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What to tell kids about Ray Rice

By Catherine Pearlman
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Catherine Pearlman: Ray Rice was hometown hero in her town of New Rochelle
  • Her kids, like many others, revered him. How to explain abusive video they've all seen?
  • She says it's crucial to discuss: Explain what domestic abuse is; that it's never OK to hit
  • Pearlman: Tell them people are complex, flawed, can be helped. Demonstrate love at home

Editor's note: Catherine Pearlman is a social worker and an assistant professor of social work at Brandman University. She's founder of The Family Coach, a business that specializes in helping families resolve everyday problems. Follow her on Twitter @thefamilycoach.

(CNN) -- Ray Rice was an idol for many a football fan, old and young. But in my town of New Rochelle, New York, he wasn't merely a Pro Bowl running back who ran on average more than 1,000 yards for six seasons.

No, Ray Rice was a hometown hero.

The city of New Rochelle held an annual Ray Rice Day, where he returned to the local high school (his high school) and taught hundreds of kids the basics of football. He was revered at city hall. The Boys and Girls Club made him the honored guest at the annual fundraiser. I attended that event, and fell in love with him. He wasn't merely a football star—he was a normal guy who refused to forget his roots and gave back to the community. He truly inspired kids to work hard and stay in school.

Catherine Pearlman
Catherine Pearlman

At one of the charity events, I bought my children a Ravens helmet with Rice's signature in gold pen. My kids loved it. They took turns visiting with the helmet, and keeping it in their rooms. I felt great supporting a charity and bringing Ray Rice closer into our lives.

This week, the full video of Ray Rice slugging his fiancée (now wife) in an elevator, and then dragging her unconscious body out and leaving it on the floor, became public. Suddenly I feel duped, dirty by association. I want that helmet exorcised from my house. But I can't just do that. I helped build Ray Rice into the good guy/role model to my kids and now I have to explain to them why I am not proud of him.

Heroes have fallen before Ray Rice. Lance Armstrong. Mark McGwire. Pete Rose. Tiger Woods. Michael Vick. All once adored, all with glory stripped when the public learned of their transgressions. With Ray Rice, though, it feels different.

We have never before had a video of a hero's horrendous behavior available in such graphic, undeniable detail. With almost every middle- and high-schooler having a cell phone, the Ray Rice video went viral before the kids came home on the school bus.

How does an 11-year-old interpret this: a big, strong football player knocking out his girlfriend, then barely lifting a finger to help her? How can a 16-year-old high school running back reconcile the unheroic man in the video with the guy on the poster on his bedroom wall?

This very complicated, very uncomfortable story offers parents an opportunity worth taking. Who wants to sit down at dinner to discuss domestic violence? You should. Parents must have this conversation. It's important.

Here are five points to touch on, for starters:

• Call it what it is. Your kids should know the video depicts domestic violence. Many kids won't know what this means. Explain that it is when people in an intimate relationship become physically violent or emotionally cruel to their partner. There are any number of potential reasons: Ray Rice and Janay Palmer appeared to be involved in a heated argument; maybe he has a short fuse; maybe it was some other reason altogether. None of this matters. There is nothing a person can say or do that would make it OK to hit that person. Hitting a spouse, a partner, is unacceptable; it's never justified. It's assault and is against the law.

• Why would Ray Rice become violent with his girlfriend? The answer is: We really don't know. Domestic violence is a learned behavior. It isn't due to genetics, addiction or mental illness (This is why this conversation is so important). A person's willingness to act on the urge to abuse a loved one may have roots in his family life growing up, his observation of the way intimate relationships among relatives, friends and others in the community are conducted, behaviors he's observed in the media, and personal experience, especially if that included praise for aggression.

CNN anchor speaks about abuse

• Why did she marry him after he abused her? Every case is different, but there are a few reasons that crop up repeatedly in research on domestic violence. Men who batter are often—and this is hard to comprehend—very charming. After an incident of abuse, they are often contrite, apologetic and overtly loving, vowing never to repeat the behavior. However, abuse is cyclical. Statistics show that most likely, without extensive treatment, an abuser will do it again. And time and time again, the victim will forgive the abuser. But as time passes the abuse will become more violent and more frequent.

• Is he a bad guy? Ray Rice did a very bad thing. Not because it was caught on tape but because he hit her, and no one has any right to hit another person. It is never a solution in a conflict. People are not necessarily good or bad. They are complex. Ray Rice has shown that he needs help. With counseling and perhaps other treatment-- and the desire to change--many abusers can become good partners. But it takes work and commitment. Time will tell.

• Will he go to jail? Ray Rice will probably not go to jail. He was given the opportunity to go to a program to help people on their first offense. If he isn't caught again, he will stay out of jail.

Parents should end the conversation by explaining some of the signs that a person is experiencing domestic violence or in a potentially dangerous relationship. Tell them that if your partner isolates you, repeatedly puts you down, tries to control what you do and who you are with, or if you are sometimes afraid of getting hurt, it's very important to share this with a parent, counselor or friend.

Ray Rice video prompts stories of #WhyIStayed, #WhyILeft

Domestic violence happens in all communities, in every religion and in every socioeconomic group. It can happen in married relationships, unmarried relationships, among the elderly, and in teen romances, too.

Make sure your children know, by watching you, what a loving relationship looks like. Lastly, continue the conversation long after Ray Rice has faded from the spotlight. When your children start thinking about dating, make sure to continue to let them know what a loving relationship is, what you expect from them, and what they should expect from a partner.

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