Boys and Girls


THE most wasted years of life nowadays are commonly those six years between the ages of twelve and eighteen which civilization has taken from adult life and added to childhood. Yet they are the most spiritual, the least encumbered years of our whole lifetime. At that age we are nascent men and women. And so, being mature in rationality and emotion, untrammeled by binding obligations, childlike only in instability and inexperience, we are fit for all nobilities and worthy of large opportunities. Moreover, having passed at twelve years old the tests for a sensible peasant, we are expected by civilization to gain in the next halfdozen twelve months all the delicate perceptions of a finely developed humanity. We must, as it were, cover in these brief six years the distance which the Western world covered in the six hundred years between the fourteenth century and the twentieth. Yet custom at present provides no adequate mode of conveyance.

To make sure that this journey is accomplished, in very fact and completely, takes no little ingenuity. The twentieth century has already gone far. Boys and girls, to-day in school, tomorrow will grow up into a world where men and women work together in the greatest freedom and in all sorts of relative positions. They will grow up into a world where everyone works and everyone is expected to give good, adequate, intelligent service. They will grow up into a world where a limitless supply of pleasures in every hue and size, of every taste and smell, urges itself upon them, and they must either choose or be suffocated. Nothing will be out of their reach and everything will clamor for acceptance. The common sense and discernment with which they must behave, in order to fill their future lives with wholesome joy and a sense of firm triumph, must come from experience which they have gained under rational, loving guidance through abounding opportunity, during the six years of early maturity. We commonly call it ‘adolescence,’ growing-up, but we seldom realize how far toward grown-up these adolescents are.

At present little is being done to make sure that Youth shall get this experience with opportunity. During these maturing years most young people, who have not gone to work, very nearly mark time, both socially and personally; or they run in a kind of entertaining squirrel-cage, many of them with a notable impatience and a smarting sense of futility. Many of us older people, too, feel in looking back that these years from twelve to eighteen were for ourselves the most unhappy years, or at all events the most unsatisfactory years, of our lives. We were laughed at; we were snubbed and nagged; we were misunderstood. Our affections were derided, our ideas were slighted, our faults were exaggerated, and our ambitions were ignored. Or else we were let to go our own way without much help or hint.

This usual attitude of the grown-up world toward adolescence is reflected in books. Writers seem to think that this early youth is essentially insincere, that there is a kind of humbug about it. They almost never picture it except with raillery, or with annoyance, or with an air of kindly indulgence; and the current names for it — ‘hobbledehoy,’ ‘the doldrums,’ ‘the awkward age’ — show how much this uncomfortable state of things has been accepted as inevitable and natural.

Why should it be inevitable? These years bring a state of natural development which was suited in earlier centuries to taking up all the cares of a household, of fatherhood and motherhood, and of getting a livelihood. If, possessing such ample powers, youth now feels baffled, there is something wrong with what its powers have to work upon, something inadequate in its opportunity. The fact is that, in our determination not to have them ‘grow up’ until they have become civilized, we have simply prolonged their infancy instead of extending their experience. Hence we have produced, at the age of eighteen, marriageable material only externally civilized, and therefore but poorly prepared for the complexities of modern life. Consequently, much of modern life is still a poor attempt at civilization.

Instead of preparing the youngsters by helping them to form sound mental habits, we preserve in them a muddled inexperience by teaching them a few social customs, and little else. This we do, not because we believe that it is the best way to provide for the future, but because we know it is the easiest way to manage for the present. In the future, they must take care of themselves. In the present, we have to take care for them. Therefore we fail to be responsible for the future, and for the present we do what is most convenient — that is, what has been done before and what demands least ingenuity and insight. The way, for instance, in which we fail to prepare them for the coming of adult life, where men and women mix in indiscriminate community of work and play, illustrates our whole procedure — it cannot be called a method. In the same helpless way, too, we ignore their coming need to choose work, and even their need to choose pleasure. Our social customs, our whole educational procedure, needs to be reconsidered in view of its after effects.


Everyone knows that the intelligent character of the people who settled this country in the seventeenth century, and the sturdy demands of the life they had to lead, put men and women from the beginning more on an equality than they had ever been in the old countries. Segregation for women was impossible because of the pioneer life, and was unnecessary because of the good sense and busy-ness and good health of the men. So, in the travels and memoirs of Europeans who visited this country in the eighteenth century, we always find admiring mention of the beauty, purity, and capability of the women and of the chivalry of the men. Notably a French chevalier, who recounts his amours in every country of Europe, drops the tone of gallantry when he tells about the States, speaks with enthusiasm of the women, but has not one story to tell of his personal conquests. In the nineteenth century, up to 1870 or so, the same general conditions lasted. Customs differed in different states, but everywhere boys and girls mingled in great good-fellowship; a young girl could go from one end of the country to the other unattended; and American husbands were the amazement of European men. Still, education for women wás slight, and women had no occupation but marriage. With the establishment of the academies (about 1850), girls began to have the same education as boys — first in school, later in college; and, as a matter of course, boys and girls were at first educated together.

