Whenever a child gets murdered, there are a set of people who want to blame the Government and another set of people who want to blame parents. And when a child gets murdered five years later, there are a set of people who want to blame parents and another set of people who want to blame the Government—only, now that the other party is in office, the same people who once blamed parents now blame Government and vice-versa.
Either way, nothing gets done to reduce the chances that more children will be murdered five, ten, or 15 years from now. The long and horrific road from Akiel Chambers to Amy Annamonthodo to Daniel Guerra to Keyana Cumberbatch proves this. But where does the fault really lie? Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has said she isn’t about casting blame, which is understandable: she heads the Government and can hardly bad talk Keyana’s grieving mother, except to say that the problem must be solved in the home.
So let’s start with this conventional wisdom that, if parents did their job, all social problems would be ended. Apart from being tautological, the core flaw in this assertion is the premise that all parents are created equal. For example, a single mother—the preferred parental type to blame for everything except white-collar crime—generally has less time, less money, and less energy to spend on her children.
This issue is addressed in the book Scarcity by social psychologists Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, who note: “The poor are worse parents. They are harsher with their kids, they are less consistent, more disconnected, and thus appear less loving...”
But why is this? Is it because poor people are inherently less affectionate to their children? On the contrary, Mullainathan and Shafir attribute poor parents’ poor behaviour to what they call “bandwidth” —a term used to mean cognitive capacity, which includes a person’s emotional state. They have done studies which show that a person’s IQ actually falls when subject to more financial stress. Not only this, but such stress also reduces self-control.
On top of that, parents who abuse their children believe bad behaviour is inherent in the child’s character, as expressed in the standard Trini phrase, “De chile harden”. Psychologist Timothy D Wilson in his book Redirect notes that “parents who abuse their children...seem to blame the children for being difficult”, whereas good parents attribute a child’s crankiness to hunger or tiredness or needing affection.
The jump from blaming children to killing them is shorter than most people would like to believe. Talk to the average Trinidadian about licks, and they will invariably tell you that there is a difference between disciplining a child and abusing them. Cite research which says that children who get licks are more likely to be aggressive, unethical and unintelligent: and Trinis will steups and say, “I get plenty licks and I turn out good.”
But, even if there was a thick line between discipline and abuse, the people who cross that line do so because they get their cues from a society in which beating children is approved behaviour. After all, the majority of child murders started with a “male relative” (usually a stepfather, not a biological father) punishing the child for some transgression.
This is why child murders in developed societies are less frequent than in T&T. It is not that people in Sweden or Canada aren’t subject to the same frustrations, but their social norms tell them that violent feelings must be expressed in civilised ways. By contrast, developing societies like ours, where the majority of people favour corporal and capital punishment, always have more child abuse and child killing.
You see, when a country has laws which allow 12- and 14-year-old girls to be married off, it tells paedophiles that sexual abuse is acceptable. When women who accidentally get pregnant cannot get safe abortions unless they’re well off, and when the Roman Catholic Church which has for decades defended paedophile priests is the main opponent to abortion, this sends a signal that it is better for children to be born and suffer. And when people argue that Keyana’s killer must have been “mad or on drugs” yet still insist he should be hanged, their underlying logic is that even persons who are not responsible for their actions should be severely punished —which, of course, is the same attitude of the men who start off beating children and end up killing them.
Can a government change such norms? The short answer is yes. Societies with deep democracy and rule of law have low infant mortality, whereas autocracies have high rates; similarly, secular societies have low homicide rates, whereas societies with high religiosity are more violent. But Kamla Persad-Bissessar and PNM leader Keith Rowley are unlikely to introduce any measures that would actually change this place. Why should they? They are politicians and children can’t vote — especially dead ones.