What if this was your son?

“When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?” — Eleanor Roosevelt

A national resource defines bullying as, “aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power or strength. Often, it is repeated over time and can take many forms.” Experts say kids bully because they want to establish a social order, obtain dominance and power, or have control over group membership.

Whoa. That is eerily similar to our movement’s understanding of domestic violence. I guess it’s no surprise that different kinds of violence have similar motives. As I scan through some of the current research on bullying, I see that some of the most common intervention programs, like zero tolerance policies and peer to peer mediation, are now being discredited. It turns out that just as with domestic violence, there are no simple answers on how to get a bully—or a batterer—to knock it off.

And how can there be a simple answer?

Take the recent news story about a father who is facing felony child abuse charges after he was caught on video cheering his teenage son during a fight with a schoolmate who had been bullying him. The father and mother said things got worse after they sought help from the school, and their son eventually came to believe that fighting back was his best option. While the father regrets encouraging his son to “smash [the other boy’s] head into the ground,” he is relieved that after the fight, the bully agreed “to be done.”

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So, wow. This family believes that vigilante violence was the best solution for their son.  And while we know that boys especially are socialized to both be dominant and fight back against domination, I’m not convinced that street-fighting is the big solution we’ve all been looking for.

There must be more options for dealing with bullying besides “make the school deal with it” or “duke it out.”

So how did this get worked out in the social circles you were part of as a young person? Was there a way to stop bullying, dominating behavior without resorting to violence?

Battle vs. Love

Want to see, at a glance, a summary of the messages boys and girls get every day about our expectations for them? Crystal Smith at The Achilles Effect analyzed the words used in television ads marketing toys to boys vs. the words used to market toys to girls. It won’t take more than one look to figure out which is which.

Battle vs. love. Competition and violence for boys vs. cooperation for girls. Competence for boys vs. style for girls.

Marketers are not just selling toys; they are selling a world where boys are strong and forceful, and girlhood is much more about how you look than what you do. Whether toy manufacturers create these gendered expectations or simply reflect the values of the broader culture, the messages are powerful. The average kid watches hundreds of television ads every week, from toddlerhood through teen years.

So, how many dating violence prevention campaigns do you think we have to run to balance this out? How many posters in high schools about equality in relationships will it take? Is there any way we can prevent domestic violence when this is the landscape we’re working with?

New Year’s Resolution

Lately, I’ve been ruminating about sound bite messages – those short, memorable, repeatable phrases that say a lot in a few words.

Sound bites remind us how to be safer on the roads, like Click It or Ticket. And thanks to Michael Pollan’s brilliant brevity, we know to eat food, mostly plants, not too much.

We live in a sound bite world, which is rather unfortunate for those of us working to end super- complicated problems like abuse and rape. We haven’t yet developed clear-cut, resonant phrases to describe how to have loving, safe, and fair relationships.

I loathe seeing complicated issues reduced to sound bites, but why shouldn’t we use strategies that have been proven to work? I recognize that brevity reigns supreme, so it’s my New Year’s Resolution to hop on the sound bite bandwagon.

But where to start?

Google “healthy relationship” and you get pages and pages of text. I’m looking for a handful of short phrases: a to-do list for our daily lives that will move us in the direction of cooperation, liberation, true love.

I’m only on day 4 of my resolution, so I haven’t any brilliant Pollan-esque slogans to offer. I know it’s a tall order, but anyone have an idea?

BLT, anyone?

Jack Kornfield tells the story of a school teacher. After returning home each day she’d do a little survey of her energy and the ingredients in her cupboards and if she had both in good supply, she’d make a stack of sandwiches. She’d package them up and walk to a street nearby where homeless people lived, offering food to anyone who looked hungry.

A local reporter got wind of this and wrote a feature. Becoming somewhat of a local hero, the woman started getting checks in the mail from folks who cared about the homeless too. Imagine the senders’ surprise to receive their money back – with a note stating simply “Make your own damned sandwiches.”

Now in retelling Jack’s story, I do NOT mean you should stop writing checks. No no no. When folks ask you for money it’s because they need it, so give them lots. In fact, WSCADV needs money and you can give right now!

AND consider taking up the challenge to “make your own sandwiches” too. The world is desperate for direct connection through any and all expressions of love and kindness. Socially, politically, environmentally, we have a lot of bread to butter – so let’s get busy.

This does not need to be a big undertaking. Start small (say … P, B and J):

Work up from there.