To-day, among our well-to-do people the practice has increased of separating boys and girls from their very early years, and especially during most of their adolescence — that is, from the time when in savage tribes they might begin to think of marriage to the time when we are willing to have them think of marriage. Civilization having become so complex that adolescent marriages are out of the question, we seek to create for them, so far as may be, a world in which the opposite sex does not exist. The six years of their prolonged infancy would thus be an empty gap as regards experience in the difference between masculine and feminine. Of course, we do not succeed at all completely in creating this gap, and, of course, sundry and parti-colored notions about each other do get across; so that the boys are accustomed to call girls ‘females’ and ‘petticoats,’ and the girls talk about boys with giggles and flushed cheeks.

Now the difference between male and female can easily be taught at an early age and needs no elaborate demonstration. But the difference between masculine and feminine is impossible to teach, and can be learned only by prolonged and varied personal experience. Yet we all know that the permanent happiness of every marriage depends on good mutual understanding between husband and wife; and the permanent success of every family of children growing up depends on good understanding between father and mother; and the permanent success of the liberation of women is to depend on good understanding between men and women — freed from jealousy, flirtation, and self-consciousness. Savagery recognizes only male and female. It is one of the achievements of civilization that masculine and feminine have been discovered and developed. So, since the object of ‘prolonged infancy’ is to induct the primitive nature of twelve years old into the mysteries of civilization, it would seem that there is something stupid about us if we arrange for those years to be spent so that a boy or girl cannot possibly learn one of the profoundest and most beautiful of all the mysteries that civilization has unfolded.

Of course, there are all sorts of good arguments put forth for this separation of boys and girls; but each comes back to the fact that the elders do not know how to manage with them together, and, consciously or not, believe that all the entanglements and disasters resulting from sex are inevitable; so that the only course is to stave them off as long as possible. These elders have never really learned, themselves, the difference between masculine and feminine, or the difference between love and admiration, or between love and desire, or desire and impulse, or impulse and passion, or passion and love. They have never discovered, either mentally or vitally, where emotion ends and physical excitation begins. They do not apprehend the relation between thought and action or know the potence of rootideas. In fact, they must still look upon boys and girls from the outside, as if they themselves were still in the epoch of childhood. They still see and judge the whole world as you see and judge a person who is approaching you from a distance. The first thing that you are aware of is sex—this is man or woman, boy or girl. As the figure draws nearer, you notice clothes. And when it gets abreast of you, you observe looks — beauty or none. If there is then talk, you begin to watch character in the face and voice, and decide whether you like this person. Later, you may come to guess a few of the thoughts, and last of all, come to share the inner feelings. So do almost all grown-ups proceed in their dealings with children, and it is surprising how many have completely lost from their memory the inner life of their own youth. Consequently, they have little clue to the invisible in their own children, and they seldom get to know what thoughts and feelings live there.

But, in coming to know ourselves, impressions arrived in just the opposite order. We were first aware of our own feelings in babyhood. Then, little by little, we noticed that we had thoughts. Then, we used voice and face to give out small portions of those thoughts and feelings—inadequately—to others. That we had any looks, lovely or otherwise, would not have occurred to us until we were well into our teens (perhaps never) if other people had not invaded us with remarks about it. And clothes, too, did not become a serious interest until other people’s interest became evident. As for sex, we were wholly unaware for years that we had any; and even now, grown-up men and women, married even, each of us thinks of himself or herself just as a person, different from all other persons — not as a man or a woman herded into a sex. In fact, your own inner life is not a sexlife. Your feelings are your own; your soul is You. You may function as a man or woman; but you live and feel, enjoy and suffer, think and work, as a person, as a human soul.


Just so it is by nature with everyone. Consequently, so long as we talk about boys and girls from their outer aspect and think about them in their outer seeming, we fail to treat them in a way that suits or satisfies either of them. So soon as we think about them in their inner mental and emotional aspects (see them, that is, from the opposite direction — as they see themselves), and so soon as we talk of them as being like our former selves, not as special and separate kinds of creatures, then we become rational and put them at ease with us and with life. If only our elders had treated us so when we were young, how different we should be!

