Strengthening the Characters of Boys: What We Know and Can Do
Presented at the White House Conference on Helping America’s Children,” Washington, D.C.
October 27, 2005
Eli H. Newberger, M.D.

I focus today on boys because we’ve not paid nearly sufficient attention to their particularities and needs, strengths and vulnerabilities, and because I believe that if we don’t make an effort to understand them and help them, we’ll continue to reap a whirlwind of trouble in American families, schools, and juvenile courts. And I want to zero in on the characters of boys, specifically where character is expressed, in the choices we make at the nexus of moral conflict, when we have to reconcile our desires and impulses against the needs and rights of others.

My research shows that as important is our nurture (how we’re raised, what we learn at home, in our faith traditions, and in school about values and standards of behavior), we neglect at our peril our nature. And this is where I want to start, with the nature of one particular boy in trouble in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong, who became one of the greatest American musicians of the 20th century.

Nearly everyone who listens closely to Armstrong’s cornet chorus on “Potato Head Blues” is profoundly impressed by its emotional range, that encompasses joy, sadness, pride, and optimism, and his brilliant melodic improvising, featuring masterful timing and amazing technical and harmonic daring. Armstrong’s force of character, if you will, influenced the entire subsequent course of American jazz and popular music. He was a relative youngster, in his mid-twenties, when he and his fellow New Orleanians made their “Hot Seven” records in Chicago in 1927.

Let’s take a minute to listen to that Armstrong solo, preceded by the beginning of the song (an original composition) with a quick segue to the banjo player, Johnny St. Cyr’s lead-in, and ending with the out chorus. Then I want to talk about where this came from.

(cue audio)

Listen: Potato Head Blues

How did this brilliant musician come to make such music? The answer may be surprising to you. Louis Armstrong grew up in a tough New Orleans neighborhood called “The Battlefield” because of its reputation for drunken street fights involving knives and guns. On New Year’s Eve of 1912 or 1913, Louis took his grandmother’s boyfriend’s pistol from its hiding place and went out with friends to fire it during the celebration. They were walking along South Rampart Street when a boy fired a blank in Armstrong’s direction. Louis impulsively fired back a real bullet, and a policeman arrested him. The next day, after a short hearing, he was sent to the Colored Waifs’ Home to begin an indeterminate sentence.

The home was one of many established as part of the American child welfare movement. To raise money for the home, a band composed of a bass drum and about 15 brass instruments, played by residents in long white pants turned up to look like knickers, blue gabardine coats, black stockings, sneakers, and caps. Louis shone on alto horn, then on cornet, and on his release years later, rented a cornet for gigs on the street and in dance halls. He found a musical sponsor – a mentor – in the bandleader Joseph “King” Oliver, made with him an influential set of recordings on second cornet. The rest is history. And a powerful lesson in what it takes to build character in a boy.

Here, in Armstrong’s own words, are two of the many reflections about King Oliver that can be found among the diaries and memoires in the Louis Armstrong Museum, formerly his and his wife Lucille’s house in Queens, N.Y. In 1922, in Chicago, he wrote by hand, in his distinctive grammatical style. “It was really “Cute” to see the “Shy” Expression on Joe Oliver’s face – when I asked him about how he was “Ribbing” me about he was my ‘Step-Father’ in the presence of my Mother May Ann. Joe Oliver as well as myself felt that we were very Close Relatives. He was Always Kind And Very Encouraging to me. And Willing to help a poor youngster like me out. – And until the very last day – he drew his last Breath, I stuck right by him -“

Three decades later, in a 1951 Interview published in Esquire Magazine about his legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, he said of the recording we just heard of “Potato Head Blues:” “My man, Joe Oliver, bless heart . . .Papa Joe (I used to call him) he really used to blow the kind of cornet I used to just love to hear . . .His playing still lingers in my mind . . .there never was a creator of cornet any greater than Joe Oliver . . . I’ve never heard anyone to come up to him as yet . . .And he’s been dead since 1938 . . .”Potato Head Blues” . . .Hmmm. . .Every note that I blew in this recording, I thought of Papa Joe . . .’Yass Lawd’ . . .”

