairs, she tired. Her back start hurt, her foot start get charlie horse and all dem t’ings dere.

LG: Are there any theories about the gender of the baby, whether it’s a boy or a girl?

OC: [laughs] If it’s a boy, she carries high. If it’s a girl, she carries low. Also if the female is not showing all that much like she’s carrying belly in her back, we say she’s having a boy. If the baby’s moving up and down—active—it’s a boy. We have more than one thing to pick out if it’s a boy or girl.

LG: Do people in Jamaica generally want to know the gender of the baby before it’s born?

OC: Yeah, it depends on if it’s the first kid or second. If it’s the first kid, everybody’s going to want to know. With the second kid, the curiosity’s not really there anymore. It’s whatever God bless them with, they’ll accept. People want to know because they want to know what to buy, what color and all that.

LG: Is it the same blue and pink?

OC: Yeah, but the thing now is that even back home, people don’t like to say blue is definitely for boy, and pink is definitely for girl. Because you know Jamaica, it’s the island of fashion! We go through a lot of colors and whatever looks good, that’s what we put on our baby.

LG: Are children birthed in hospitals?

OC: Yeah, to my knowledge about 90%.

LG: And the rest are home births?

OC: Yeah.

LG: What rituals are performed when infants are born?

OC: Christening–take the baby to the pastor. The pastor prays over the baby and blesses the baby.

LG: Is it for boys or girls?

OC: It’s both–it doesn’t really matter. We are a lot of religions. A lot of us believe in Jah, for the Rastafarians, God, or whatever, but it still comes down to the same thing—religion. We are religious.

LG: How old is the baby when they do a Christening?

OC: Anywhere between the first year.

LG: Was Xavia christened?

OC: Well not yet. I’m taking her to Jamaica to get her Christened.

LG: That’s a good idea. How does the culture see abortion?

OC: A lot of guys, a lot of men back home don’t believe in it. Me included. I don’t believe in abortion because that’s a life. The way I look at it is that there are a lot of people who want to have kids, and can’t have kids. And a lot of people who can have kids, and don’t want kids. They’re just playing around with it—they get pregnant and just abort it and start all over again.

LG: Is it legal in Jamaica?

OC: Yeah.

LG: How is a woman treated?

OC: A lady gets a negative feedback on it. We don’t really say “abortion.” Jamaicans say “dash-out-your-belly” or “kill-the-baby.” When a man walks in cemetery back home it means either dash out the belly or you kill your baby, and that’s really not a very good thing.

LG: How are infants fed once they’re born?

OC: Well, we more believe in breastfeeding, but I wasn’t breastfed. My mama told me I never accept her breast from the day I was conceived. She used the second-best thing which was the bottle. My baby come up and she never get breastfed either, so she’s still using the bottle.

LG: Breast milk?

OC: Breast milk, yeah, because we do believe in that, but yet still, the formula also, because it’s not all the time the breast will be producing all that much milk, so we kind of mix it. The majority of people—once the baby accepts the breast, that’s what they’re going to do.

LG: Do you know for how long they usually breastfeed?

OC: Some crazy people, like my auntie, will do it until the baby starts teething and starts biting!

LG: Why crazy?

OC: To me, I think that after three months, four months, they should start try, how should I call it… Make the pathway, make the transition from the breast to the bottle. But that’s just my thinking.

LG: Tell me about the amount of touch between mother and child in Jamaica. Does the infant sleep with the parents, is the infant held all day or put down?

OC: We got a thing where when a kid is a baby, our belief is that they are more sensitive to more things, so on the ground? Nah. [The baby] is like a handbag. He or she is always in somebody’s hands. When she’s asleep, she’s in a crib. She has her own separate stuff. Everything for her is separate. Always clean, always dry—a clean, dry place.

LG: Separate crib. Separate bathing.

OC: Yeah, except the mom and the dad who will put the baby on the bed, or whatever. But they’ll put the baby on the bed on a blanket. Not on the exact same sheets that the adult is sleeping on. The baby will be on a blanket.

LG: How long is the baby hand-held?

OC: Until the baby start creep.

LG: How do parents respond to an infant’s upset?

