My daughter is 14, so thanks to cell phones and friends, she saw the Ray Rice elevator videos before I did. We are big football fans in our house, so the topic is unavoidable. All kids are different, and have a different level of curiosity and tolerance for the subject of domestic violence. Not to mention that all kids have different attention spans for life lesson talks from parents. Having a psychologist for a mom, my daughter can smell words of wisdom coming a mile away and has been known to try to head them off by saying things like “you know mom, everything doesn’t have to be a lesson.” Regardless of their patience for talks, certain topics warrant discussions with kids who become aware of topics in the media. This is one of them.
We saw a recap of the interviews of both Janay and Ray Rice on the Today Show, and here’s what I felt like I needed to impart, which doubles as my advice for you:
Don’t mince words. In the interviews, and in other media circles, I heard a lot about a “mistake,” “one bad night,” and “the altercation.” I was very clear to point out that these terms lessen what we saw – domestic violence. We saw abuse. Point out that no matter what they call it, or how they explain it away, it is abuse.
She said things are fine, that must be true. My daughter was actually the one who made the comment that she didn’t think Janay could possibly feel safe and free to speak her mind. Younger kids may lack that insight, but I loved this comment. Ray was not present during her part of the interview, and yes, she said things got out of hand the night in the elevator (mincing words!) but that nothing like that had happened before and she still thinks he is a good man. But ask your kids to read between the lines. No one knows what really happens behind closed doors, and there’s no need to flat out accuse them of lying. What if abuse has or is still occurring, how likely is she to feel safe enough to say it? He’s not there in the moment, but of course she knows he will see this! As a professional, I’m annoyed that the tone of the interview is “well, we asked her if she’s fine or afraid, and she said no. Ta da!” As parents, it’s important that we let our kids know that in cases of domestic violence, there are lots of reasons that the victim would be reluctant to fully disclose the abuse.
How to answer the notion that people can change. I don’t want to instill the belief that people aren’t allowed to make mistakes and be given second chances, so this is tricky. Again, I point out that this was no mistake, this is abuse. Will Ray Rice become a new man and never repeat this behavior? Can anyone who perpetrated domestic violence change and never abuse again? I don’t know. The percentage of abusers who actually change their ways is pretty low, but we can never say never. I tell my daughter that there is a big difference in seeing someone who is really doing the work to make positive changes and being a partner who clings to the hope of change to avoid making the difficult decision to leave an abusive relationship. I tell her that if she was ever in a relationship where someone abused her, my hope is that she would end that relationship, and not bank on the small chance for change.
Teach the signs and model a healthy relationship. It is really hard to judge other relationships looking from the outside in, so we use cases like Ray Rice to begin discussions. More importantly, teach your children the warning signs of abuse. Abuse victims may be isolated from family and friends, controlled by their partner in what they do or who they are with, repeatedly put down, or given reason to believe they will be hurt. Make sure your children know these signs, and make sure that you model what a healthy relationship looks like so they know the difference.
An extra word for those with kids who are teens or older. Explain the cycle of violence, so that your kids understand that abusers can be very charming, and amazingly sweet and contrite after an abusive incident. Further, one thing really stuck out to me during the Ray Rice interview. He mentioned a couple of times that he now knows that Janay is perfect, can do no wrong, and is an angel. This gave me chills and makes me think he really doesn’t yet get it. No one is perfect, and this belief does not a healthy relationship make. Let your kids know that relationships are not about one person being perfect. Every relationship has arguments and conflict, and what makes them healthy is the ability to manage the conflicts and resolve arguments in a non-destructive way. If you asked my husband, he would tell you that I am far from perfect – I am often surly and can be a giant pain in the butt. But guess what, he has never even come close to abusing me.