Boyhood is a difficult word to define, in part because definitions of boyhood have changed over the centuries and in part because they continue to differ depending on culture and region. Boyhood is definitely associated with boys, and with a bounded time period between infancy and young adulthood.

Boyhood and Popular Advice Literature

In the United States during the late 1990s, an ongoing interest in defining boyhood was reflected in the publication of

Paul Gauguin's Naked Breton Boy (1889) is portrayed as a simple, primitive being, unfettered by the trappings of civilization. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Köln; photo courtesy of .

many texts about boys that were marketed to the general reader. Many of these texts explore what the authors saw as the problems boys would have in the twenty-first century. Titles include Michael Gurian's 1996 The Wonder of Boys, which uses history and other textual evidence to resist the idea that gender is a social construct and to insist on the validity of biological differences. William Pollack's 1998 Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood critiques the presence of women in the workplace and suggests that mothers and women teachers do not allow boys enough time and space to express their emotions or to be what he calls "real boys." Not all of these books about boys and the problems caused by cultural treatment and view of boys are by men. Angela Phillips's 1994 The Trouble with Boys: A Wise and Sympathetic Guide to the Risky Business of Raising Sons explains how mothers can help boys to experience less painful and more rewarding boyhoods, while Christine Hoff Sommers' 2000 The War against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men suggests problematically that feminists should allow boys to be boys. For Hoff Sommers, boys are boys when they are more aggressive, more competitive, and more physical in their play than girls.

In "Boyology in the Twentieth Century," Kenneth Kidd responds to these texts that treat the "problem" of boys and finds that in the early twentieth century there was a similar proliferation of manuals that addressed the nature/nurture components of boyhood and the best methods of raising boys. These earlier manuals often point to literary and cultural myths that construct boys as wild, savage, and in a state of rebellion against social norms. Like the late-twentieth-century popular manuals about boyhood, the handbooks written in the early twentieth century focus on how the "proper" treatment of boys can build a civilization of middle-class white men who are productive and prosperous citizens. Kidd points out that the term boyology is used by Henry William Gibson in 1916 but that the idea of discussing both the biology and social culture of boys had been well established by the circulation of such books as William Byron Forbrush's The Boy Problem (1901) and Kate Upson Clark's Bringing Up Boys (1899). The early-twentieth-century manuals suggest that adults who work with boys can, with additional knowledge about boys' physical, emotional, and educational needs, intervene in boyhood experience so that dangerous behaviors are curtailed and safer, more productive ones are promoted. Late-twentieth-century manuals return to this theme but focus on the current state of boyhood as one that causes trouble for boys and for other members of society. Nearly all of the late twentieth-century help-for boys manuals claim to explain and then propose to fix what they see as the serious problems with boyhood. One way to challenge these narratives is to closely examine the cultural context of those boyhoods that are considered representative, and also those of boyhoods that have been ignored.

Creating Boyhood

How did these constructions of boyhood as inherently fraught with problems get put into place? Since the 1960s, much work has been done to understand childhood and the changing definitions of childhood. Perhaps the best-known work on this topic is PHILIPPE ARIÈS' Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, which focuses mostly on boyhood. Using Ariès's text as a starting point, it could be argued that the first children (as they are now understood through the lens of European history and imperialist expansion) were boys. That is, because more boys were taught to read and write, and because boys became men who helped maintain patriarchal systems of power in a wide variety of cultures, published records of boys' childhoods are easier to obtain, and therefore many of the examples of childhood that emerge from the thirteenth century on are actually examples of boyhood. Ariès suggests that what we now understand as boyhood was in fact difficult to distinguish from manhood, with boys either ignored or regarded as small men. In part, this lack of interest in boyhood as a separate state stemmed from high mortality rates among children.

The emergence of the idea of boyhood can be traced by examining art that shows the emergence of distinct costumes for childhood (a time when boys and girls were dressed in long gowns) and then for boyhood (a time when boys were breeched, or given pants). This costume gave boys more physical freedom than girls and contributed to boyhood cultures that took place outdoors, away from the house, with other boys. This tradition of BREECHING continued through the nineteenth century, although it became less formal towards the end of the century.

In addition to being defined by dress, changes in education also helped to shape boyhood. One means of marking boyhood was with the beginning of primary school and the first departure from the house of the parents. Before educational systems became formalized, boyhood lasted a long, indefinite period of time, and its ages for beginning and ending were not clear until the nineteenth century. With the implementation of an educational system that was divided into classes, stages of boyhood were created. Boys were expected to reach physical and cultural milestones that coincided with the progression of their lessons. Ariès points out that in the seventeenth century, before the graded educational system was put into place, boys as old as twenty-four might be in classes with children as young as eleven. In France during the seventeenth century, boyhood was marked by a time set aside for education at the ACADEMIES; boyhood occurred between the first years at GRAMMAR SCHOOL and then APPRENTICESHIP, the finishing tour of Europe, or a few years spent in army life.