OC: Well, it all depends you know. We have a thing called “gripe-water.” Meaning when the baby just fussy-fussy. I just learned this thing, it’s called “colicky” out here. Back home we say, “She’s griping, or he’s griping.” So we have a gripe-water which does work. As a matter of fact, I had a culture clash the other day with my wife. The things we do in Jamaica is not necessarily the things that she knows of in America. When I start show her and implement things we do and it works, now she starts being more receptive to what we do back home. It’s just funny to me to see how the culture clashes—we do the same thing two different ways—and it’s the same end result.

LG: What’s gripe-water?

OC: It’s a mixture. Let me read the label for you. I got this from back home—I got it sent to me. “For teething and digestive troubles. Used by mothers in Jamaica over 180 years. Infant gripe mixer. Ingredients: light energy carb BPC, sodium bicarbonate, alcohol 96%, fennel oil BPC… I don’t know what all that means. But anyway, the way we give the infants is up to 3 months old, it’s 10-20 drops. 3-6 months, a half a teaspoon. Up to 2 years, one teaspoon. We give the dose with a little warm water, 2-3 times a day or whatever. Trust me, it works.

LG: Is the gripe-water the first thing you would do?

OC: Well, the first thing we would do is see if she’s hungry, if she’s wet. It’s like troubleshooting a computer—trying to figure out what it is by process of elimination.

LG: How is discipline enforced?

OC: Simple. Well, we try not to “hit-hit” the baby. Try talk to the baby. Make the baby understand. A baby’s going to do whatever she’s going to do—she’s going to walk, touch an electric socket if it’s open, and whatever. She don’t know! But if you go over to her and say, “No baby, that’s bad. Don’t do it.” She won’t do it anymore. If you flick her on the wrist, she won’t do it. She knows that she’s going to get punished for that. These kids are smart! We basically try to talk to them first, but we use the physical thing as a last resort.

LG: First you use tone of your voice and then see.

OC: Exactly.

LG: Who looks after the infant?

OC: Well, mostly whoever doesn’t have the busier schedule. Take turns. Most fathers back home love their kids—they want to spend some time, especially if it’s a boy. After a lady has a baby, she has time off from work.

LG: Do you leave kids with other people?

OC: Yeah, like the neighbors or whatever. Back home, neighbors is like family also because we all grow up in the same community for over how many years. Ain’t nobody moving out! Ain’t nobody going anywhere! We’re born right there, everybody is going to grow old right there! Everybody knows everybody. So we leave the baby with neighbors or extended family—whoever we feel comfortable.

LG: Have you left Xavia with anyone else?

OC: Nope. As a matter of fact, I’m just coming from work, and she was at the job with me all day.

LG: Your sister looks after her sometimes.

OC: Yeah, well, they’re family. Other than me and my wife, my brother [Ross], my sister [Roxanne], my mom, my auntie. That’s about it.

LG: Lastly, tell me are there any spiritual beliefs, stories or sayings surrounding infants? What do Jamaicans believe?

OC: We say that if a woman is pregnant and doesn’t exercise and isn’t active, the baby’s going to come out lazy!

LG: [laughs]

OC: You understand me? That’s true. Another one is that if you don’t Christen the baby—Christening the baby is chasing the demons and the spirits away—the baby is going to be one active demon who is always doing mischief and trouble. One more belief about baby—there are so many of them, I can go on and on!

LG: Please do!

OC: If a girl looks like her father, she’s going to be real lucky. She’s going to be a very lucky girl! Those are just a few little examples about kids growing up.

 



About Laura :

Laura Gardner is the Founder and Editor of JahWorks.org, the intelligent online magazine about Caribbean music, travel, and culture. She's been involved in radio programming, concert and festival production, artist publicity, and reggae and Caribbean journalism for many media outlets, including the national Beat Magazine and the German magazine Riddim. She loves to travel (especially to tropical places) and has been listening to reggae since about the time she could walk. | View all posts by Laura

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About the author

Laura Gardner is the Founder and Editor of JahWorks.org, the intelligent online magazine about Caribbean music, travel, and culture. She's been involved in radio programming, concert and festival production, artist publicity, and reggae and Caribbean journalism for many media outlets, including the national Beat Magazine and the German magazine Riddim. She loves to travel (especially to tropical places) and has been listening to reggae since about the time she could walk.

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