Let’s now jump to biology. In this area of understanding children, it’s essential. Most of the guys in this room have had the unsettling experience of walking into a room full of people, eyeing the other guys, and wondering, “Can I take those guys?” or “Am I going to be a victim?”

Where does this come from? All behavior, and the ways we make meaning of experience, derives from both nature and nurture. Beasts that we are, we also have a capacity for conscious reflection, and for making behavioral choices.

But woven by evolution into our bodies’ cells, and scripted into how we respond to the hormones that course through our veins, are some predetermined behavioral tendencies, that differ by sex, and that we ignore at our peril.

We males have a particular, built-in need to locate ourselves in a dominance hierarchy, or pecking order, in every relational situation. In childhood, our genetic heritage affects the major challenges boys must face: forming and sustaining life-giving relationships; maintaining a sense of personal potency; finding fulfillment within and outside the family, school, and place of worship; and coming realistically to terms with the limits of one’s capacities.

Deriving from my research on male development, I believe that there are five essential elements in earlier life experience that make for strong and admirable male character. I will list them and give some thoughts on how this foundation applies to the issues of the day for boys and young men: lagging behind or failing in school, drifting into unproductive or criminal adulthood, violence, and responsible fatherhood.

First, and most important, a male in childhood needs at least one adult in his life who is crazy about him, who through love and sustained involvement will assure him of his worth, and who will always respect him and give priority to his needs and views, and who will advocate for him when needed. This person (or even better, persons) need not be a biological kinsman. Think for a moment about that main source of personal sustenance is, or was, for you. For most of us, it’s one or both of our parents. But for many, myself included, our parents aren’t or weren’t or couldn’t be there at critical times, and for us, it’s a grandparent or aunt or foster parent or teacher. (For me, it was my cherished tuba teacher, William Bell of the Sousa Band, the Barnum and Bailey Circus, and the New York Philharmonic.)

Second, on this relational core, beginning in earliest childhood, males need to learn words – words – with which to characterize, sense, and express a full range of feelings.

In my work on domestic violence, I have been constantly struck by the extraordinary absence of affective sensibility in abusive men, most of whom would not recognize a feeling if they ran into it on the sidewalk. Why should violent men not sense emotion? Because it has been forbidden to them, both by how they were brought up, and because of the rage, anxiety, and, most of all, the powerlessness associated with witnessing their mothers being emotionally and physically assaulted. In search of mastery and a sense of personal power, they seek dominance in relationships and invulnerability to having their nurturing needs cut off.

Selma Fraiberg (1959) coined the concept of “word magic.” Just as we can show babies and toddlers picture books of kids expressing emotions, we can help boys “get in touch with their feelings” by, quite literally, insisting that they talk about them and attach words to them. I also believe, from my own experiences as a musician, that performing and listening to music, and engaging in other aesthetic pursuits, can build one’s sensory vocabulary, if not create a harmonious balance in one’s heavy life (Newberger, 1999).

One academic program that does this brilliantly, channeling the expression of feelings into disciplined arguments, is the Urban Debate League, founded by the Barkley Forum of Emory University in partnership with the Atlanta Public Schools. The idea is to use academic debate “as a mechanism for urban education improvement: to increase equity and excellence in urban public schools by helping students become effective advocates, and to improve skills in critical and analytic thinking, oral and written communication, research, computer literacy and conflict resolution.”

Third, boys – and men – need to be protected from exposures to violence. It’s a mean, cruel world out there for many, if not most, males. Longitudinal research suggests that aggression as about is stable a developmental quality as is intelligence, and it can start as early as two years old (Cairns & Cairns, 1994). These are the boys who, as you walk with them by a movie marquee, have to be pulled away from the violent posters. They become the men who, in adolescence, continue to see the world as a hostile place, and who often misconstrue every social relationship as carrying a portent of threat.

