I sat across from my four sons at lunch on Sunday afternoon and I thought about what kind of men they will grow to be. I watched as they laughed and made fart jokes, and realized that they really are mini versions of their father. Admittedly, there is a bit of me in there too.
It is inevitable that brothers are going to argue. In the past, when I would hear the argument escalating I would intervene and tell them to go hit a pillow, or their bed, just not each other. I have been bombarded with the media's attention to abuse recently, particularly at the hands of men. I realized that I just couldn’t risk a single move in the wrong direction. If I tell them to use their fists as an outlet for anger now, how can I be confident that there will always be a pillow handy? If not, will they hit a wall, possibly followed by a person, friend or spouse? Even after they punched the stuffing out of their pillows, it didn't appear to help the matter. In fact, they seemed more agitated than when they started.
I have never been in an abusive relationship. I never witnessed abuse first hand. But I have loved ones who have. When someone chooses to hit a child, the child never forgets. That pain will last throughout their entire life, and it will spill over into their own family's lives, which will spill over into the next generation. Just by the single act of someone making a very poor choice because they were trying to impose authority and prove their dominance.
My husband and I made the choice not to spank our children. This wasn't a decision we made right away. Both of us grew up being spanked. It was all our parents knew, it was all we knew too. I spanked my son once and he might not remember it, but I do. It was a parenting low. I felt like it was an out of body experience and I was watching myself. I looked like a monster. How can an adult justify striking a helpless child? You can't. The cycle has to end somewhere and it ended there for me.
When I was in high school a friend of mine was in an abusive relationship. Mostly verbal, and she denied any physical abuse. When he learned that she was pregnant things got worse. But after a fight he would entice her back with promises and sweet words. When she went missing I knew that she hadn't run away. She called me too often to just stop one day. I graduated high school and moved on, wondering, but knowing deep down what had happened to her. Three years later I was a freshman in college and my mom called to tell me that she had finally been found. She was in a shallow grave. Her boyfriend was found guilty in her brutal murder. It still haunts me to think about it.
His rage changed the course of so many lives, and ended two of them.
I made a promise to myself that when I had my first son, I would make every effort I could to teach him that it is never permissible to hit a woman. Or use your size or words to intimidate her. As much as I try however, I am not the person of influence in this matter. His dad is. Boys learn how to treat women by watching their fathers. And if they don't have fathers, they watch how their mother allows herself to be treated.
The most important thing I can teach them is respect, not only for women, but all living creatures, old, young, bad, good. I have witnessed my son’s get mad and have seen the internal rage boil within them. Anger is uncomfortable.
That is not the time to tell them how to deal with it. The best time is when they are not blinded by it. If they learn one thing from me I hope it is this, when they succumb to fisticuffs are disregarding any credibility they have. They are showing the opposite of strength. Authentic strength isn't how hard you can hit someone; it is how you show restraint. And I know how hard that can be.
At first it will feel unnatural when every fiber of their being will be urging them to get physical, but we can help reprogram that urge to the point will it will seem natural and logical to find a different solution.
Of course I encourage them to defend themselves, but not to use that as an excuse to hit someone. A stronger impact can come from not hitting back. I’m not asking them to suppress their feelings, but rather confront them, sit with them awhile and then release in a healthy outlet. The only way this can become a habit is if it is acknowledged and practiced. In my experience each of my boys initial reaction to anger is physical, it is our job as parents to introduce and encourage a more effective and peaceful way to deal with it. This is just as important of a skill as washing their hands and will stay with them throughout adulthood.
Having negative media attention on famous athletes hurting children and women sends a major collision in the mind of a young boy. How can someone who can be so dedicated and driven, lack the strength of self-control? It could be their childhood repeating itself, but that doesn't make it right. If they would have known better, they may have chosen a different way to deal with their anger.
Our purpose as parents should be to teach them just that. It takes one boy at a time. It is hard to compete with the perception that violence is the only solution to problems, big and small. But everyday I remind my sons that they are already stronger and smarter at their young age, than any man, famous or not who turns to physical violence and hits his children or spouse.
My intention is that the gentleman of tomorrow will have the knowledge and strength to know it is okay to walk away.