During the seventeenth century, girls were raised very differently from boys, since it was not customary for them to attend the same academies or to be apprenticed at a distance from their homes. Girls' costumes stayed closer to the childhood gowns that both young boys and girls wore. When coeducational primary schools became common and more girls began to learn basic reading and writing, they were able to establish relationships with peers in ways that had not been possible when they were isolated at home with mothers and relatives.

Boyhood in the United States

In the United States, boyhood has been shaped by costume, education, and attitudes toward work. Regional economics have also shaped boyhood. During the 1830s, laws for COMMON SCHOOLS were put into place in Massachusetts, and the schoolroom served to gather boys together and reshape boyhood. Children's texts published by Jacob Abbott in the late 1830s show boys working with their fathers to develop courses of study. By the 1850s, Oliver Optic's texts about boys, especially his texts about boys living in small towns, show boys organizing clubs with elaborate rule systems and uniforms that mark out those who belong and those who do not. In contrast to the cities and towns on the eastern seaboard, the Midwest and the southwest territories developed common school educational systems at different rates, and the boyhoods in these regions were shaped less by urban street culture than were those in the increasingly urban Northeast. In these territories, land separated boys from their peers, and the work of farming and ranching demanded that the boys labor alongside adults. Before emancipation in 1863, boys who were slaves were kept near their mothers until they reached about age seven. At this age, they were often sold and forced to begin the work of men. Frederick Douglass's autobiographical narrative indicates that some boys kept in slavery used affiliations with educated free boys to gain access to literacy and to freedom.

Boyhood, then, is both a time period and a term used to define a variety of behaviors. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, some American boyhoods last until the boys are in their late twenties. In the 1890s, upper-middle-class and middle-class boys in England and the United States experienced a similar kind of extended boyhood, with marriage and property ownership not being achieved until the boys had reached their late thirties. Even though it can vary in length, boyhood is, in most constructions of the term, finite, and therefore somehow precious.

Nostalgia for Boyhood

This preciousness of boyhood provides part of the impetus to write texts about boyhood: as something lost, it is also something that can be recaptured nostalgically through texts and images. In Being a Boy Again, Marcia Jacobson points out that this move toward nostalgia about boyhood was particularly strong in the late nineteenth century. Jacobson discusses the nostalgic boyhoods found in Hamlin Garland's 1899 Boy's Life on the Prairie and Stephen Crane's 1900 Whilomville Stories. She notes that some of the authors used children's magazines as a forum for their pieces about boyhood. Howells, for example, published A Boy's Town in Harper's Young People in 1890. These publications, which were read by both children and adults, helped to shape ideas about boyhood in profound and lasting ways. MARK TWAIN's 1886 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still used to idealize boyhood.

When boyhood is defined in fiction and nonfiction, it is often seen as shaping behaviors to be wielded later in manhood. Boys, then, are the participants in boyhood, while authors of texts about boys are former boys, or observers of boys, but not usually ongoing (contemporary) participants in boyhood. The written commentaries on boyhood reflect memories and reshape boyhood in the retelling.

Varieties of Boyhood

When histories of boyhood are considered, it is also important to remember that the kinds of boyhood that have been recorded and put into histories often leave out or ignore the shape of other boyhoods. The popular 1990s treatises about the problems with boys focus, for the most part, on white, middle-class boyhoods; however, these boyhoods were not the only ones discussed during those years. J. M. Coetzee's 1997 Boyhood Scenes from Provincial Life stands out as a depiction of white boyhood in South Africa during the 1940s and 1950s, while Nega Mezlekia's 2001 Notes from a Hyena'sBelly: An Ethiopian Boyhood provides details about boyhood in Ethiopia during the 1960s and 1970s.

Partly because boyhood continues to provide powerful material for social commentary and because the entrenched idea that "boys will be boys" continues to provide excuses for behavior that is disturbingly violent and misogynistic, expanding the boyhoods studied will provide ways to question those constructions that have gone unchallenged for too long.

See also: Gendering; Girlhood.


Ariès, Philippe. 1962. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Trans. Robert Baldick. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Clark, Beverly Lyon, and Margaret Higonnet, eds. 1999. Girls, Boys Books, Toys: Gender in Children's Literature and Culture. Balti-more: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Coetzee, J. M. 1997. Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life. New York: Viking.

Gurian, Michael. 1996. The Wonder of Boys: What Parents, Mentors, and Educators Can Do to Shape Boys into Exceptional Men. New York: Penguin.

Hoff Sommers, Christina. 2000. The War against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Jacobson, Marcia. 1994. Being a Boy Again: Autobiography and the American Boy Book. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Kidd, Kenneth. 2000. "Boyology in the Twentieth Century." Children's Literature 28: 44-72.

Kotlowitz, Alex. 1991. There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America. New York: Random House.

Mezlekia, Nega. 2001. Notes from a Hyena's Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood. New York: Picador.

Nelson, Claudia. 1991. Boys Will Be Girls: The Feminine Ethic and British Children's Fiction, 1857-1917. New Brunswick, NJ : Rutgers University Press

Pollack, William. 1998. Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. New York: Random House.

Rotundo, E. Anthony. 1993. American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York: Basic Books.