Why We Must Teach Boys About Dating Abuse

I talk about my son a lot in my columns. I'm already bracing myself for the day when he can read them and decides to sue me for libel. That's why I don't talk about his toilet habits or obsessive love of vacuum cleaners. Gabe is a real nut, always trying to squeeze himself into spaces where he won't fit (a dresser drawer, for example) or dive onto the floor from the highest spot he can climb. When he's not hiding the contents of my wallet under the living-room rug, he can often be found pushing the dining-room chairs into his room or shredding toilet paper. I have to admit, if my sanity weren't at risk, I might actually encourage all his shenanigans. It's so spirited and charming and, well, entertaining. Besides, I want him to be fearless and brave. But lately, with the story of pop singer Rihanna and the abuse she received from her now ex-boyfriend Chris Brown once again all over the news, I've begun to think more seriously about how to raise a boy. And combined with the guilt all new moms have, I've become afraid that my "que sera sera" attitude is a tad too close to "boys will be boys." I want him to be fearless and brave enough to stand for the courage of his convictions, not grow up to produce Girls Gone Wild videos. (Click here to follow Raina Kelley. Article continued below )

Surely, there must be a way to educate boys about violence outside of just repeating the mantra "Never, ever, hit a woman." I don't think that's working. According to a 2008 survey sponsored by Liz Claiborne, nearly 20 percent of teenage girls who've been in a relationship say they have also been victims of abuse, whether it is verbal, physical, or sexual. A study done this year found that recession may be partly to blame for the recent rise in relationship violence—67 percent of teens in families with economic problems also report abuse. (Thanks to the Wellesley Centers for Women for giving me a crash course on how serious and pervasive this topic really is.) I think it's time to go a little deeper than "only cowards beat up women." True, there are already some programs out there that teach boys how to respect girls. Men Stopping Violence has been working on abuse prevention for more than 20 years and the Family Violence Prevention Fund has launched the Coaching Boys Into Men initiative. But there is no wealth of resources on the topic and it certainly doesn't get much media coverage. That's a wasted opportunity. Hours and hours of TV time have been spent discussing how Rihanna got into that situation, but there has not been a whole lot of reflection on how Chris Brown ended up with his fists as his only means of communication, beyond mentioning that he witnessed abuse as a child. There is evidence that growing up in an abusive home can teach children that violence is the only way to express anger. But there are many men out there who grew up in violent homes and didn't become abusers, and there are some men who get the idea to beat up their girlfriends all on their own.

We need to know more. How else will we figure out how to stop this kind of violence? I'm not suggesting we find mitigating circumstances for domestic violence. But I think we should trace this kind of violence to all its sources, whether they be violence in the home or sexism or a malformed view of masculinity. I've written about how to keep girls from growing up to be victims—boosting their self-esteem, confidence, education, opportunity, and, perhaps most importantly, the strength and knowledge necessary to resist stereotyping that places limits on what they can be based on their gender. But that's only half the equation—there wouldn't be many victims if there weren't any victimizers.

I've been thinking about what I'd like my son to know about girls, love, and respect. I don't think it's going to be easy. The trick, according to all these organizations, seems to be talk, talk, and more talk. Myself and every woman I know received hours of instructions on how to be a good girl. "Be a lady." "You are judged by the company you keep." "Don't you dare leave the house looking like that." "A boy will say and do anything to have sex with you." Rather than counting on all the girls to be ladies—especially since the obedience and meekness required of ladies may actually get you into an abusive situation—why not try to focus more on teaching boys to be gentlemen? We need to speak more frankly to kids of both genders about physical, sexual, and verbal violence. That same Liz Claiborne study found that while moms and dads thought they'd talked to their kids about abuse, 66 percent of the daughters surveyed say they hadn't talked to their parents about it in more than a year. Four out of five of those same parents were sure they would see the signs of abuse, but a majority couldn't name those signs. I plan on risking my future teenager's wrath by never shutting up about treating women with respect. And I will sit next to him on the couch for the next 55 years telling him life is nothing like television, not even reality TV. He needs to know that many of the characterizations of women presented in prime time are not accurate. Contrary to the opinions of crime-show writers (the Parents Television Council has reported a 400 percent increase in depiction of violence against underage girls from 2004 to 2009), there are other uses for female characters than as victims.

In her recent interview with ABC, Rihanna told Diane Sawyer that fan mail helped give her strength to leave Chris Brown. "When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result in some young girl getting killed, I could not be easy with that part," she said. The sad truth is that Rihanna is lucky that she has thousands of supportive strangers to tell her what she needed to know. We need to make sure we give our own kids the right advice from the start.