Father’s Day is near and dear to my heart.
As a father to two incredible sons, I strive to teach them well. “Those boys have been raised!”, a coworker of mine would say. Not only is the third Sunday of June a chance to reflect on how I plan to tackle the next year educating my own kids, it is also an opportunity to think about how grateful I am for my own step-father. He has been one of my best friends over the past 25 years and although I was never legally adopted, he has stuck by my side through many tough challenges in life after my mother passed at 18 years old. As that day approaches this year, I appreciate how lucky I am to impart those same teachings to my own boys, Noah and Garrett. Many of us know it is hard work raising kids and the values we hope to convey to our children are often innumerable. Yet of all the lessons I hope to teach these beautiful young men, I consider one of the most important ones to be an unwavering respect for all living creatures. Especially women.
I must issue a disclaimer now: I understand that domestic violence affects both men and women, and that teaching young girls and boys about kindness is an equally important task. But for this blog I’m focusing solely on the lessons that I believe fathers must impart to their sons. Raising boys is my most experienced area of expertise and the one that I feel most confident speaking on. Also, this writing will detail an incident of abuse that I’ve witnessed which may be difficult for survivors to read.
Last year, I observed a brazen act of domestic violence while sitting in rush-hour traffic. The excruciating details of what I saw both inside and outside of a moving vehicle are unfortunately known all too well by victims, first responders, counselors, and entirely too many families around the world. I believe those details are better left unpublished for a variety of reasons but this story serves as a starting place for my proposal that in order to end domestic violence, we must focus on how our boys learn to empathize with one another.
As a former military police officer, my initial response to this event was instinctive; call 911 and be a darn good witness. I provided dispatch a location and cross-street, and accurate details of what I was seeing in real time. Within what seemed like an instant for me, but probably an eternity for the victim, five to six police officers arrived on scene. Only moments before the man had stopped striking the woman he was with. I felt relieved that order had come to chaos and something would be done to prosecute the assailant. The victim and her attacker were immediately separated and interviewed. I watched from nearby until the moment I expected handcuffs to appear. But then…nothing. After taking my statement, I was crushed to hear that charges wouldn’t be pressed. The victim, questioned only a few feet away from her partner in a busy gas station parking lot, and without any visible injury, refused to tell the officer that something awful had happened. The feelings I carried after returning to my car were less composed; tears and absolute frustration.
As a long-time resident of South Carolina I’m well aware of the local news; our state isn’t known to be a stalwart fighter in the effort to reduce domestic violence. We own some of the most shameful statistics that could fill up a lot of space here. These are facts that speak to the volume of our violence crisis and help quantify stories like the one I shared above. Facts like how the SC Coalition against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault received over 18,000 emergency hotline calls in 2015. Or how 13 domestic violence shelters in the state provided services to over 2,700 adults and children in the same time period. These are emergency calls and services that should be entirely unnecessary in the modern era. But statistics often numb us to the human element and reality of domestic violence. This is both a hope and a call for a more nuanced discussion about how fathers today must make a more serious effort to change those facts through the honor of fatherhood. It is solemn responsibility of the utmost importance.
As stated before, I absolutely acknowledge that relationship violence affects men as well as women, and that there are advocates the world over who have committed their life’s work to solving those issues. From that perspective, I must say it is a sincerely held belief of mine that in order to end of vicious cycle of domestic abuse, the duty of myself and many other fathers should be to focus on the way we raise our sons to express emotion itself. A recent article in the New York Times said it best. Entitled Talking to Boys the Way We Talk to Girls, the author recalls an experience with his own son.
“At a Father’s Day breakfast, my 5-year-old son and his classmates sang a song about fathers, crooning about “my dad who’s big and strong” and “fixes things with his hammer” and, above all else, “is really cool.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with most of these qualities in and of themselves. But when these lyrics are passed down as the defining soundtrack to masculine identity, we limit children’s understanding not just of what it means to be a father but of what it means to be a man — and a boy, as well.”
As the author notes, there is a void between the way that we teach our boys to be emotionally strong and how to express that emotion, if at all. Although resilience and strength are incredibly important tools for any young man, we must endeavor to teach them more that simply how to adapt in a tough, cruel world. We must, as fathers, move beyond coaching children manners and respect and strive equally to teach them compassion and honest expression. An NPR broadcast from October 2016 called E Is For Empathy: Sesame Workshop Takes A Crack At Kindness, is one of my favorite starting points for this conversation. Summarized, bullies can repeat “Yes ma’am.” and “No sir.” to adults. But do they know how to say “I understand what you must feel like.” to a peer? When they grow up and become boyfriends and husbands, do they know how to control the emotions that can lead to violence? Have you taught your sons to be patient and thoughtful? Personally, I want my boys to know that empathy is more than walking in another person’s shoes. Empathy is walking in their shoes without their own ego attached to the way they understand that person’s experience.
This Father’s Day, I challenge fellow fathers and any father figures to channel a well-known lesson from Gandhi, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” It should already be our wish to see the most impressionable young members of society become empowered with skills that will make their generation a more peaceful one. It should already be our wish that our children never have to know what it looks like behind prison bars for hitting a woman. It should already be our wish to see a change that gives our sons the opportunity to say “I’m honored to fill the shoes I’ve been left.” For that to be accomplished, let’s start with the letter E, and do the work required to influence our sons in a more wholesome way. That lasting inspiration can teach them to preserve and protect a better world that we’ve helped lay the foundation for. Or, it can leave them a society that continues to bear shameful statistics. As for Noah and Garrett, I hope they will know how to express their feelings with non-violence. Which world do you hope for your sons to grow up in?
Guest blog written by James G., Safe Harbor Ambassador