Tuesday, 30 December 2014

What is a boy? And what is a girl? Mr Beck knows.

It was only yesterday that I recalled a visit to a Cornish boat-builder's workshop in 1964. I was only twelve; my younger brother Wayne was only eight. We were there with Mum and Dad, calling on an old friend of Mum's whose husband was a boat-builder in Newlyn. I could visualise the small wooden fishing boat he'd made. I can smell the varnish now, as I write this.

Who was Mum's friend? Where was the address? I knew where the answer might well be. In an old biscuit tin, in my attic, was a collection of Mum's personal papers - among them a little soft-leather-bound address book. The lady's name could be in there. It was. A Mrs Glenys Peake. I promised myself that next time I planned a trip to Cornwall, I'd write beforehand to that address, in case someone in the family still lived at that house in Newlyn. I'd explain my connection, and see if I could arrange to call by for a chat.

I'd better do it soon...if she was Mum's age, and still alive, she'd now be in her early nineties.

I hadn't looked at that address book since Mum died in 2009, and never carefully. I found addresses for some other persons I'd heard about, but never knew. These had genealogical significance. I'd look into them as well.

And there were more items in that biscuit tin. One was a carbon copy of a typewritten short essay on what little boys were like. It was titled What is a Boy?

Mum had been a trained touch-typist when young, employed in the War Department, and becoming an established Civil Servant in February 1949, as this letter records:

It's addressed to 'Mrs Dommett', and yet confirms her employment as a permanent member of staff. I'd always thought that, at the time, women working for a Civil Service department were obliged to resign on marriage. Clearly that was not the case here! Perhaps the War Department had rules of its own. Anyway, the point I'm really making is that Mum was a very good typist, and would have been able to type that essay about boyhood as quickly as one might dictate it. So it could have simply been typing practice. But I don't think so.

As for the author, an Internet search rapidly established that this piece had been written in 1949 by a certain Alan Marshall Beck. It had been first published in 1950, then republished again (and at that point clearly popularised) by inclusion in a 1954 edition of the Readers Digest. I suspected that 'Alan Marshall Beck' was a nom-de-plume. It's obvious that he was an American, perhaps from a Mid-West state like Iowa. Beyond that, I couldn't discover anything else about him. He seemed to have written a number of short essays, full of sentimental but quotable observations on the nature of family members old and young. Let's look closely at what he says about the ideal little boy:


Between the innocence of babyhood and the dignity of manhood we find a delightful creature called a boy. Boys come in assorted sizes, weights, and colors, but all boys have the same creed: to enjoy every second of every minute of every hour of every day and to protest with noise (their only weapon) when their last minute is finished and the adult males pack them off to bed at night.

Boys are found everywhere—on top of, underneath, inside of, climbing on, swinging from, running around, or jumping to.

Mothers love them, little girls hate them, older sisters and brothers tolerate them, adults ignore them, and Heaven protects them.

A boy is Truth with dirt on its face, Beauty with a cut on its finger, Wisdom with bubble gum in its hair, and the Hope of the future with a frog in its pocket. When you are busy, a boy is an inconsiderate, bothersome, intruding jangle of noise. When you want him to make a good impression, his brain turns to jelly or else he becomes a savage, sadistic, jungle creature bent on destroying the world and himself with it.

A boy is a composite—he has the appetite of a horse, the digestion of a sword-swallower, the energy of a pocket-sized atomic bomb, the curiosity of a cat, the lungs of a dictator, the imagination of a Paul Bunyan, the shyness of a violet, the audacity of a steel trap, the enthusiasm of a firecracker, and when he makes something, he has five thumbs on each hand. He likes ice cream, knives, saws, Christmas, comic books, the boy across the street, woods, water (in its natural habitat), large animals, Dad, trains, Saturday mornings, and fire engines.

He is not much for Sunday School, company, schools, books without pictures, music lessons, neckties, barbers, girls, overcoats, adults, or bedtime. Nobody else is so early to rise, or so late to supper. Nobody else gets so much fun out of trees, dogs, and breezes. Nobody else can cram into one pocket a rusty knife, a half-eaten apple, three feet of string, an empty Bull Durham sack, two gum drops, six cents, a slingshot, a chunk of unknown substance, and a genuine supersonic code ring with a secret compartment.

A boy is a magical creature—you can lock him out of your workshop, but you can’t lock him out of your heart. You can get him out of your study, but you can’t get him out of your mind. Might as well give up—he is your captor, your jailer, your boss, and your master—a freckled-faced, pint-sized, cat-chasing, bundle of noise. But when you come home at night with only shattered pieces of your hopes and dreams, he can mend them like new with two magic words, "Hi Dad!

Yuk. It's so 1950. This is the sort of young chap that you'd see in Dennis the Menace (the late 1950s American TV series - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_the_Menace_%281959_TV_series%29) and to some extent (as the 'boys' were just that bit older and more modern) in My Three Sons (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Three_Sons). All of it pure fantasy, of course.

Mr Beck describes no boy I ever met. In particular, no boy that I could ever strive to be. But the preservation of that typewritten version among Mum's surviving private papers suggests that the essay exactly describes the sort of boy Mum and Dad wanted me to be. I'm guessing that my parents first saw this mawkish list of ideal attributes in the 1954 Readers Digest. I was born in 1952, and so at the time I was still a toddler. What high hopes they must have had of me. How they must have been disappointed, when I did not come home all the time covered in mud, and with frogs in my pocket.

I was not a complete mismatch of course. I did like trains and penknives and ice cream.

