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Changing the way we raise boys

February 28, 2018

Changing the way we raise boys is key to violence prevention

The following is an edited version of a column that was published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 28, 2018

Mass shootings are horrific, and now commonplace. As father to an 11- and an 8-year old, I am but one of a growing number of troubled parents, grieving the tragic loss of life and anxious about public safety.

When the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, about an hour south of our home, left 20 children the age of daughter Zoe dead at their school, I wept for what happened and for what I feared could happen elsewhere, too.

Now, during our annual February visit with family, more than five years since Sandy Hook, I sit a short drive from Parkland, which last year was voted the safest city to live in Florida, and recently the site of yet another tragic school shooting.

I don’t believe there is only one reason these shootings keep happening, nor that there is only one solution that will make it all better. I do believe, though, that individually and collectively we can employ strategies and everyday actions that can make a positive difference. This belief is what gives me hope and guides me forward, both as a father, and in my professional roles.

So while I believe that it’s long over due – and a moral imperative – that we ban citizens from owning and using assault weapons, we also must take a more comprehensive view of violence in our culture, in order to ensure greater peace and safety.

When we look at the wider pattern of violence, we realize that in 2015 alone, 1,670 children died from abuse and neglect in the United States, according to the National Children’s Alliance. That’s more than the number of people killed in mass shootings from 2009 to 2015.

We also notice that nearly 700,000 children are abused and neglected annually, also according to the alliance. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused by the age of 18.

And, we see, that one in four women will be victims of severe violence at the hands of an intimate partner during their lifetime, and that even more will be sexually harassed. Those statistics come from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

What this says to me is that there is an epidemic of violence in the United States.

When we look more closely, we can identify patterns, which can lead to a better understanding of the conditions that lead to violence and ultimately help us prevent its reoccurrence.

As a son, husband and father it is painful for me to see the pattern numbers from The Statistics Portal, Stop It Now and a National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey show — 92 of 94 mass shooters since 1982, male; approximately 97 percent of those who sexually abuse children, male; 90 percent of those who sexually assault women, male; and the majority of those who perpetrate domestic violence, male.

We might question the precise accuracy of these numbers, and certainly data fluctuate over time and vary by source, but the picture seems clear.

It’s not difficult to understand why some rhetorically assert, “What is wrong with men?” But, this question reflects pre-judgement, leading us to a false conclusion that something is inherently wrong them.

I believe we can learn much more by asking, “What happened to the boys and men who perpetrate violence?”

Let’s start young. We socialize them — starting from a young age — to conform to harmful gender norms and stereotypes. We teach boys — as early as 2 or 3 years of age — to regulate emotions and social interactions with statements such as “Don’t be such a baby,” “Don’t act like a girl,” “Don’t be gay,” “Stop crying,” and “Man Up!”

As they age, boys are inundated with subtle and overt messages from adults and peers that reinforce these early teachings — be tough and don’t show vulnerability. And when the manliness of a boy is questioned or challenged, we encourage him to prove his worth through dominance and force, later excusing inappropriate behaviors with “boys will be boys.”

Collectively, we are hurting boys — and the men they become — sentencing them to higher rates of loneliness, anger, academic under-achievement, substance abuse, workplace dysfunction, relationship problems — and violent outbursts. In turn, we are also sentencing children, women, families and communities to higher rates of violence.

Fortunately, we can change the way we raise boys. We can start by abandoning the use of harmful gender norms and stereotypes that artificially restrict what is socially acceptable boy behavior, replacing them instead with a host of everyday actions that promote a healthier version of manhood.

We can encourage the emotional capacities of boys by helping them feel safe expressing vulnerable parts of themselves.

We can support their friendships and nurture their ability to resolve differences without violence, as a means of teaching healthy relationship management.

We can hold them accountable, with both firmness and compassion, when they behave inappropriately.

We can talk with and help prepare them for the moments they will struggle on the inside, and how to seek and accept support from others.

We can encourage and promote their identities, expressions and interests in ways that defy traditional gender expectations.

And to the extent we already engage in these everyday actions, we can seek opportunities to heighten our commitment, for while not all — or even most — boys grow up to be violent, all suffer harmful effects of gender socialization. Together, our actions can help ensure healthier boys today — and safer families and communities tomorrow.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com, and at MERGE for Equality, a nonprofit committed to changing the way we raise boys, where Engel serves as the executive director, mergeforequality.org.

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