On a recent afternoon at the University of Pennsylvania, Robb Carter explored domestic violence using an unusual approach.
At the monthly Women of Color at Penn Noontime Networking Lunch Series, more than 30 people listened as Carter discussed “Domestic Abuse: A Look From the Abusive Male Perspective” as he tried to answer one question that always emerges: Why?
Carter, who goes by “Brother Robb,” has been the associate director of Penn’s African-American Resource Center since 2005. He is a social worker, a lecturer in the Graduate School of Education and School of Social Policy & Practice and an expert in the effects of trauma. He is also a lifetime board member of Women Organized Against Rape.
His years of experience in providing domestic violence counseling at Menergy and serving as the co-director of the Men’s Resource Center, two programs for adults who have been abusive, brings Carter insight into domestic abuse and how an abuser becomes someone who hurts others.
As part of the public discussion, Carter turned to the treatment of young males.
He recalled the early years of his career that began in child care and his routine of taking children to a nearby playground. He told a story about how one day, a little girl fell off of a piece of playground equipment and she cried. As a caregiver, Carter talked her through her tears, calmed her down, tended to her emotional needs, reassured her with a hug and allowed her to sit with him for the rest of the time at the playground.
The next week, a little boy fell off of the same piece of equipment. Carter yelled from across the playground, checking that he was all right and encouraged him to “toughen up.” There was a great physical distance between them, and, while he regrets not offering any real comfort or assurance, Carter now recognizes his error and said the ways adults handle situations like this can lead to unexpected problems later on down the line.
“Boys are encouraged to hold their tears back. It’s conditioning,” said Carter, adding that men who have engaged in domestic violence often minimize their hurtful actions, blaming and becoming angry at their partners. “As grown men, this can lead to hurting others.”
Carter attributes this to the way parents raise their boys; the youngsters feel a sense of pressure to “act hard” or else other people in their social circles will think that they are “soft,” weak or easy targets.
“For boys, there was no acknowledgement that their pain mattered. Their pain is ignored or overlooked,” Carter said, adding that societal expectations create a disconnect between boys and their emotions, which is why parents find themselves treating their sons much differently than their daughters. “Boys tend to get held less than girls.”
During the course of his career, Carter said he was struck at just how young boys tend to manifest abusive behaviors toward girls. He said that, while sometimes abusers have a failed connection with their own emotions, everyone can reconsider the way boys are raised.
“Children are resilient and they can bounce back,” Carter said. “All they need is one person telling them that they matter.”
One possible solution, he said, may rest in adults’ ability to teach children empathy.
“Hope begins with us and how we interact with one another,” Carter said. “We have to destigmatize therapy and counseling.”