Educating our sons: Stop domestic abuse before it starts

african college boy standing outdoors

There is a movement afoot to stop domestic violence before it starts by raising children – especially boys – grounded in respect for all people.

The #MeToo movement has become a global phenomenon in large part because of the sad fact that the abuse of women, particularly by spouses and significant others, has been so prevalent for so long. Hence, countless abused women are today retelling their personal stories or telling them for the first time after years of silent suffering.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and according to a 2010 Center for Disease Control (CDC) study, more than 1 in 3 women (35.6 percent) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5 percent) in the U.S. have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

The good news is, there are a bevy of services available for those who need emotional, financial, legal and/or medical support due to abuse. To break this cycle of violence, there are a growing number of counseling services and programs to help abusers end their violent ways.

There are also voices being raised that contend the only way to truly end such violence is to teach young boys the attitudes and actions that will lead them to respect women rather than abuse them. According to Dr. Obari Cartman, a trauma-focused clinician and restorative justice coach with the Chicago Public Schools, such lessons demand confronting a culture that promotes abuse.

“It starts with messages like ‘throw like a girl,’ calling a boy a p—y for crying, and hitting a girl on the playground and calling it a ‘love tap,’” Cartman said. “We call handsome boys ‘little pimp’ or ‘player.’ All of those messages become the building blocks for value systems that conceptualize women as weaker, less valuable and able to be objectified.”

When such attitudes are mixed with a larger American value system that equates power with dominance rather than with responsibility, and strength with might rather than with compassion, Cartman said males who feel weak or frustrated fall back on what they’ve been taught.

“In order to feel stronger or more powerful in this moment they use physical strength or manipulation to control or dominate who they perceive to be weaker and less valuable,” said Cartman, who last year held a workshop at SHAPE Community Center titled “Manhood, Mental Health & Culture.” He extended the conversation he began in his book “Lady’s Man: Conversations for Young Black Men About Manhood and Relationships.”

Cartman believes Black boys need to be taught the importance of listening to women’s truths and working to understand and value their perspective.

A LIFELONG PROCESS

“We must resist that dominant narrative that men’s voices and perspectives are more important,” Cartman said. “We must also keep in mind that all women aren’t the same. They don’t all want the same things. But they do all want to be safe and valued and that requires a shifting of fundamental values that we teach young men and women.

“It’s a lifelong process. Men never are finished reconciling the sexism ingrained in us just like white people can never be cured of racist attitudes,” he said.

Olivia Rivers, deputy director of the Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Inc., a Houston-area non-profit dedicated to supporting and empowering victims of abuse, believes such lessons are best taught by example.

“When parents exemplify respect toward one another and respect toward the feelings and emotions of their children, boys and young men can thrive,” Rivers said. “It is important for parents to teach their children basic social interaction skills, like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”

Research shows that the inverse is true, as well. When youth are exposed to negative social interactions, they often mimic them.

According to a UNICEF article “Behind Closed Doors: The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children,”The single best predictor of children becoming either perpetrators or victims of domestic violence later in life is whether or not they grow up in a home where there is domestic violence. Studies from various countries support the findings that rates of abuse are higher among women whose husbands were abused as children or who saw their mothers being abused.”

Rivers said, “We consciously and unconsciously share our attitudes and issues with the tiny humans in our life. Through our gestures, jokes, comments, and interactions. They learn respect not from what we tell them, but what we model for them.”

She added that it’s important to realize that not all abuse is physical.

“When society thinks about abuse, most people think about the physical bruises one endures, but the emotional abuse is longer lasting and has a greater impact on a child who is learning social and communication skills,” Rivers said.

“Although still developing, children are acutely aware of tension in the home and the tones in which adults speak to one another.

“Many men may not consider that how they treat their son’s mother is crafting how that child will treat his future partners or women in general. Our children watch us to learn ‘normal’ behavior and adults provide a template to human interactions; that template can either be one of respect and healthy communication or one of violence and abuse.”

Cartman, a father of two sons, agrees with Rivers’ assertion that modeling is needed, and calls for a values battle on all fronts.

“We have to be extra vigilant about what our children are exposed to – their music, television, books,” Cartman said. “There are dangerous messages transmitted constantly through every medium possible to create unhealthy values and principles.

“We have to teach our children how to be critical thinkers and authentic feelers. We must demonstrate healthy relationships every opportunity possible. We must cultivate parent groups that function like villages with other families with shared interests so that we can shape the social and peer groups of our children.

“And we must be more organized and urgent in our efforts to disrupt the educational,

economic, political and media systems that perpetuate content that is harmful for our children and families,” he said.