One of my earliest childhood memories is of my mom being scared to death of my dad. The visible signs of the abuse she endured at his hands, from a broken jaw to black eyes, were difficult to miss. The scars they left on me however, a helpless kid at the time, desperately wanting to protect my mom, but powerless to do anything – those weren’t so easy to see. Not even by myself. It took years for me to understand that what my father did to my mom had taken a toll on me, emotionally and psychologically.
Growing up I had never really seen an example of a healthy relationship, though I wanted very deeply to ensure I didn’t follow the example my own dad had set. I think that fear is something many children of abusive fathers carry with them. They don’t want to repeat the past. And they don’t have to. They can break the cycle of violence, as I did.
If you watched football last fall, or the Super Bowl this February, you may have seen public service announcements for a campaign called NO MORE that got the attention of millions of people and helped bring to life the reality of domestic violence that so many families are trapped in today. The campaign is about engaging bystanders to start talking about and prioritizing prevention of these issues. At this point, most of us know that domestic violence and sexual assault are very real problems impacting the people we love.
According to the “The NO MORE Study,” commissioned by the Avon Foundation for Women for NO MORE, 1 in 2 Americans (53%) know a victim of domestic violence and 1 in 3 (33%) know a victim of sexual assault.
You may not know that you have a role to play in ending domestic violence and sexual assault. You are a bystander to these issues. The term bystander means different things to different people, from the little boy who sees his mom weeping on the floor, afraid for her life for what her husband might do to her at any moment, or the guy who has a friend confide in him that he’s not sure his girlfriend was sober enough to say “yes.”
But dads have an especially important role as bystanders because not only do they get an up close look at what’s going on in the lives of their kids, but dads also have a great deal of influence over who their children grow up to be. I sincerely believe that talking about the problem and educating others about healthy relationships can reduce the violence and protect more children.
This Father’s Day, I’m joining men across the country to say NO MORE to domestic violence and sexual assault. And I’m asking fathers everywhere not to skip having tough conversations with their kids about healthy relationships and not to just leave them up to mom.
As a father of six - four girls and two boys - I’ve made a special point in my home to make it a place where no topic is off limits for discussion. I want my children to know that daddy is safe, and you can talk to him about anything. With my daughters who are still young—11 and 8, 5 and 1—that means a lot of conversations about Barbie dolls and Frozen, but it also means that when my wife took my oldest girl to get her first bra, I was there.
My oldest son is 13, and he’s starting to notice women now. My conversations with him include how he should treat the women in his life—with respect, gentleness, and compassion, pointing to the relationship I have with my wife as an example. I also talk to him about what it means to be a real man. For me, being a man means standing up to fight for someone who can’t fight for themselves. You can’t sit by and be silent while millions of women, children and men have their lives torn apart by these crimes.
It will take much more than a PSA to bring about real, lasting change with regard to these issues. Awareness is only the first step. It’s going to take all of us working together, talking to our kids, having the uncomfortable conversations and taking a stand against all the excuses that we make for these crimes as a society.
As a dad, you can make a difference. Parents are not having conversations with their kids about these issues at the level they should. In fact, the vast majority of parents--73%-- have never had a conversation with their children about domestic violence or sexual assault (NO MORE Study, 2013).
Starting these conversations is not easy, and knowing what to say may be even more difficult. That is why there are resources you can use to make the conversation meaningful. These include information from Loveisrespect.org, Futures Without Violence and Break the Cycle. Get resources on talking to sons about healthy masculinity from Men Can Stop Rape and A CALL TO MEN. You can learn more about these organizations and many others at www.nomore.org.
Don’t be a dad who is a bystander in his kids’ lives. This Father’s Day, decide to take an active role in raising young men and women who will stand up for what’s right and never settle for less than the healthy, loving relationships they deserve.
James Thrash is a member of the National Football League Player Engagement Department and a former player for the Washington Redskins. The father of six resides in Northern Virginia with his wife Amber.