Viewed so, from within, boys and girls are in some points indistinguishable. In others they are as totally different. They are alike in emotional capacities, mental endowments, and physical constituents. They are different in motive force, in objects of interest, and in method of action and attention. A boy’s action is always generative, with much surplus energy; while cogent, germinative warmth is a girl’s characteristic power. His attention is toward pursuits, not persons; while persons are always her chief concern. He wishes to be his own master and the master of others. He is pugnacious and creative and has a great desire to excel. But she, though she delights in power, measures her happiness, not by things achieved or by obstacles or enemies overcome, but by persons pleased or won. She is very constructive, but often not creative at all. He is not docile, he has a native inhospitality toward all unmastered experiences and ideas, and he must believe that he does a thing because he is interested or compelled, not because another wishes it. She, on the contrary, easily behaves as she is expected to behave, and does not wait to accept the reason or adjust it to her nature; her nature does the adjusting. This makes her seem to reach an early development, while he seems to stay young a long time, though he is really growing inwardly and is fully as old as she. It is characteristic of his mind that he can fail to see to right or left, but he sees straight on to the end of what he is looking at; the eye of his mind is a dark lantern, the light of his intelligence falls in a straight shaft. Thus he cannot see one part of himself or of the world while another is engaging his attention. All this makes him curiously without general self-cognizance and makes him appear to be built in separate compartments. She, on her part, has a power to stop her comprehension at any given point. Her nature tends to be diffuse, not intensive. She sheds illumination in all directions — not in one fierce penetrative shaft of attention. This is due to the almost complete intercommunicability of her physical and mental experiences; all parts of her communicate continually and have an equal share in all her doings. So she seems to be all of a piece.

So different are they in all that marks them masculine and feminine! But as we watch them, no sooner do we get to noticing how different they are, than we are forced to wonder if they are not after all indistinguishably alike. They have in common every emotion; they possess equally every mental faculty; they manage similarly constituted bodies by similar methods. Each is, to himself or herself, not He or She, but I—just a person, a free soul, using a contrivance called a mind, in a conveyance called a body. The difference between them, which is so obvious to us that we cannot for an instant forget it, is not in what they feel or what they think about or what they do, but in how they feel and think and do, in what they emphasize. The boy is intensive; the girl is extensive, as it were; the boy pursues things; the girl is all absorbed in persons.

This difference shows even in the way they sharpen pencils; and it is noticeable that the handwork in which girls usually excel is sewing, knitting, and embroidering, those constructive, non-creative arts which require little nice manipulation, and so little concentrated thought that feeble-minded persons can excel in them. Consider tennis, and watch a game of mixed doubles. Why do not the girls play as well as the boys? First, and most noticeably, because the girls are more interested in the players than in the game, and the people in the next court are almost as interesting as their own partners. Second, because the girl’s attention is diffused and the boy’s is intensive. And third, because a girl’s muscular control lacks just the concentrated keenness that her mind lacks. In baseball you may notice the same differences; and if you play very much with girls, you know that they can be interested in games simply as a social pleasure, whereas boys want something to be happening: they want to feel that there is a fight on and that there’s something to be won or lost.

Carry your observations into the intellectual world and you find the same thing. The highest marks in a mixed class are apt to be carried off by the girls. Why? Because the girls are willing to work as their teacher suggests. The boys are pursuing the subjects in fashions that suit themselves. So soon as a teacher appears who actually and honestly encourages independent work, makes the subject seem important, and stimulates real thought, then some boy shoots ahead of the very best girl, and the boys are to the full as satisfactory as the girls. But so long as teachers would rather lead than enlighten their classes, so long docile pupils will be held superior to sturdy pupils.

Or look at social life. Boys at an ordinary dancing party — arranged as it is along the lines of pursuit and rivalry, prize and capture — accept it as a game. That girl who lends herself most easily, by behavior and looks, to play the part of prize is spontaneously singled out by them to be the centre of attraction, the belle of the ball; and they play the game with all the wholehearted ardor of the boy-love of adventure. She, girl that she is, takes it all personally, and believes herself to be as essential in their lives as they are in hers.

All this goes to show that masculine and feminine is indeed a complicated difference which requires considerable apprenticeship to master. Boys and girls in the six precious years of early maturity should be getting their instincts clear about each other, developing their habits of mutual thought and behavior, trying their experiments regarding each other, and learning a little common sense. We elders should provide them with the necessary and suitable opportunity, steadying their instability and guarding their errors. We falter in doing this because we see so much failure that we fear to fail ourselves. We naturally take refuge in the easier, and seemingly safer, method of separation — and hope that the future will take good care of itself, since we know not how to take care for it. The reason we fail is that we have nothing to substitute for the objective, outside, traditional, obvious point of view which leads directly to love-affairs and matrimony. We have no vision of the boys and girls themselves, which looks within and regards them, first, as persons, and only subordinately as having sex, among many other characteristics. We have set aside six short years for their initiation into civilization, and we fail to fill those years with the necessary experience. We know that during that time they should be learning the innumerable inhibitions which go to make up humanized behavior — that is to say, civilization; but we provide for them the minimum of opportunities of seeing successful behavior or of exercising it.


