Letters & Opinion

Sorry! You Cannot Bend the Tree; it is No Longer a Plant

Dr. Claudia J. Fevrier
By Dr. Claudia J. Fevrier

Do you believe that the institutions of society can solve the myriad of problems that currently rob us of joy, peace, security, and threaten our future? Societal problems stem from these institutions themselves. Does that reality doom our prospects for positive change? To be effective, any undertaking must surely address the root causes of these problems.

Traditional societies comprised the people who lived together and the social institutions that shaped their lives. Such a structure mirrors modern societies. The majority of societies have five major social institutions: family, economy, religion, education, and government or state. Social institutions are absolutely necessary to keep societies organized and functioning to ensure peace and stability–the survival of all the members of society.

One of the social institutions that is very pertinent to the discussion is the family. Social studies teaches us that the family institution is considered, generally, the primary social institution, and the family is the basic unit in society. The family institution performs multiple functions. The main goals have been to: nurture children with love, teach life and social skills to help children function effectively in society as they grow and develop, and protect the children from all forms of abuse: physical, sexual, mental/psychological, financial, verbal/emotional and cultural. It is expected that the family assumes these duties and responsibilities for the survival and well-being of the children within the family structure.

On the subject of the family’s duties and responsibilities for their children’s upbringing, there is a considerable body of evidence that accentuates the significance of the early/preschool years in predicting a child’s developmental trajectory and adulthood outcomes. To illustrate, Hart and Risley (1995), Heckman and Lochner (2000), and Heckman (2008) concur with the view that developmental gaps open up early in children. They are predictive of future life outcomes, and are more difficult and costly to close later in life. Importantly, some challenging later-life outcomes that have their roots in early childhood include poor literacy, aggressive and antisocial behaviour, mental health problems, family violence, crime, welfare dependency, obesity and substance abuse (Oberklaid, 2007).

To provide a classic example of the authors’ above line of argument, I was somewhere some time ago, when I saw a cute little four-year-old child blatantly disobeying a family member in the presence of everyone. The child was asked to stop doing something that could be damaging to himself and others around him. He totally ignored the directive given and, at some point, he stumbled and the object he was holding landed on someone’s face like a flash of lightning! The anger in the individual’s face was shocking. The caregiver, then, grabbed the child’s hand and repeatedly demanded an apology from him: “Now, you say sorry to the person or else I will beat you!” That four-year-old child reluctantly apologized to the individual and, immediately, threw his temper tantrum. The caregiver once again ignored his terrible behaviour, and continued with her task at hand. This anecdote, undoubtedly, is not an isolated case in Saint Lucia–they are too numerous to list in this article.

Obviously, this child’s (whom I call Tom) behaviour is practically out of control. How will Tom cope with schooling when he goes to kindergarten the following year? Will the Saint Lucian kindergarten teacher be adequately prepared to educate a wayward child, such as Tom? Is the school geared to meet Tom’s holistic needs? Will the Saint Lucian education system do more harm than good to Tom, that is, educating to fail by the kinds of policies established, for example, those on corporal punishment? According to Doll (1996), the complaints about schools and schooling frequently mirror complaints about home and community life. In the Saint Lucian context, clearly, malaise that has been damaging our society and culture has come into our schools.

At worse, when parents exhibit don’t-care attitudes about their children’s school achievements and when careless teachers, themselves, who sometimes grew up in home environments in which they were neglected, are assigned to teach youngsters who are unwilling to learn, tragic results are assured. Further, conscientious teachers become discouraged with non-learners, and parents do not bother to cooperate with teachers and schools.

In the absence of family and school intervention, one can safely conclude that by the time Tom becomes a young adult, his obnoxious behaviour would have worsen considerably, making it difficult for the family to correct or control, as has been asserted by the above authors. In this respect, it is expected that Tom’s attitude/way of life would be reflective of the kind of youth that modern-day society dreads–the kind who is likely to idle, dominate and terrorize the social environment in which he lives; the kind who does not possess the capacity to contribute significantly to society. In this light, Doll (1996) explains that “In homes and communities, we see widespread use of illegal drugs, alcoholism among youth, overuse of television, child abuse, a high incidence of divorce, turmoil in city streets, an increase in crime…” (p. 5).

A pertinent question one could ask based on the ongoing discussion: “What could be the root cause of Tom’s educational and social problems, and others like him? Notwithstanding the previously mentioned authors’ notion on a child’s developmental trajectory and adulthood outcomes, a seemingly appropriate response would be one that resonates with the maxim: “Sorry!” “You cannot bend the tree; it is no longer a plant.”

Indeed, to be effective, any undertaking must surely address the root causes of the problems that confront families and schools alike in modern society. To use the traditional family as a point of reference, it would make sense, firstly, for modern-day families to emulate the way of life of the vast majority of traditional families in Saint Lucia, in spite of the “increasing change wrought by the impact of science and technology on [our] society” (Kirman, 1996, p. 10).

Clearly, differences exist between the traditional way of life of the family and that of the modern family in many ways. In the traditional family, parents encouraged a sense of responsibility and inculcated values in their children. They taught their children to humble themselves before their Heavenly Father, God, by praying and acknowledging that God rules the universe, and that they needed to fear Him through obedience to His commands for His love and care for mankind. In turn, children grew up fearing their parents by respecting, loving, and being obedient to them. They were charged with various responsibilities: clean the house–sweep and   scrub the floor and steps; wash dishes and clothes; help their father to milk the cows on early mornings; collect local eggs from the cage; carry wood for the fire and water whenever necessary to fill buckets, pots and pans, among other everyday chores. When they were finished, they were allowed to play marbles, games, and so on under a parent’s (or other significant persons) supervision.

With that great sense of responsibility and values, children hardly had time to get into trouble. Besides, their sense of responsibility translated into their school work and, later, into the organization in which they worked.

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