Compared to most other countries, Jamaica has a very cohesive culture. It is the true melting pot, where dozens of influences blend together for the perfect flavour. Nevertheless, we all have unique, individual experiences within that shared culture. That’s why I crowdsource most of my posts on Jamaica. It gives other Jamaicans the opportunity to chime in, so you’re not just hearing what I think of my country.
In August 2020, I sent out this crowdsourcing post and completely forgot about it.
I just stumbled across it today and can’t possibly ignore it for a second longer. Now, before you get yourself all worked up about our parents scaring the crap out of us, recognize that all cultures do this:
- If you’re not a good boy or girl, Santa won’t bring you presents.
- If you misbehave and don’t obey your parents, you will end up in hell with Satan. (Why am I just realizing you can spell Santa out of Satan??)
- If you don’t do what I say, I’m telling your father when he comes home.
Are scare tactics an ideal way to raise children? Probably not, but we’re not here to dissect parenting psychology today. Instead, we’re here to marvel at the creative things Jamaican parents come up with to keep us in line. Interestingly enough, some of it has nothing to do with obedience at all and is deeply rooted in local beliefs ― or superstition.
1. You’ll go mad if you throw your hair out.
Parents have no real reason to stop children from throwing out what we pull from our combs and brushes. So, this is one of those instances where terrifying us into obedience is not the actual goal. Nevertheless, most of us grew up hearing that if we throw our hair outside, a bird might make a nest out of it. And, if they do, we’ll go mad.
Lots of parents burned the hair we shed as children, but this was back when burning garbage was common and acceptable, especially in rural areas. That is no longer the case, at least, not in the mountain town I grew up in. I wonder how many mad children are now running around!
2. Pointing on graves will cost you a finger.
Death is a big deal in Jamaican culture. We don’t just cremate people and forget about them. Like Asians, Africans, Native Americans, and Mexicans, we honor the dead. When someone dies in Jamaica, there is a celebration of life that can span several days. It’s known as a Dead Yaad and more formally as Nine Nights. This is essentially a wake with roots in African culture.
Similarly, graves are not boring, uniform crosses in a large allotments like in the United States. Our gravesites have color and character. Some people also choose to bury their family members on their properties. My great-great-grandmother and my great-grandmother are buried side-by-side on our family land. To add to this, we also have a culture that recognizes duppies or ghosts that come back to warn people or terrorize them.
I share all this to explain what I mean about death being a big deal. For some reason, this also means that pointing at graves is disrespectful. To be fair, pointing at the living in Jamaica is also considered disrespectful. Yay for equal rights? Either way, our parents would often tell us our fingers would fall off if we pointed at graves.
Then, kids developed a hack. If you bit your finger after doing it, it increased your chances of keeping it!
3. Swallowing bubble gum will tie up your intestines.
Eating candy is a skill we learn as children. We have to learn not to choke on lollipops and not to accidentally swallow gum. We also have to learn the difference between toffee and gum. So much work! Children routinely swallow gum by accident until they learn better and we’ve all wondered at some point whether this poses a health risk.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, swallowing one piece of gum isn’t going to kill you. However, swallowing a lot of gum over a short period can cause digestive problems. How much is a lot? One piece per day for seven days.
Is this why Jamaican parents tell us chewing gum will tie up your tripe? Who knows? What I know is that it made a lot of us more careful about chewing gum. But man did we panic the first time it happened accidentally!
4. If you stay out late, a hoofed monster from hell will come after you.
My mom was the first person to tell me about the rolling calf in Jamaica. Let me just say that if you grew up in the countryside, chances are that regular cows and bulls are terrifying enough. Those four-legged brutes would come after us all the time when we go a bush, which is similar to American hiking and wild harvesting. For some people, to go a bush was part of farm life.
So, to tell us there’s a bull with even more evil intent? Now, you’ve gone too far!
I was never the type to sneak out or stay out, so it wasn’t a cautionary tale from my mom. Instead, she said she had heard one before. My grandmother had told her not to stay out late because the rolling calf would come for her, but mom dismissed it as superstition. She was no wild teen, but she stayed out a little later than planned with her friends and then started the trek home.
