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

Ray Rice and The Abuse of Women (3)

Baltimore Ravens football star, Ray Rice, was recently suspended by the NFL for two games after a video showed him dragging his unconscious girl friend (now his wife) out of an Atlantic City hotel elevator.

Last Monday (Sept. 8, 2014) the Ravens fired Ray Rice and the NFL placed him on indefinite suspension after a new video showed Rice punching and knocking out his girlfriend moments before he dragged her unconscious body out of the elevator.

I wondered how, in the first video, did the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens think she became unconscious and unresponsive?

This is the third of several pieces I wrote over the past decade about abuse.


I would like abusers to imagine the pain and anguish they inflict and feel even one-tenth of that for themselves.

Abuse Victim

 Melanie, my wife, and I recently completed 48 hours of training at the local rape and abuse crisis center. We will volunteer our time and speak to groups about emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

The schedule was grueling: two evenings a week for a month and two Saturdays. Approximately 20 people made the big commitment and will volunteer as advocates who take crisis calls during off hours, court watchers who keep track of cases in the legal system, and public speakers.

The training sessions were emotionally difficult for me. Speakers taught us about incest; stalking; cyber-sex; date rape; pedophilia; emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; and the many difficulties victims face with themselves, within families, in the legal system, and in our society, which often prefers to deny such horrible things. As I listened to the monstrous things men do to women and children, I felt ashamed to be a man.

A woman described how her father sexually abused her from age 9-15. Then her 12-year-old daughter spoke about how a foster child had sexually assaulted her when she was three years old. I admired their courage and appreciated the gift of their experiences.

I felt sadness and sorrow for the women and children abused by men. I felt outraged at the men who do such things. What went wrong with so many men? My father treated my mother with great respect. I feel contempt for men who abuse women in any way.

I felt disgust as I watched a video simulation of a father who manipulated his young daughter to have sex with him and called it love. What went wrong inside of a father to be able to violate his child’s trust in such a depraved way?

I watched another video of a simulated rape. I felt revulsion as I watched the bestial man degrade and violate a young woman who will live the horror of him for a lifetime. I thought of the almost daily news stories of rape and murder of young women by soul-dead men.

I loathed the young minister as he described proudly how he manipulated and abused children and talked his way out of trouble over and over again. He not only robbed the young children of their innocence, he made them out to be liars and robbed them of their voices. I find it difficult to think of such men as anything but evil as they do such anti-human things to others.

I asked a counselor what one thing she would change in the make-up of the abusers of all types if she could. She answered, “Empathy.” None of the abusers can feel for themselves what they do to others.

Many abusive men have good jobs—even leadership positions. They look normal. Many work hard to create a public image of success, citizenship, and community involvement. They put forth a false image. They don’t live their crafted image of goodness. Abusive men use their creativity for negative purposes, to control and inflict pain–they hurt others. Abusers want power and control over others. Abusers of every stripe exude entitlement and selfishness. They see others as possessions they own.

Men own the issue of abuse of women and children: men do the vast majority of abusive actions, men model for boys at home, at school, at work, and on the athletic fields. Other men watch silently.

Many police officers look the other way; many lawyers enable abusive men or abuse others themselves. Many judges remain ignorant of the dynamics of abuse and, as a result, make unjust decisions.

I see two challenges:

  • Hold abusers accountable.

I call on policemen, lawyers, and judges to learn about abuse and the dynamics of abusive men. The ignorant bear some measure of responsibility for what happen to women and children. Some of you think you don’t need to learn. Trust me, you do need to learn. I was a Secret Service Agent, a senior business executive, and an organizational consultant. I needed to learn. So do you.

Judges and lawyers who work in family law should be required to be educated about abuse and the dynamics of abusers. Without that education, they can be manipulated easily and unwittingly collude with the abuser. The local rape and abuse crisis center will be happy to help them. Lundy Bancroft’s books: “Why Does He Do That” and “The Batterer as Parent” should be required reading for every attorney and judge who work in family law.

Judges, lawyers, and policemen need to model respectful behavior and root the legal system of abusers. Often, as in all systems, the unethical and abusive people in the justice system go unchallenged. Members of the legal system who do not bear witness bear responsibility.

Robert Greenleaf, author of the seminal work on leadership, “Servant Leadership,” wrote that the insane, the irresponsible, the immature (and, I might add, the abusers), have been with us forever. The problem is the good people who go to sleep and do not stand up and bear witness for human suffering of every kind. When we refuse to look abuse in the face, we make a big mistake—we cooperate with abuse when we do not confront it.

We need to stand up courageously, whatever our walk of life, and hold abusers accountable: in the home, at the school, on the athletic field, throughout the workplace, and in the courts.

  • Raise boys differently.

We created the men of today. We need a new model for men. Head coach Biff Poggi and assistant Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL football star turned minister and volunteer coach, taught the players on the Gilman high school (Maryland) football team a new model of masculinity. They call their program of football and developing young men “Building Men for Others.” (See Ehrmann’s book, “Season of Life.”)

 Joe Ehrmann:

 I have spent almost the last twenty years as a minister. Most of my work is in the inner city of Baltimore, dealing with issues of poverty and systemic racism and family disintegration. I would say that in order to make America a more just and fair society, I would boil it down to the single greatest crisis. And that primary, critical issue is a concept of what it means to be a man. If we don’t fix our understanding, and get some proper definition of masculinity and manhood, I don’t think we can address other issues.

 Joe Ehrmann again:

 Masculinity, first and foremost, ought to be defined in terms of relationships. It ought to be taught in terms of the capacity to love and to be loved. If you look over your life at the end of it…life wouldn’t be measured in terms of success based on what you’ve acquired or achieved or what you own. The only think that’s really going to matter is the relationships that you had. It’s gonna come down to this: What kind of father were you? What kind of husband were you? What kind of coach or teammate were you? What kind of son were you? What kind of brother were you? What kind of friend were you? Success comes in terms of relationships.

 And I think of the second criterion—the only other criterion for masculinity—is that all of us ought to have some kind of cause, some kind of purpose in our lives that’s bigger than our own individual hopes, dreams, wants, and desires. At the end of our life, we ought to be able to look back over it from our deathbed and know that somehow the world was a better place because we lived, we loved, we were other-centered, other-focused.

How did the Gilman High School football team perform under their guidance? They had back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1998 and 1999 that put them at the top of state rankings. Poggi and Ehrmann measured success in two ways: by wins and losses and by the amount of ministry they’ve done with their kids to prepare them for lives of meaning and value to others.

Women also need to help raise little boys differently: teach them to define success by their relationships, commitment to something greater than themselves, and by their courage to stand up to injustice in all its forms. Women can also teach young girls to speak up about men’s violence. Then abusers will have no where to hide.

What affects one single woman out there…affects families, affects neighborhoods, affects the city, affects all of us. John Harrington, St. Paul, Minnesota Police Chief

What will you do to make a difference in the lives of women and children around you?