But I wonder how many little persons grew up with that long list of parental expectations around their neck? Even for Real Boys it must have been jolly hard work.

Mr Beck also did a piece on what parents should think is the ideal little girl:


Little girls are the nicest things that can happen to people. They are born with a bit of angel-shine about them, and though it wears thin sometimes, there is always enough left to lasso your heart—even when they are sitting in the mud, or crying temperamental tears, or parading up the street in Mother’s best clothes.

A little girl can be sweeter (and badder) oftener than anyone else in the world. She can jitter around, and stomp, and make funny noises that frazzle your nerves, yet just when you open your mouth, she stands there demure with that special look in her eyes. A girl is Innocence playing in the mud, Beauty standing on its head, and Motherhood dragging a doll by the foot.

God borrows from many creatures to make a little girl. He uses the song of a bird, the squeal of a pig, the stubbornness of a mule, the antics of a monkey, the spryness of a grasshopper, the curiosity of a cat, the speed of a gazelle, the slyness of a fox, the softness of a kitten, and to top it all off He adds the mysterious mind of a woman.

A little girl likes new shoes, party dresses, small animals, first grade, noisemakers, the girl next door, dolls, make-believe, dancing lessons, ice cream, kitchens, coloring books, make-up, cans of water, going visiting, tea parties, and one boy. She doesn’t care so much for visitors, boys in general, large dogs, hand-me-downs, straight chairs, vegetables, snowsuits, or staying in the front yard.

She is loudest when you are thinking, the prettiest when she has provoked you, the busiest at bedtime, the quietest when you want to show her off, and the most flirtatious when she absolutely must not get the best of you again. Who else can cause you more grief, joy, irritation, satisfaction, embarrassment, and genuine delight than this combination of Eve, Salome, and Florence Nightingale.

She can muss up your home, your hair, and your dignity—spend your money, your time, and your patience—and just when your temper is ready to crack, her sunshine peeks through and you’ve lost again. Yes, she is a nerve-wracking nuisance, just a noisy bundle of mischief. But when your dreams tumble down and the world is a mess—when it seems you are pretty much of a fool after all—she can make you a king when she climbs on your knee and whispers, "I love you best of all!”

Again, yuk. And much the same comments. How many little girls went off the rails trying to live up to the image Mr Beck had created for them?

Oddly, on re-reading these paeans to childhood, I notice that boys and girls do share one characteristic: Mr Beck says they both have the curiosity of a cat. And by and large I can agree! But as for the rest...it's hardly a true-life portrayal of how kids really are. Just how parents wish they were.

I think Mr Beck did a gross disservice to children, publishing this stuff. It gave parents the wrong idea. It unnecessarily and cruelly segregated boys from girls as soon as they were old enough to walk and talk. It emphasised false differences between them, and imposed gender-based models that would straitjacket more than one generation. Clearly Mum and Dad believed in the myth. I was conditioned accordingly. So was my brother, and millions of other kids.

I've got to be careful here. For all I know, the man was a modern Mark Twain, revered in America - or at least in the state he was born in, and especially his home town. I don't want to cause offence.

But if in fact he wasn't a modern Mark Twain, and has no especial standing nowadays, and can be freely castigated by anyone, then it will go very hard with him if we ever meet. I will slap him in the face, fiercely, and dare him to retaliate. His nonsense turned my own childhood into a disaster.

But I don't suppose we will encounter each other. Even if he was only forty in 1950, he'd be aged nearly 105 now. Surely he's either dead, or so frail that no burning sense of anger could justify upsetting him. Damn.


  1. Sadly parents have been conditioned to expect either blue or pink and despite all evidence to the contrary swear that all other colours do not exist.

    Absurd as the descriptions are many misty eyed parents may well have hoped for many of the actions in these lists.

    The list of blue attributes made me shudder, then again it was hard to recognise many of the pink ones because so much had to be kept hidden to conform to these absurd stereotypes...

  2. We met a young woman on the weekend whose first child is due in March. She and her partner (her term) do not want to know the sex of their child, much to the disappointment of her friends and family. She had to admit that trying to find a gift for a child these days, even a newborn was very difficult because everything seemed to be gender-specific.
    The marketing folk would love Mr Beck.

  3. Much suffering in this world is due to parents insistence on being able to declare the to the world the clothing colour for their child.

    The high percentage of medical ambiguity let alone the hidden ambiguity of sex is not allowed and has led to untold misery due to unnecessary surgical intervention.

    Has anyone ever heard of parents declaring to the waiting friends and family that the sex of their child has not yet been established?


  4. I was born in 1953 in Texas. I can remember the many scoldings and harsh words directed at me for just being my apparently very feminine self. I couldn't see myself as others did nor did I have any sisters. Eventually, I became a very lonely person because people DID notice that I was different and I knew no other way of acting and being. And I never figured it out until I was 52 years old. I do so wish that the world would grow up and not be so narrow minded. We, as a small minority, are about as threatening to the balance of the world as kittens. Best wishes, Lucy. Julia Marshall

  5. Don't get me started on gender stereotyping! Great post. Happy New Year to you.

  6. Ugh, yeah that kind of writing almost makes me sick.

    The ironic thing for me is that, despite the fact that I was actually a girl inside, my hobbies and interests as a child were actually closer to what he describes for boys. If I'd had my way, I'd have been wearing pretty dresses and keeping frogs in my pockets. :)

  7. Please get in touch, I may so happen to be the granddaughter of Glenys Peake


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