Abuse: A Symptom of How We Raise Boys

The Adrian Peterson switching case led to a broad discussion of corporal punishment in America. The Ray Rice case led to greater awareness of domestic abuse. The recent story of hazing and sexual abuse in the locker room of the Sayreville, NJ boy’s high school football team shocked a community and led to the cancellation of the remainder of the season.

A deeper common theme resides below the surface in each of these stories: How we raise boys in America.

Joe Ehrmann, minister and former Baltimore Colts football star wrote, “All these problems I’ve been trying to deal with, they’re not just problems, they’re also symptoms. They’re symptoms of the single biggest failure of our society: We simply don’t do a good enough job of teaching boys how to be men.”

I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, a typical middle class American boy: Sports mostly, school less so, buddies, and later girls. I learned from family,coaches, teachers, neighbors, and older boys the rules of masculinity and how to create the false and unhealthy facade Joe Ehrmann wrote about in his book, Inside Out Coaching: Strength, silence, stoicism, and emotional denial and disconnection—warmth withheld, hearts disconnected from heads, and failure not allowed. Terrence Real wrote in How Can I Get Through to You: “I have come to believe that violence is boyhood socialization. Disconnection is masculinity.” Boys who resist the rules of masculinity get belittled, bullied, and beat up.

I began to drink in college and the disease of alcoholism moved fast for me. My dad got me into a tough alcoholic treatment center and saved my life. The counselors broke down my defenses. Staff and patients gave me painful feedback all day, every day, for a month. I explored my values, thought about my purpose in life, and shared my personal inventory with a priest.

I began to learn to be emotionally self-aware, how to experience and understand my feelings, and how to connect with others. I felt the power of love and a sense of community in treatment that I’d never felt before. I wanted to live and to feel alive and left the treatment center scared and committed to a value-driven life. Treatment rescued me from a false self and the unhealthy rules of manhood, and I began the life-long journey to greater authenticity.

I’ve spent the past 40 years on a quest to learn and evolve not as a man but as a human being. On this journey, I’ve wrestled with the beliefs I was taught—mostly subtle and unconscious–about money, career, success, control, conformity, competition, masculinity, and relationships. I realized that most of what I had learned about masculinity and being a man is wrong. Moral courage, excellence, authenticity, human connection, and personal responsibility became important values I strive to live my life by—always imperfectly.

Ehrmann wrote that life is about relationships and purpose. He encourages boys to ask, “What is the core purpose of my life, why am I here?” and to think about the kind of son, brother, husband, father, friend, and neighbor they want to be.

American is in dire need of mature and healthy men who can put violence aside: Men who know what they feel and are able to express their emotions appropriately. We need men of strength—even ruthlessness in honesty and decision-making at times–who can also be caring and compassionate. We need kind and gentle men with empathy who can lead with tough-love  and hold others accountable. We need men of great moral courage who can tell the truth and stand up to the evil and dysfunction around them.

To raise boys differently, we must become aware of the unwritten rules of masculinity and change them and the ways we engage with young boys. Grown men who find the old rules insufficient for a meaningful life must embark on a journey of personal introspection and transformation. Personal evolution to become a more complete human being is difficult. Those who deny the journey as “touchy–feely” are saying, “This stuff scares me.”  Courage is required.

The goal isn’t to turn men into women but for men to become more alive and whole.


I recommend: Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx and Inside Out Coaching by Joe Ehrmann.   Visit: CoachforAmerica.com

The Story of Abuse Larger Than Adrian Peterson

I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Last week it was Adrian Peterson all day every day on the local talk radio shows and in every newspaper sports column in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The sensationalized celebrity football player who whipped and injured his four-year-old child with a switch didn’t have a chance. On and on they went with pious demonization. Appropriate shock, anger, and thoughtful consideration were overwhelmed by the explosion of shadowy energy that brought him from adulation to contempt in a moment.

Many dynamics played themselves out without reflection in the rush to judge and be done with it all: abuse, parenting, Texas justice, corporal punishment, cultural differences, the tearing down of heroic athletes, and the dissemination of illegally obtained police reports and invasive photos of the child.

Finally they drove him out-of-town.