Princess boy

A new children’s book, My Princess Boy, tells the story of 5-year-old Dyson Kilodavis – a Seattle boy who loves dressing up in pretty, sparkly dresses – and his family’s support for him to be himself. A video of the Kilodavis family’s appearance on a local talk show has been viewed over 100,000 times. What Dyson’s family is doing is so simple, yet it has clearly touched a nerve.

Kids do all kinds of funny things, but when boys cross gender lines, adults get anxious. Why? Sometimes it comes from a homophobic fear that a boy who wears princess dresses will grow up to be gay. Sometimes they’re just worried that he’ll be rejected by peers and targeted by bullies.

I think we should worry more that when we pressure boys to reject “girl things” it sets them up to feel ashamed of important parts of themselves – the sweet, the expressive, the magical. Michael Kaufman argues compellingly that societal pressure on men to conform to “expectations of masculinity” contributes to men’s violence against women and homophobic violence.

I have four young sons who like baseball and racecars and mud. They also like tight sparkly jeans, pink cowboy boots, and tutus. They like the things that make them happy not because they are “boy things” or “girl things” but because they are fancy, or fun, or (in the case of the glitter jeans) “sooo rock and roll”. I want them to know that the sparkly things in life are not off limits to them now or ever. Boys need adults’ permission to like what they like, and they need to see grown men who embrace beauty and sweetness.

Even though he liked the pull ups labeled “GIRLS”, my 3 year old was suspicious: “Are these for girls?” he wanted to know. I told him, “Well…they’re for anybody who likes butterflies. And rainbows. And pink.” Relieved, he shouted “Oh good! I like butterflies!”

Me too.

The tough questions

After reading last week’s post, I took the call to action and talked to my 13-year old twins about bullying. Because of my work, we’ve had lots of chats about violence in families. But we hadn’t yet talked about how kids treat each other at school.

I asked if they say anything when kids call someone “gay” or “faggot.” Turns out they might – if it’s directed at one of their friends. But more often they don’t, because they’re scared and don’t know what to say. Their school has an anti-bullying curriculum, but it hasn’t given any concrete answers to their questions: “What can I do?” “What if they start saying those mean things to me?”

They deserve answers. I can’t be the only adult in their life having this conversation with them. I want their school more involved. I want their teachers to have strategies for integrating bullying prevention into daily school life and I want them to answer those tough questions. I want my kids to learn, as the poet Audre Lorde said “Your silence will not protect you.”

After I talked to my kids I felt discouraged. But then I found that a local organization has become a national expert on this. Did you know The Safe Schools Coalition will intervene on behalf of individual students? And they have great practical advice for kids and teachers. I encourage you to print one of these out and give it to a kid or teacher you know. I did.

It gets better?

The recent rash of LBTG youth suicides make it clear that we have to change how we treat one another. Like domestic and sexual violence, this kind of bullying sends the  message that control, manipulation, and violence are tools that get you what you want.  And we have to stop it.

The “It Gets Better” Project lets LBTG adults who have survived bullying tell young people that things will get better. But is this enough? Or do we need to change the conditions that allow this to happen in the first place?

I’ve been thinking about the bystanders who witness bullying and choose to ignore it (maybe you’re glad it’s not you today) or participate (maybe you laugh or repost that degrading message). And what about the adults who think that this is just part of youth culture? What are they really saying by not speaking up?

I know there are complicated reasons for why bystanders do what they do, whether it’s fear for their own safety or not knowing how to respond. But the kind of violence that LBTG and other youth often endure should not be a rite of passage.

So, it may get better. And yes, we get stronger. But the question really is: How can we start making it better today? Let’s speak up against bullying – and support those who already do – so that we can create communities where any kind of violence is unacceptable.

1-2 sucker punch

Another domestic violence awareness month is upon us. Oh yeah, and another breast cancer awareness month.

I cannot name two issues that strike more directly at the heart of every woman … and anyone who’s ever loved a woman.

But I mean, really? Who wants to be more aware of disease and violence? Personally, I am all too aware of these dismal, depressing things.

Cancer and domestic violence have flattened me with a 1-2 sucker punch. Unless you are a really good friend of mine, I don’t think you want to hear about the ravages of being bald, ashen, and exhausted from chemotherapy. And honest, you don’t want to know the horrific details about the domestic violence murder suicide in my family.

Trust me. You do not.

And I don’t blame you.

But how about the flip side? What if we focused on what could be and how to make that happen?

What if I came to you and said: “October is Women’s Health and Liberation Month?” How about we spend at least 31 days each year being aware of the possibilities?

The prospect of equality.

The dream of universal healthcare.

The vision of prevention (not early detection or intervention) for both cancer and domestic violence?

How about that?