Apparently, this bull demon comes out around midnight and drags a chain. The chain is loud as it drags on paved roads or rocky unpaved ones. Mom heard the sound while walking. There are several variations on what risk the rolling calf poses, but most commonly, the result is death or madness.
She took off running all the way home!
5. Letting people step over you reduces your height.
Children do stupid things all the time. When they do, there’s always the risk of injury and high medical bills. One common way children injure themselves is by falling on each other, particularly when trying to jump across.
Is this why our parents told us that letting someone step over us would cause us to shrink or stop growing? Who knows?
Did it work? No. Mischievous children often jumped over their friends and family members particularly because they knew they shouldn’t and wanted the person to shrink. Meanwhile, the child being jumped over would scream at the other one in mortal horror. Now, they would never be 6 feet tall!
6. If you sit in a doorway, ghosts will harm you.
I think most parents have tripped over their kids at least once. We always find the most inconvenient places to set up our toys and play. Jamaican parents resolved this problem by telling us duppies would harm us. I’ve heard two versions:
- Duppy will jump over you and you’ll stop growing.
- Duppy will box you dung or knock you over.
7. Putting a bag on the floor induces poverty.
I think every Jamaican woman has heard at least once that she shouldn’t put her bag on the floor. Why? It would lead to a lifetime of poverty!
I always carried a bag with my entertainment as a child, teenager ― and adult. The contents could range from painting gear to my Nintendo. I routinely put my bag down on the floor next to whatever chair I was sitting on, so I heard this warning several times per week.
Is it any wonder I’m not a billionaire? Obviously, I should have obeyed.
8. A fly will land on your tongue if you keep sucking on it.
I couldn’t find a lot of articles on tongue sucking, so let me explain what it is. It’s a habit quite similar to people who suck on their thumbs or chew their fingernails. It might not seem physically possible to suck on your own tongue, but some people do it. It seems like a harmless habit, but it can create problems as children get older. It can affect how they deal with stress and how their teeth develop.
In Jamaica, children usually do this with their mouths open and their tongues pressing against the bottom row of teeth. It’s less comfortable for them to do it with their mouths closed. So, parents would tell them that if they kept doing it, a fly would pitch on their tongues, and then they wouldn’t be able to pull the tongue back in.
Was it effective in stopping tongue-sucking? I’m not sure, but it definitely has a knee-jerk effect. Kids immediately pull that tongue back in.
9. Watch out for ghosts calling you.
In America, kids seem to spend a lot of time on their own, undisturbed. It’s not like that in Jamaica.
Your family summons you often. Your grandmother will call you from outside to pass her the remote or turn on the fan. Your mom will call you to pass the salt while she makes dinner. Other times, you’re in trouble for leaving your toys lying around or not cleaning your room.
Sometimes, while playing, we could almost swear we heard someone calling us, but then it wouldn’t be anyone. Other times, our parents really would be calling for us, but we think we imagined it.
Is this why our parents told us not to answer when we hear the first call? I was told to listen for the second call, and then we’d know for sure that they needed us. Some parents said you should always go to them instead of answering. This was problematic, though, because sometimes they needed something from the room you left and now you have to go back to get it.
10. Don’t Play With Your Shadow and Reflections
Playing with our reflections or shadows is unlikely to get us into trouble. So, I suspect our parents and grandparents seriously suspected the risk of paranormal harm. I definitely heard some interesting stories growing up. The worst was a woman who heard her baby crying and walked into the room to see the baby levitating because a duppy had picked her up. Even worse, this happened several times before she sought the assistance of an obeah man.
I’ve also heard from several adults my age. One friend shared that the duppy would only appear after his parents went to sleep. It would walk through the closed door and he would pull the covers over his head and just pretend it wasn’t there. In 2016, I turned my own creepy experience with The Man in the Closet into a short story.
So, are these legitimate concerns? Who’s to say yay or nay?Become a Patron!
What I CAN say with certainty is that our parents and grandparents scared the crap out of us as children. Yet, we look back at these things fondly and laugh about them.
What weird or scary things did your family tell you?