Boys Life

Today, for the first time, my son actually spoke to me on the phone. He's seventeen months old. Up to now it's been heavy breathing. This morning, suddenly, a torrent of syllables. And a lot of them were “Dada.”

old photo of boy in front of birthday cake
Jim Lott

An Easter birthday for an American boy, circa 1948.

I am tickled and a bit daunted when I think about all the ground we have to cover together. Leafing through Boyhood in America: An Encyclopedia helps me put things in perspective.

Boyhood is part of a series, The American Family, published by history reference publisher ABC-CLIO between 2000 and 2002. One of its co-editors is Priscilla Ferguson Clement, a history professor at Penn State. A handful of other Penn State faculty contributed entries, on topics ranging from basketball to illegal substances. The work is ambitious: In two large volumes, it seeks to chart the “world of the boy” across at least three centuries of this country's history.

Predictably, scanning the list of some 150 entries sent me tumbling back into my own American boyhood. “Accidents” brought up the time I was whanging away at a large rock with a heavy iron file—Don't ask: Boys just do these things—and wound up with a shard of quartz sticking out of my eye. “Comic books” evoked my fat stack of Batmans and Green Lanterns: the bulk of my nine-year-old net worth. “Pets” conjured up a parade of long-suffering cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, salamanders, turtles, guppies, garter snakes, and chickens.

Of course there were less pleasant memories, too. These have mostly to do with “Adolescence,” the vexed period that pioneering developmental psychologist G. Stanley Hall defined (rather too poetically, perhaps) as the “the inevitable conflict between Eros and civilization.” There are two separate volumes in the American Family series on adolescence, which explains why there's no entry here on “Hormones.” Even so, the picture of an oiled, inflated Charles Atlas (under “Bodies”) called to mind hours in the basement grunting out push-ups and pulling at chest-expander coils in a seemingly doomed attempt to escape being a 98-pound weakling. “Orthodontics” brought up my three-year sentence wearing braces, another (literally) painful rite of passage.

One thing the book's approach shows clearly is how the world of boys has shifted shape in the wake of societal change. Sometimes these shifts have been dramatic: My father's boyhood was constrained, for example, by economics and war. As the entry on the “Great Depression” corroborates, he and his peers had adulthood thrust on them early. The generation before that experienced boyhoods even more truncated, as attested by photos of grime-faced breaker boys and barefoot bobbin boys and a five-year-old shrimp picker from Louisiana with the glazed eyes of a POW. By contrast, the boyhoods of my own post-Vietnam generation were luxuriously long—indeed, some would argue that they have been ongoing.

There have been more gradual changes, too. One entry traces emotional norms. Crying, I learned, was encouraged in the Romantic period as a sign of sensitivity. By the 1820s it had become a forbidden indulgence, as the early impress of manly courage became of paramount concern. A capacity for anger, once regarded as desirable in boys (although unacceptable in girls), only recently came to be seen as something needing to be expunged, if necessary by medication.

Increasingly since the middle of the 20th century, boyhood has been as much a shaper of American society as shaped by it. Thus “Skateboarding,” which started out as a kind of fifties-era California father-son lark, billowed rapidly into an industry, a professional sport, a way of life. “In many areas, but especially music, games, sports, cars, and computers, boy culture has indeed become American culture,” the editors write. In other areas, adults have made
encroachments of their own. The entry on baseball mourns the loss of spontaneity that befell when parents mindful of scholarship opportunities and the possibility of injury “decided that playing baseball had become too important an activity to let children do it themselves.”

Amid all the changes, however, are some constants. The archetypal “Newsboy” may be receding into memory. But boys still love to go swimming, whether in a lake or a neighborhood pool. They still climb trees—when they can get away with it. “The bicycle,” I read, “remains an essential part of the lives of boys.”

This hint of continuity is especially welcome as I begin down the old-new path trailing after a boy of my own. It's going to be very different this time, no mistake, and at least partly unfathomable. “If the past is another country,” the editors write, “childhood is another planet.” But it's good to be reminded that in some ways that planet is no different from the place where I used to live.

Last Updated May 01, 2003