Media attention about violent men has shifted from domestic violence – the Ray Rice incident to child abuse – thanks to Adrian Peterson. Both men are NFL stars who have been suspended from football because of their assaultive behaviors. The silver lining in both cases is greater awareness of these issues. However, my concern is that the talking head experts will over generalize the potential for male violence and once more diminish pride in our masculinity. As discussed in a previous post, the testosterone which we are born with does in aggregate make men more aggressive and potentially more physically violent than women. There are a variety of ways to understand, but not condone, domestic violence. The root cause is usually an erosion of a man’s sense of power and control. There could be antecedent circumstances that make a man prone to spousal abuse such as a loss of a job, diminished or aggrandized self worth and/or obsessive jealousy. For these men even a minor argument with a women can lead to a violent attack. Their anger- in the form of abusive behavior – is a misguided short term attempt to restore their sense of power. The irony is that when these men calm down they are often deeply disturbed by what they have done and beg forgiveness from their partners. Unfortunately, unless they find better alternatives to meet their need for power/control they often repeat their abusive behavior. This scenario is even more mystifying for a super star athlete like Ray Rice. One would think that his status and fame would fill him with an enormous sense of power/control. The likely explanation is that his sense of self worth is so over inflated that his perception of being disrespected by his then fiancé triggered the violent response.
Physical abuse of children is a different story. Women abuse children almost as much as men. The difference is that the abuse by men, as in the case of Adrian Peterson, is by and large more violent and devastating. I believe resorting to physical violence against children has the same root cause as domestic violence. A parent finds their sense of power/control diminished by their inability to control a child’s annoying or destructive behavior. Again, the quick fix is anger with its natural consequence of a violent physical or verbal outburst. An additional explanation for men hitting children – especially their sons – is the mythology that only harsh physical discipline will control a boy’s aggressive behavior. These men often say, “My father beat me and I turned out all right.” This appears to be Peterson’s explanation for his crimes. Frankly they might not be as all right as they think and many other men who were beaten are far from all right and often are abusers themselves. As a professional parenting coach I can unequivocally say the corporeal punishment is never OK and there is an enormous amount of research data to support this conclusion. I understand that even the most grounded parent out of frustration may occasionally resort to a quick spank. Not a great disciplinary tool but probably does little harm. However, when spanking or paddling is the primary disciplinary tool we are on the slippery slope to child abuse and causing psychological and physical trauma to a child.
Getting back to male aggression and the potential for it to be expressed in violence, we need to be reminded that aggressiveness can be expressed in positive ways that are still manly but not violent – unless that violence is in a response to a direct threat to our families. Being assertive through competence, leadership, self-awareness and leading a principled life are ways men can channel their aggression for the benefit of their families and society in general.