He comes home from work early. His daughter is in the bathroom. He hears her voice and that of a male and thought she was talking on her cellphone. When he realizes the person who was speaking is in the bathroom too, he sits on the couch and waits His 16-year old daughter exists the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her followed by her 16-year old naked boyfriend. The Father hollers and curses at them, punches the boy in the face and chest and then call the police. He is arrested and charged with “battery and cruelty to children for hitting the boy and allowing his daughter to witness it.” The daughter says he hit her too. The question being asked, “Was the Father justified?”
“Justified” and “beat” are two words most people, I think, will not comfortably string together even though such action is sometimes necessary to defend one’s person or property. Even so, justifying means making it right, giving us freedom to do something that might otherwise be unacceptable.
According to what is on the web, thousands of people are questioning why the father was arrested. Some are saying they would have done the same thing. Even the boy he beat up does not want the Father charged. I had an idea about why this is so but wanted to ask the same question of people I know. Here what they said.
Women who said their fathers would have done the same thing (11) Men who said their fathers would have done the same thing (9)
Women who said their husbands would have done the same thing (11) Men who said they would have done the same thing (7)
Women who said their fathers would not have beat the boy up (3) Men who said they would not have done the same thing (2)
Women who said they would have been in as much trouble as the boy (10) Men who said their daughter or sisters would have been in as much trouble as the boy (5)
The three women who said their fathers would not have done the same thing also said it was because their Fathers’ professions required them to exercise control, especially in challenging situations.
What accounts for this amount of support in light of a violent act? Condoning something is one thing. Understanding it is another. I think this is about empathy. Empathy fosters understanding, which is I believe, why so many people are supporting the Father.
One aspect of empathy is, “Walk a mile in my shoes.” This is an invitation to experience something that will increase our understanding of what a person’s life is like, what it means to be that person; what shapes that person’s behavior and view of the world. The experience is expected to change our perspective and therefore expand our thinking. Examples are movies such as To Kill A Mocking Bird and Black Like Me. Real life examples are Tyra Bank’s Fat Suit Experiment and the Congressman who lived off food stamps for 30 days. These examples are given simply because they illustrate the intent of the experience. Another aspect of empathy is “There but for the grace of God go I.” This is an acknowledgement of vulnerability. It forces us to recognize the limitations of all of our efforts to instill, prevent, insure and reassure. It is a reminder that in the final analysis, there are no guarantees.
The invitation energizes us. The acknowledgement humbles us. Both afford us the opportunity to practice empathy and increase our ability to be empathetic. But it is how much we identify with the person, the situation or both that influences the depth of our empathy.
This situation involves a father and a daughter, one of the most significant relationships in the development of a girl’s sense of self as a person, a woman and a sexual being. It involves the treatment of children especially one that is not your own. It involved parental responsibility. It involves adult child-interaction.
It raises questions about values and culture, roles and expectations. Who does not have some experience and feelings around these? Who cannot at some level identify with the father, the boy, the daughter? This, I think, accounts for the empathy. And, given that we tend to make no allowance for adults whose treatment of a child goes beyond what is believed to be reasonable, necessary and harmless, it may also be an indication of the depth of the empathy.
The difference in this situation and others that involves an adult hitting a child, may be a willingness to separate the reaction of this Father from that of the man. This schizophrenic way of thinking about the support he is getting was suggested by men and women who said repeatedly, but “That’s his daughter.” One of the men followed up with, “A father may suspect or even know his daughter is sexually active. He may even know and like her boyfriend but no father wants to see that boy’s penis. No Father wants to think about his daughter in that way.” How, another one asked, “Is a father suppose to get that image out of his head? Another said, the younger she is the harder it is for a father to take.”
So, is the empathy for the role of a Father? Is it an expression of what people think a father has the right to do to protect his daughter? Is his reaction viewed as a statement of his worth as a father? Is that why the 16-year old boy he beat up is saying he should not be charged? Is that why so many of us are able to forego the tendency to be aggressively judgmental? Is it empathy that helps us acknowledge that a situation like this is most likely not about parents who did not raise their children properly or teenagers who are amoral and out of control? .
There is no indication that this boy and girl are not “good kids.” And most parents, who are saying out loud or silently, “There but by the grace of God go I,’ know they cannot say, with absolute confidence,” my son or daughter would never do anything like that. Empathy trumps arrogance. It allows adults to remember things they did that they did not caught doing.
For those who insist that this type of behavior among teenager has increased, all I can say is we have no way of knowing. I do know that most adults 40 and older lived in “Village” that had ‘at least one “noisy” neighbor who saw everything and told everything. Since everyone knew, including the children, that “children did not have business,” the noisy neighbor not only had permission to ask what you were doing, she or he could come see what you were doing and make you stop doing it. I do not think this means that back in the day teenagers did not take the same kind of risk. In order to survive “Village” living, they had to have a higher level of sneaking skills.
According to some Brain Scientists, the teenage brain is hardwired for risk-taking. This is a factor in the tendency teenagers have to overestimate the benefits of the risk without giving equal weight to the consequences and how they and others might be impacted. Even if this boy and girl talked about the risk of taking a shower, the benefit of having their rendezvous made focusing on the consequences in a meaningful way difficult. Whether this is unique to teenagers is not the point of this discussion. What is significant is some of the immediate consequences:
• The teenagers’ “business” is on the worldwide web,forever.
• The Father has been charged with first-degree battery and cruelty to children
• The Father lost his job because of negative publicity
• The boy’s Mother wants to press charges against the girl’s Father
• The family has to re-negotiate what it means for them to be a family
These teens did not imagine, I am sure, that any of this would happen. I suspect they have wished a million times already, that they could turn back the hands of time. But, they cannot. They and their families have to live with it but they can also live through it simply because empathy breeds hopefulness.
And for the rest of us, maybe this is an opportunity to expand the empathetic conversations we have with children so they become as good at talking about the feelings associated with the consequences of risk-taking behavior as they are at anticipating the benefits they will derive from risk-taking behavior.