Fourth, children and adults can have their lives transformed by the experience of giving back. Not a few of us go into human service because of our solicitude for our ill loved ones when we were growing up. Robert Coles (1997) cites Dorothy Day, the visionary Catholic advocate for the poor, who spoke of the revelatory moment when college-aged volunteers came to see that the helpless help the helpers more than the helpers help them. Service activity builds a deep sense of reciprocity in relationships.

A mother in New Canaan, Connecticut, took her kids and some friends one Saturday to clean the home of a disabled person. On Monday, the kids told their friends at school how much they enjoyed it. After getting calls from other mothers asking if they and their children could come along the next time, she founded a “Kids Care Club.” There’s now a national network of these. The evaluation of service activities like these show that when parents and children do them together, the kids’ commitment to service – based on a growing sense of reciprocity, that we’re here because of what others have done for us and that we have an obligation to give back – is the more sustained.

Fifth, and finally, males need to learn self-control, and “inductive discipline” (Grusek & Goodnow, 1994) appears to be the best approach to foster it.

I use the concept of inductive discipline to distinguish from “deductive discipline,” the widespread approach that focuses on the rules for children and for adults, the essence of which is that when, as they always do, children break the rules, it’s adults’ responsibility to intervene with punishments in order to force children to deduce the rule structure. “Inductive discipline” is a different philosophy, that doesn’t place priority on punishments. Research and much experience suggests that it is a far more efficient way to build self-control in boys. The idea takes cognizance of the common word root between “discipline” and “disciple” – “to teach.”

Building on, and with an intent to strengthen — not to weaken –the relationship between adult and child, the task is to work toward agreement on the standards of behavior. The magic word is “agreement,” and one arrives at it through communication. You’re specific about standards of behavior but neither harsh nor hurtful in your perspective and actions toward the child. Rather, you are kind and interactive, focusing on how breaking certain rules (hitting your sister, for example) hurts others, is neither how we treat one another in our family nor how you’d want to be treated, and requires restitution to restore an injured relationship. There is no place in this style of discipline for physical punishment of children — spanking — that, when employed by parents or teachers, is both harsher on boys and associated with more severe adverse behavioral consequences.

There’s a widespread misbelief that it is manly to “do what you have to do,” even if it hurts someone. Boys and men may feel regret afterwards if this happens, and may be moved to apologies. But they may never come to see that behavior actually involves choices. Nor may they arrive at a point of internalizing a sense of responsibility to others, arguably the most important attribute of admirable character. The task is continually to reflect on one’s behavior toward others, and to make amends if one offends.

Walter Lipman, in his 1929 book, “A Preface to Morals,” noted: “In all the great moral philosophies from Aristotle to Bernard Shaw, it is taught that one of the conditions of happiness is to renounce some of the satisfactions which men normally crave.” And in his last great hit, in 1968, three years before his death, Louis Armstrong, in “It’s a Wonderful World,” sang convincingly of his belief in the respect for his fellow men and the power of committed relationships:

The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shakin’ hands, sayin’ “How do you do?”
They’re really saying “I love you”


Armstrong, L. (Brothers, T., ed.)(1999). Louis Armstrong in His Own Words: Selected Writings. New York: Oxford University Press, 128-132.

Cairns, R.B., & Cairns, B.D. (1994). Lifelines and Risks: Pathways of Youth in our Time. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Coles, R. (1997). The Moral Intelligence of Children. New York: Random House, 191-196.

Fraiberg, S.H. (1959) The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Grusek, J.E. & Goodnow, J.J. (1994). Impact of parental discipline methods on the child’s internalization of values: A reconceptualization of current points of view. Developmental Psychology 30, 4-19.

Lippman, W. (1929). A Preface to Morals. New York: Macmillan, 156.

National Association of Urban Debate Leagues; 332 South Michigan Ave., Suite 500, Chicago, IL 60604

Newberger, E.H. (1999). The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of Male Character. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing.

Newberger, E.H. (1999). Medicine of the Tuba, in Doctors Afield. New Haven, Yale University Press