This was originally printed in the Cedar Rapids Gazette as part of my Pants-Free Parenting Column. I wasn’t going to put it on here, it seemed to be too local. But then, I read this article about the part women play in domestic violence and I thought, HELL NO. That is garbage. So, I’m putting it up here. I am also including some great commentary from another mother, writer and abuse survivor.
Abusers are 100% responsible for the abuse they cause. Full stop. It has no relation to the passivity of their victims. @salleemclaren
— Ijeoma Oluo (@IjeomaOluo) May 12, 2015
We were face-timing with a family member when my son pulled my daughter’s hair.
I could see him in the screen. Both children were in my lap and he was staring right at her hair, his little hand slowly reaching out as if compelled by a force far beyond his control. That force no doubt was a mixture of curiosity and the call of nature that compels all little brothers to torment their sisters.
I pulled him away, but it was too late. My daughter was screaming.
“Don’t pull hair, buddy,” I said gently. He did it again. This time, he was fast. My daughter screamed louder. “Brother, you are wrecking me!”
“Well,” my family member said over the iPad, “maybe you should move so he won’t pull your hair.”
I picked up my toddler son and put him on the ground, then turned to face the screen. “No, don’t blame the victim.”
“She should move, though.”
Suddenly, this wasn’t about brothers and sisters, fighting over lap real estate, curiosity or learning. This was about not blaming my daughter for her brother’s violence. And I knew my daughter was watching, so I stood my ground.
“No, she has a right not to be attacked,” I said. My family member sighed and changed the topic. I comforted both children, but I was angry.
A few days later, I related a story to a friend about my son hitting his sister with a pool noodle and my daughter just lying on the floor sobbing. “That’s just boys,” my friend said. She likes to tell me what boys are and what they aren’t, because she has two sons herself. She thinks I need to know. “But your daughter, she should have moved,” my friend added.
“No,” I said for the second time that week, “she has a right not to be attacked.”
The language we use when we talk about children reveals more about our society than we’d like to admit. I see parents laugh off their sons’ violence as “just boys” and harshly punish their daughters when they do the same. A parent who witnessed my daughter sitting still while her brother pummeled her with a pillow joked to me that my 4-year-old daughter has “battered wife syndrome.”
“Have you ever told her to just hit back?” he asked.
“How does that help?” I asked. “How does making his violence her responsibility help?”
These comments anger me because they hit close. Someone near to me has been in an abusive relationship for a long time. The responses she receives to her partner’s violence — emotional, verbal and physical — is to ask her why she doesn’t leave.
Currently in the county where I live, Linn County, there have been four domestic homicides. Each has involved men attacking and killing women. Husbands, boyfriends and exes, each man violently turning on a woman. Each time we ask, why didn’t she leave? Why didn’t she get away?
The real question should be, why wasn’t he stopped?
This is ostensibly a parenting blog, to be sure. But parenting issues are human issues. The ways in which we allow violence in our communities begins when children are small. We permit boys to be boys. Yet, we teach girls to restrain themselves. We allow men to be aggressive, while simultaneously blaming women for not leaving, moving and running away. We teach women from an early age that a man’s actions are her responsibility.
Think I’m wrong? Go talk to women in abusive situations. I have. They each take on the blame for their partner’s violence. “I made him mad,” they’ll say. “I shouldn’t have done that,” they’ll say. Domestic violence programs, rape programs, they all focus on women — on women staying safe, protecting themselves. But where in all of that do we teach men not to be violent? Not to hit? Not to use their fists when they lash out?
We don’t. In fact, it’s common to hear parents privilege the violence of men. “I like how boys just fight it out,” one mother told me. “It’s better than the way girls fight.”
I don’t believe my toddler son is a violent offender. He is just a baby, learning limits and boundaries. But I do know that how I treat his violence now will set a tone for the rest of his life. And I know my daughter is watching. I am not trying to deny the differences in my children. Children are different. But the standards of behavior are the same.
Surely, there is room for lessons on self-defense. Those will come later, when we face violence that is out of our control. But right now, I choose to teach my children that everyone has a right not to be attacked and no one should live life on the defensive.