How do parents raise emotionally healthy, nonviolent sons? The question has special pertinence during April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Connect to End Violence, a branch of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services created to support victims of domestic and sexual violence and create community awareness, sponsored Raising Boys, a panel discussion where fathers shared their perspectives on masculinity and raising nonviolent offspring. The April 13 event gave participants an opportunity to explore the role fathers have in shaping their sons’ values and steering them away from destructive and violent behaviors.
According to current statistics, domestic and sexual violence are deeply rooted pathologies in America. The American Bar Association reports approximately 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner every year. One in four women will be raped or assaulted by a spouse, partner or intimate friend during their life. When children are proximous to the violence, the impact is compounded.
Moderator Aita Romain led the discussion with panelists David Berube and Daniel Flynn. Mr. Berube is both an Oak Bluffs police officer and an ordained Baptist minister who serves as chaplain for the department. He has a 21-year-old son, Joshua. Mr. Flynn is a retired state police trooper and transportation consultant who currently works as a court officer in Edgartown. His son Patrick, 44, is a sessions clerk at the Edgartown court house, and his younger son Sean, 40, is the airport manager.
During the discussion, both men reflected on their upbringings and the influence it had on their concepts of gender and masculinity. Mr. Berube discussed losing his father to cancer at an early age. When his son Joshua was born, he realized that having grown up without his father meant he was entering unfamiliar territory.
“I was acutely aware I had no idea how I was going to do this father thing.”
He says he looked to other male mentors to fill the void left by his father’s absence.
Mr. Flynn described a “convoluted” upbringing in with two rambunctious older brothers from his mother’s first marriage and a family who expected him to enter the navy like his older siblings. He and his wife, a nurse, worked long shifts to provide opportunities for their sons. He spoke of the importance of mentoring, citing childhood up to age 13 as the period when a parent has the most influence. “From 14 on, they’re on their own in terms of setting their life course,” he said.
The men discussed sexual and domestic violence from a law enforcement perspective, encouraging individuals to break the code of silence that often keeps the issue from being resolved through legal channels. Mr. Flynn cited the dangers officers face in approaching homes where violence is reported.
“The most dangerous situation for a police officer to walk into is a domestic violence situation,” he said, adding that more officers are shot responding to domestic violence calls than bank robberies.
According to Ms. Romain, families today are more open to discussing drug and alcohol abuse than in the past.
“We want to make domestic violence and sexual violence on that level,” she said.
Mr. Flynn noted the state police department is a traditionally macho society where expression of emotion is discouraged.
“There is no room for tears or espousing one’s adoration for one’s spouse,” he said.
He cited the importance of emotional awareness in a man’s life, saying “We all have anger and violence within. It’s how you channel and direct it that makes the difference.”
Both men discussed how they strived to raise sons with core values of respect and integrity, and how they coped with the inevitable speed bumps of parenting that come up along the way.
“It’s always a give-and-take situation,” Mr. Flynn said. “You never try to control them, only guide them.”
While the panelists acknowledged the incidence of sexual and domestic violence in the Island community, they affirmed the positive difference individuals at risk can make in changing both their own lives and the lives of others.
“No matter what happens to us along the way, we can choose to do something different,” Mr. Berube said. “We’re not stuck. We’re not preprogrammed.”