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Review of "The Men They Will Become"

By Eli H. Newberger
Perseus Publishing, 2000
Review by Kevin M. Purday on May 31st 2003
The Men They Will Become

            One of the upsetting things about good books is that too few people read them. The Men They Will Become is one of those books that all parents and teachers of boys ought to read.

            The author is a medical doctor, specifically a paediatrician, and he teaches at Harvard Medical School. He is probably best known for his work to enhance the care of maltreated children. Very early in his career he set up an interdisciplinary team at Boston Children's Hospital to improve the care of these children. Since then, his concern has widened to encompass all aspects of child raising. This book is obviously the result of years of work with parents and teachers. It concentrates on the upbringing and education of boys from infancy to late adolescence. It is full of personal observation, case histories and homespun wisdom. Paediatric specialists would probably say that the book is nothing more than common sense but for parents and teachers there is a great deal of material which is arresting and thought-provoking. The first thing that might strike non-specialists is the very interesting discussion of temperament and character. If parents knew that their son's character was wide open to influences from the way they brought him up, then they would be much less fatalistic. The four levels of parental awareness (Chapter 2, The Roots of Character) should be made compulsory reading for all couples expecting their first child. So many mistakes in child-rearing could be avoided if only parents thought about what they were doing and why. The sections on discipline and punishment, sharing and curiosity were also stimulating. Some chapters, however, really jumped out at me. What Newberger has to say about honesty in family relationships is deeply revealing. He makes a very interesting comparison between how the official legal processes protect witnesses by allowing them to remain silent, put the burden of proof on the complainant, make witnesses aware of the possible consequences of their testimony, distinguish direct experience from hearsay, reward honesty, avoid entrapment, etc. He then points out how frequently we break some or even all these safeguards in family and school situations and then wonder why boys begin to think that honesty is far from being the best policy.

            Another section that parents and teachers ought to read is the chapter on cheating. As someone who has been a teacher for thirty-five years, I have been struck by the growing amount of cheating but I was far from prepared for the facts that Newberger reveals. Eighty-eight percent of high school students say that cheating is common; seventy-six percent of high school students admit to having cheated (ninety-two percent of them remaining undetected) with copying someone else's work as the most common form of cheating, followed by cheating in exams, reading a summary rather than a whole book, and lastly plagiarising a published work. Collaborative work on assignments meant to be done by an individual is also common. This whole chapter is chilling reading for parents and teachers alike as they are reminded that it is they who have set the scene in which cheating flourishes. Parents who believe that the end justifies the means are, whether they are aware of it or not, inculcating the idea in their children that cheating is fine -- "Just don't get caught!" Teachers are made aware too that they are often colluding with cheating. In a system which judges teachers by the results of their students, which can pit enormous parental pressure against a school administration including the threat of litigation, cheating may turn out to be to everyone's benefit! I have actually seen it happen so I know that Newberger's account is right. Most cheating takes place not when the student could not do the work but because the student wants an even higher grade than he could get with his own work. When the grade is of paramount importance and the learning process is only a means to an end, cheating means happy students, contented parents, a teacher basking in the reflected glory of his students and highly satisfied school administrators! His analysis of what does lose out is interesting. The chapter's concluding section on the effect of cheating on trust is a well argued plea for the importance of trust in personal relationships as well as in a wide variety of situations in a democratic society.

            The chapter on cheating links up well with another on play and sports. As with cheating, Newberger bemoans the end justifying the means in so much sport and he is a powerful advocate for the importance of play. Other chapters on sharing, honesty, self-control, teasing and bullying, friendship, and alcohol are all equally full of sound and thought-provoking advice.

            As well as a topic-based approach, the book also maintains a developmental thread so the topics are introduced at the appropriate point in a boy's development and linked to specific stages -- infancy, preschoolers, schoolboys, early adolescence, and late adolescence. This makes the book suitable for a cover-to-cover read or for use as a reference book.

            The last chapter is entitled Giving Back. As might be expected from a man who spent two years working with the Peace Corps, Newberger is a passionate advocate of idealism, sharing and giving. This is an inspiring end to an inspiring book.

            Any quibbles with the book? A small one. In the chapter on self-control, the author has a balanced account of ADD/ADHD, discussing to what extent it may legitimately be described as a disease and to what extent the diagnosis really applies to a state produced by temperament and upbringing. Later in the book, when he is dealing with young adolescents and ADD/ADHD, he accepts without demur that it is something for which medication is suitable and by the end of the book ADD/ADHD is described simply as a neurological problem. Newberger must be aware of the huge debate about the nature and causes of ADD/ADHD so it is a shame that he doesn't stick to his earlier balanced view.

            That small quibble aside, this is a first-rate book that would be of enormous benefit to parents and teachers of boys. If they were to heed its wise advice, our society would be a great deal more wholesome.


© 2003 Kevin M. Purday

Kevin M. Purday teaches at Worthing Sixth Form College, in the UK, and is currently a distance-learning student on the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health course in the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.

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