Monday, April 19, 2010

What is a barrel child

Generally, a barrel child is a term most often used to label children who are a product of stepwise migration. They are children who are left behind in their country of birth while their parents work and live in another country. The term barrel highlights the fact that many of these children receive barrels of clothes, books and other wares from their parents residing overseas. The tan paper or blue plastic barrels, once emptied, can be seen in the back of houses where these children reside. It is important to note that some parents also send remittance in the form of money to the child’s guardian to use for upkeep.

Another term often used among academics to describe this migration process is stepwise migration. In other words, migration takes place in a piecemeal fashion where one or both parents may migrate to North America or the UK and send for the children at a later date. The separation of families in this manner commonly occurs in the Anglophone Caribbean. Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana lead in the number of “barrel” children that exist.

The experience of being a “barrel” child is not well understood. When parents initially leave their child for life in another country, there are feelings of hurt, confusion, loss, and much more experienced by the child. This initial separation period could be damaging to the child and thus do permanent harm to a child’s psychosocial development. Some have suggested that the age of the child at separation, quality of the parent/child relationship, and the number of sibling being left behind are moderating factors. Yet there is little research to validate these hypotheses.

Sometimes, children are reunited with their parents and other times not. In instances where the parents send for the children, the children are put on a plane and travel to the country where their parents reside. Sometimes, parents return to the country and collect their children and take them back with them.

There are also situations where the parents fail to return to reunite with the children. These children for the lack of a better term are abandoned. They reside with relatives until they get of age to be emancipated.

Parents sometimes draw out the reunification process by taking one child at a time to join them abroad. This stepwise migration can occur for various reasons including lack of financial resources to reunite the entire family. Older children may have to finish school or may not want to join their parents abroad. Yet, some parents may not want to have the burden of taking all the children at once.

The reunification period at first is often exciting especially if the child is in a new and fun environment. I often call this time the “honeymoon” period. The novelty of the child’s surroundings often is a delight. Parents also tend to more lenient when faced with poor behavior. Parents tend to want to be in the good graces of the children rather than start any sort of punitive disciplinary practices that could fracture an already fragile relationship.

Although the parents and children are going through a reunification period, the children are also going through a period of separation as well. Children have been pulled away from their surrogate parents, relatives, and friends. As time goes by, children may begin to miss the people that cared for him/her while the parents were living abroad. This sense of loss is heightened by an uncertainty of when he/she may see their loved ones again.

There are many barrel children living in North America and Europe. Most have survived periods of separation from their parents, reunification with their parents, and separation from love ones. Yet, they survive!

This blog is my story of being a barrel child. Now that I am an adult I could understand how the barrel child experience shaped and continues to shape who I am today.

So I am writing this blog to document my experiences and call upon all “barrel children” to add their voices to this written tapestry. I will start the blog from my earliest memories. Many of the descriptions are culled from many hours of talking to relatives. My hope is that parents and children will read these pages and get some understanding of the barrel child experience that shapes the psyche of many Caribbean families.


  1. Although I've never been a "Barrel Child", I can only imagine the pain the "children" in these countries including the U.S. has endured with being separated from their parents for a lengthy amount of time. Not to mention those who where not as fourtunate to be reunited with their family. My father whom was raised in the South by his grandmother along with his older brother, suffered the life long affects of abandonment by their parents at an early age. My grandparents left their two sons behind to find better jobs in the North in the late 40's early 50's. Although my father is in his middle 60's he still feels resintment towards both parents because they never returned for him and his older brother. My father and uncle grew up very poor, although owning their own land , cattle, garden, and other live stock. They often went without heat in the winter, shoes, clothing, running water, and a toliet. My great grandmother had reared 12 grown children which one was the mother of the two boys left behind. My often refers to his grandmother as his mother. She was a hard worker and believed that they too should learn the "fruits of labor" to survive. Anthony they too had to sell vegetables, and fruit from their richly harvested garden to make money sold on a mule and a wagon. My father, and uncle both grew up to be successful businessmen, which in later years having to help their parents who left them behind so many years ago. Even now today my dad has seperation issues in fear of someone that he cares will never return. Parents are an important figure in a growing child's life! personally I feel that even if your financial situation is not the best you should sacrafice yourself to your children, to ensure that they have that nourishment of love for them.

  2. Interesting site. I found it when researching barrels for an art installation in August in NY.

    I was a barrel child from Guyana. I was born in NY but my Guyanese mother sent me to be taken care of by my grandmother while she got herself situated with my father, I suppose, who was from Trinidad. My sister was also a barrel child; she is 5 years older than I... I remember my grandmother receiving the barrels around christmastime. I spent 9 Christmases in Guyana and when I returned to NY my parents were divorced and I had two sets of step-parents. I think the experience of living away from my parents stunted me emotionally. I am barely close to my mother and sister, and my father, while he was alive, was more of a weekend dad... I am not really blaming but one has to wonder about the physical and emotional distance in my family...

    The theme of the exhibition is Immigration and for a over a year I wanted to incorporate the experience of receiving a barrel into my art. Now I have an opportunity to take my ideas further thanks to your blog.

  3. One year since the last comment and i only just stumbled upon this blog. As someone who grew up with best friends who were 'barrel children' I've witnessed firsthand the damage that this practice can cause. I've had friends who loved the novelty of getting all the latest things in the barrel and friends who hated their parents for leaving them and refused to even speak to them when they called. Even after their parents eventually 'send for them' in comparison to myself and others who remained at home they never really got anywhere in life as I guess their parents never ended the honeymoon period and they grew up without rules or boundaries to their detriment. I have always been against this practice for these reasons but to each his own i guess......Hopefully these situations will become less frequent in the years to come

  4. I came across your blog several years ago when I first became interested in this topic and I wanted to share the trailer for a short film I've just completed.

    The film is called "Auntie" and it looks at the barrel children phenomenon from the perspective of the caregiver, who has to raise and then give up the child. I hope you and your visitors will take a look. Would love to have your feedback.

  5. I am looking for my brother and sister who were left behind in Trinidad John and Dayla Smith mother Mathilda Huggins (lewis) father Zachariah Benjamin Smith