That's my Teenage Son (by Rick Johnson)

From time to time I check for free Kindle books, and download anything that looks as if it might be interesting. So, despite never having heard of Rick Johnson, and indeed no longer having teenagers at home, I decided to collect ‘That’s my teenage son!’ when it was offered free for a short time about eighteen months ago.

I decided to read it a couple of months ago, and have finally reached the end, reading a few pages each morning. Not that it’s a difficult read, or dull; it’s well-written, and has some interesting anecdotes here and there alongside the recommendations and instructions. But I found it quite heavy going, and often gave up when I found the tone either condescending or annoying in other ways.

It starts well. I’d nearly forgotten that by the time I reached the end, but I was quite impressed with the first part of the book. It’s important to note that it’s written by an American evangelical Christian, probably of right-wing tendencies (although he keeps his politics out of the book, thankfully), who believes in American values such as efficiency, success, and a traditional (though sexist) view of masculinity. I realised this fairly quickly, but decided to keep reading anyway.

And, indeed, the first part of the book makes some good points. Too many teenage boys go off the rails in our Western society, turning to drugs, drink or promiscuity; marriages fail, fathers abandon their children, there are those without work ethic, without wanting to take responsibility for their actions; there are those who think nothing of cheating on their partners, who go into debt without caring… there’s a great deal that’s wrong. And while undoubtedly women have problems too, most young people in jail and convicted of violent crimes are male.

The author proposes that mothers can do something to help, even if they’re bringing up their sons alone. He stresses the importance of good male role models - grandparents, uncles, teachers, scout leaders - and describes a programme he runs for fatherless boys, teaching them everyday skills that are traditionally passed on by fathers, giving them new challenges, and encouraging them to consider what it means to be masculine. So far so good, even if I took some of it with a little pinch of salt.

Another early section looks at some of the differences between men and women; again, I didn’t agree with everything, and feel there are always exceptions. But I was quite struck with the idea of women out-talking their teenage sons, overwhelming them with conversation, and reasons for doing (or not doing) things, hoping to solve everything with discussion. Which is all very well as far as it goes, but sometimes teenage boys aren’t good with language, and feel battered by words, unable to respond or even think straight. I asked one or two men if they felt this was fair, and the consensus was that it does indeed happen.

Had the book ended after the first few chapters, I would have recommended it highly. Unfortunately, it then started delving into what the author means by ‘manliness’, and the importance of male leadership in the home, and encouraging traits such as competitiveness, and even violence (in hunting) which, in my own background, are a bad idea.

Moreover, he talks about not just encouraging boys to find their potential, but about issuing difficult challenges, pushing them in a way that seems to me like bullying. Some would undoubtedly rise to the challenge, but he makes no mention of those who would be unable to fulfil them, and would feel like failures. And in the US, failing really isn’t considered acceptable.

Yes, the author talks about helping boys to learn through their mistakes and failures, which is a good principle; but he still assumes that ‘success’ is to be their aim, and that all boys should be encouraged to be great leaders, or the top of whatever their profession is. Which is a logical problem: as someone I know said, we actually need to be teaching young people to be ‘ordinary’, to live their lives in a positive way according to their abilities without always feeling themselves ‘special’ or that they’re a failure if they’re not at the top of their professions.

By the end of the book, when the author embarks on the qualities he wants to see in any young man interested in dating his daughter, the style had become so chauvinist I almost gave up. He said that his daughter won’t even open a car door as she expects a man to do it for her, no matter how much it might inconvenience him. I find this kind of thing unhelpful and condescending. Politeness is good, but this is going overboard, making girls and women out to be feeble and even manipulative.

If you can find it inexpensively, it’s perhaps worth perusing if you’d like a better understanding of how some boys and men function. But be prepared to pick and choose what applies, and to ignore the outright sexism that becomes more apparent in the latter part of the book.

Amazon links are to the paperback editions of this book, since the Kindle edition is no longer free.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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