I didn’t think a criminal indictment was necessary: Peterson cooperated with authorities without an attorney present. He voluntarily testified before a grand jury. Based on what we know right now, I think he needs help to unlearn what he experienced as a child more than he needs constant public humiliation. Appropriate shock and anger were understandable and necessary. But a humbled Peterson also deserved our empathy and compassion–not our self-righteous vilification. He will make a plea deal or go to trial before a jury of his peers in Texas. His punishment will be insignificant. I don’t care about his punishment; I care that he demonstrates that he’s learned better ways to discipline children, and I care about his future behavior.

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about the tragic death of four-year-old Eric Dean professionally chronicled by Star Tribune reporter Brandon Stahl. Eric’s stepmother murdered him. Over many months before his death, people reported 15 instances of child abuse to Pope County, MN child protective services. Only one was investigated and wrongly dismissed. Citizens of Minnesota expressed their outrage but not to the level of the star athlete.

How could that be?

A violent and soul-destroying story underreported as much as the Peterson story was overblown goes on without end every day in the midst of those so upset last week.

Some Minnesota facts:

  • In 2013, men murdered 25 women in Minnesota in domestic abuse situations.
  • Women murdered seven men.
  • People made over 18,000 domestic violence calls to 911 in Minneapolis alone in 2009.
  • Child services in Minnesota does not investigate 71% of reports of child abuse.

Some national statistics:

  • A man batters a woman every nine seconds in the US.
  • An intimate partner has assaulted 25% of US women.
  • Police spend 1/3rd of their time responding to domestic violence disturbance calls.
  • Women of all races are about equally vulnerable to violence by an intimate partner.

Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse permeates our society. I never consulted in an organization where emotional abuse wasn’t prevalent. In addition to domestic abuse, some athletes—professional and amateur–bully those perceived to be “soft,” demonize gays and lesbians, and demand silence and conformity in the locker room. Reporters often observe this behavior and their silence colludes with the abuse. Newspapers report ugly stories of bullying and abuse in our schools. And what’s left to say about the Catholic Church? Abuse surrounds us.

Have we become desensitized to what is around us? Do we only react to what is new and sensational?

We need to wake up and see the reality of abuse as it is—not just the celebrity cases that poke our dark sides and gin up dumbed-down anger that is dangerous and unhealthy. Then we need to take on the challenges and with an anger transformed to a relentless determination eliminate abuse of all kinds in our lives, neighborhoods, workplaces, and national personality.
















The Dark Side of the Public Reaction to Ray Rice & Adrian Peterson

Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.


I too am bothered by the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson stories. My wife and I completed 40 hours of training as volunteer speakers at the Fargo/Moorhead Rape and Abuse Crisis Center. Our eyes were opened to the pervasiveness and destructiveness of abuse in our society. We did many projects for the Center, and I did many hours of consulting at no cost. I wrote several commentaries on emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Rice and Peterson will pay a dear price for their actions.

I am also bothered by what feels like excessive, misplaced, and poorly expressed anger in some newspaper columnists, readers who comment on articles, and radio talk-show hosts and their callers. They come across as politically correct, self-righteous, harshly judgmental, and self-promoting:  “The more I damn Rice and Peterson, the better person I am.” Their rush to judge and to punish without due process, information, understanding of context, or a sense of proportion scares me. I have thought, “This is what a lynch mob is like.” I’ve been guilty of these things too.

Some feel upset that the team management didn’t instantly punish Peterson as they want him to be punished. People should break away from their paternalistic relationship with organizations and quit looking to owners and executives to meet their need to strike out.

These folks and the good people who remain silent might channel some of their anger in more constructive ways: People who condemn Peterson and the Viking’s management should live true to their own values, put their anger to constructive use, and do what they can to model their convictions: don’t go, watch, or listen to Viking games. Don’t buy team merchandise. Columnists might illuminate abuse and educate readers. Talk-show hosts could turn the spotlight on the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that surrounds us just below the surface of our awareness.

All should get angry at the vast abuse that permeates our society, not just the celebrity cases.

And everyone should speak up when they witness abuse in the family, neighborhood, and workplace.