About to conclude a column for So it go I am aborting it to write, instead, on a sudden impulse, about Helen Bartlett, a mother in Point Fortin,Trinidad, who is big in the news this week over a video of her beating her 12-year-old wayward daughter. First of all, the beating of a child is a particular blot on any parent’s behaviour, and it is to be condemned, as this mother is to be condemned, but having said that I also have to say that, as we say in the Caribbean, we should see with this woman; she was wrong in her behaviour, but as we condemn the act one has to also take into consideration the circumstances surrounding it.
The reality for Helen Bartlett, and many more like her, in the region and the world, is that the forces that come to bear on parents these days in bringing up a child in the straight and narrow are complicated and powerful beyond belief. I helped bring up two children from my first wife, and three from my second, and I know first-hand about those forces, as does any parent today. It poses dilemma upon dilemma for any responsible parent, and the struggle may ebb and flow but it is continuous; my experience so many years ago taught me that, and the parenting experiences now, in this more contentious and more dangerous time, are certainly far more onerous; both the scientific studies and one’s knowledge in one’s social circle confirm that reality.
The Point Fortin story is like that of so many parents now – persons in desperate straits, unable to cope with the vagaries of raising young children. Virtually every form of information or entertainment coming to us contributes to this array of negative influences and persuasions, acting on all of us, including the young, and by extension on parents trying to mould those young lives. It is not surprising that what most parents do is to simply give in; it is far easier on the parent and the child to do that. The young man on the softball team who wants the US$150 sunglasses all his team-mates are sporting is a formidable case. For a parent to say “no” to what all the other 11-year-old kids on the team have is to be made to feel like a heel. (I speak from personal experience with my second son, Bryan.) In your mind you have the rationale of the bad effects on the child of too much excess, but there is a strong urge in your gut to give in and buy the damned sunglasses for your son; in the immediate term, that is so much easier on both you and Bryan. The problem there is that the essential story of a life is found not in the immediate but in the long term.
That’s what Helen Bartlett was dealing with in Trinidad; she was looking down the road, probably with experiences from her own life or from her own circle, and seeing nothing but problems and very little hope. Certainly her decision to beat was wrong, but given the situation you have to feel for her, and it very telling that the majority of the respondents on an FM station in Trinidad were in support of the mother seeking to discipline while disagreeing with the method she used. Time and again we pour recriminations on a mother buckling under the strain, but are often strangely silent on the influences around her that constitute the source of her travail. And today, unlike the time when I was growing up, the parent cannot block out the enticements by locking the house door and bolting the windows, or, in the affluent home, taking away the car key. In this age, at the press of a button by your teetering youngster, the influences pour into your child’s room, unseen and unheard by you, and continue their work as you slumber unaware.
Everywhere one looks in societies now we see the influences lined up waiting to bend or deter or distort young minds and bodies. The streams are varied and powerful, and, particularly in the electronic age, constantly growing. Virtually every week there is an announcement of yet one more connection or application for mankind to show mankind, more than before, in more detail than before, and in more places than before, the various persuasions and opiates, and how to source them, or even, worst of all, how to find those who will be the provider in exchange for a favour to be later revealed.
In magazine articles, mainstream television, major movies, popular music videos and audio recordings, the same process is at work, and the parent is overwhelmed by that flood. The feeling is often one of despair. I remember sitting beside a single mother I knew slightly, in a doctor’s waiting room in Grand Cayman. I was waiting for a blood test. She told me she was waiting for her son who had been injured in an accident driving her car without her knowledge. Almost in a whisper, she said, “I can’t reach him. It’s so hard; I don’t know…” She broke off and put her face in her hands. Many mothers, in country after country, in families rich and poor, are putting their faces in their hands in similar despair. One’s heart has to go out to them. Before we lean too heavily on Helen Bartlett for her mistake, we must consider the load these mothers, often with Daddy absent, are facing. Under that burden, many mothers will understandably give in and turn a blind eye to the immorality or the indiscipline or the absence of obligation in the child. Helen Bartlett didn’t do that. She didn’t give in to her daughter’s meandering. She stood up and tried to stop it. In her dilemma your heart has to go out to this woman. Yes, she went too far when she resorted to beating, but we should consider that perhaps once she stood up she no longer knew where to stop.