Father’s Day (day belonging to father) can be viewed from multiple perspectives depending on your experience with the man who was your father. It can be a holiday filled with happiness and precious memories, or it can be a reminder of violence, emotional hurts, and the missed opportunity for a loving connection with the man pop-culture commonly refers to as “our dear old dad”. In the field of Domestic Violence Response and Prevention, victims and family members will often say of a perpetrator, “But he is such a good dad.” This will be said within the very same sentence that described his horrific acts of violence perpetrated on his family.
Do we expect so little of men in America that changing a diaper, or taking a child to McDonald’s can outweigh the consequences of very bad behavior?
The answer to that question is written under the police blotter section of our newspapers each day. The answer is “Yes”: We expect far too little from men in America. As a culture, our expectations are still shaped by gender. We raise our sons and daughters to believe the following gender based accountability dodging statement, of “Oh well, boys will be boys.”
As a man who grew up in central Maine, I can tell you first hand, boys will be whatever we expect them to be. The statement, “Boys will be boys” amounts to a moral anesthesia, intended so we can avoid looking too closely at the bigger picture of boys’ behavior in America. So, who then is teaching boys what it means to be a man in America?
The answer is found all around us, within our peer groups. One of the most influential places boys learn to be men is in school, and their “teachers” are those peers who have learned at a young age to “fit in”, they make up the popular crowd. In my school, they were the models of mainstream cultural values. What this “in crowd” role-modeled and taught were the tenets of everyone’s social acceptance, as revered as the words of God in the Bible, Torah or Quran. I learned more about “the man I was supposed to be” from those peers growing up than from any textbook. You were a man if you could take a punch without flinching or crying; you were a man if you could give a punch and make someone flinch or cry. You were a man if you could verbally demean and emotionally castrate other males. You were a man if you could have sex with the attractive girls in school without falling in love with them. You were a man if you boasted to other guys about your sexual exploits with no regard for the girl’s value or reputation. You were a man if you excelled in sports, and finally, you were a man if you could consume large amounts of alcohol without puking. As I look back now, I am thankful for a few good male role models along the way who demonstrated a masculinity of respect.
I am now the Director of a Certified Batterer’s Intervention Program in central Maine, and I can attest that these cultural definitions of masculinity have not changed in the 24 years since my high school days. In my job, I hear men’s own stories of their violence week after week, and I can tell you that the level of physical violence and disregard of basic human rights of women is on the rise here in Maine.
The violence is always preceded by power and control strategies. Men who use violence on partners and family begin by first “objectifying” their victims and dehumanizing them. To understand the idea of objectification, think about the simple game of dodgeball which is learned at a young age in school. When you are in the position of throwing down on the opposing team, you zero in on one person at a time; they become the object you intend to hit with your ball. You are throwing the ball as hard as possible, focused not on who they are, or even what their individual values and strengths are, rather they have become just a target to you in this game. Objectification in an intimate relationship is very similar because it strips away personhood, and alienates a victim, and is motivated by a “better than”, or “entitled” mentality which is sometimes called male privilege.
Being “a man” means growing up knowing how to escape being held accountable for inappropriate actions. Boys learn that if you do not want to be held accountable by another person for your actions, you quickly demean them, call them crazy, a pussy, a girl, a baby, psycho, nuts. This elevates you and allows you to shield yourself from the reality of your actions. I challenge you to go into public schools on any day and you will hear this string of put-downs between boys on a daily basis, from grade school all the way through high school.
Ask yourself this question: “What is my definition of being a man”? Does it include rejecting the expression of emotions that are commonly labeled “feminine”, with clear statements to boys like “Stop being a girl and quit your crying”. If being a man means cannibalizing the emotional self, then what is the end result for America’s children? Clarence Kelland, a world famous American author between the 1920’s and 1950’s wrote this; “My father didn't tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.” As fathers in America, what are we teaching our sons and daughters who are always watching what we say and do? Are we showing our sons and daughters how to be emotionally connected, healthy and loving? Are we showing our sons and daughters how to recognize emotionally connected, healthy and loving future partners? As fathers, we must not shirk our important nurturing responsibilities, for if we do, we are pledging our daughters to those who will objectify and abuse them, and we are sending our sons in pursuit of an emotionally disconnected form of masculinity.
Father’s Day 2012 can be a turning point, when you have an opportunity to look squarely in the mirror at how you have defined masculinity for your children. Be mindful of the undeniable influence you have on them for good or bad. Be motivated to build up the places you may be lacking, to be equally involved in your child’s parenting, and to become fluent in the expression of your emotions. Be motivated to become more respectful of others, to eradicate the objectification of women from your speech and action. Become encouraging and supportive of your co-parent, and increase your child’s self esteem by listening to their stories. Only then will your children have a chance at a life that is free from abuse, only then will you deserve the honor of being called a “good dad”.