In three directions we have lacked invention to contract our own dispersed experience into a form compact enough to get into the brief training period at our service. We need a new plan in talk tolerated, in play provided, and in work required. As to talk, our everyday vocabulary is intended to reveal our thoughts; but it has a large part in forming them, too, for we repeat current phrases without stopping to think whether they are acceptable, and so we swallow a notion whole before we have had time to discover whether it will agree with us or we with it. Then it may poison us and we not know what ails us.

In the same way, what we say poisons and depresses, or feeds and stimulates, the youngsters who live near us. So far as regards these young people and their relations to one another, our present current vocabularies of words and phrases reveal a positively primitive paucity of ideas. When the children are two and three years old, if a little boy looks at a little girl with pleasure their elders call them sweethearts. At sixteen, if he does the same, they laugh and say, ‘He’s fearfully smitten!' or tell him with a chuckle, ‘You like to play mixed doubles, not for the tennis but for the mixing.’ Yes, he does; but in what resides the joke? These elders poke fun at every human preference, and expect to cure sentimentality by jibes, as they might cure greediness or a clumsy gait or poor handwriting. In this wise they reduce personal interests to the level of ludicrous tricks which should be got rid of. This confuses the youngsters’ minds and increasingly obfuscates their ideas.

Of course, friendship between boy and girl, as if between boy and boy, or girl and girl, is impossible. With each recurring generation of boys and girls the belief that it is possible springs up afresh, and with each recurring middle age is revealed anew the very obvious fact that it is impossible. And it is part of our half-blindness in this whole matter that we are inclined to regret or deny this fact, just as we incline to regret or deny that boys and girls are different, fundamentally. No regret need be wasted over either fact. Without the difference which makes the intimate emotional friendship impossible, modern marriage would not be possible, and the whole structure of modern happiness would disappear.

Moreover, why should we wish to duplicate a good thing of which we can have plenty, and go without another kind of pleasure which is equally delightful. A boy and girl cannot be exclusive chums or permanent intimates, but comradeship and cordial personal liking are altogether possible. Our boys and girls should have this without any ostrich-pretense of its being what it cannot be. Orient love among them is, of course, universal, and mutual excitement is unavoidable. Nor may we rightly wish to avoid it. In emotion, personal and selective emotion, lives the fire that makes our spirits warm, and expands them. It nurtures and perfects them.

We should desire emotion for our children, but not exaggeration or any perverted imagination of passion. In order that they may know the varying and shifting character of most human relationships, a variety of more or less excellent companions is necessary. It is our business to regulate times and seasons. Before they are eighteen, and while emotion is still lambent with a heat that does not sear, they should have experienced the fact that a very strong feeling may be roused by a very transient and truly slight interest. For, already, in their early teens, all the power to love which is to last for a lifetime, they have stored up, pressing for use. At the light touch of a small liking the whole cataract is ready to rush out.

And so it is in these early years that they should be learning not to pour themselves out in great gouts over what they like, not to waste their supply upon unproductive fields, and not to inundate. They should learn, too, that excitement, sweet as it is, never is lasting, and that a human relationship, fed on excitement, is wholly fleeting.

Of course, some girls and boys can never learn these things, but most can, and all should be given the chance. Gradually there should dawn upon them the difference between masculine and feminine, and all the subtle, infinitely important differences between love and admiration, or desire, or impulse, or passion. Without their conscious attention they will come to recognize the difference between physical excitation and true emotion. They will be getting their root-ideas established, and thought will become the ruler of their actions. In this learning, their elders should bear the part, not of instructors, but of experienced, understanding helpers, who do not meddle but are always watchful and ready in case of need. Instead, their elders only laugh, or interfere, or let them alone. How glad we should have been in our own young teens if our elders had treated us as companions, not as clowns or knaves or children; with respect, not with condescension or fault-finding or ridicule.

This is obviously not a suggestion that ‘childish preferences’ can be eliminated or ‘calf-love’ prevented. It is only an affirmation that natural preferences shall cease to be called childish, and that first love shall not be called names. First love is real love — only its object is mistaken; it is poured out with too great lavishness, and unskillfully, as a child turning milk from a big pitcher into a little glass spills it over the table. The supply for a lifetime is spent on a fleeting preference. Fortunately, love is not a commodity. No matter how much is spent, the same amount remains. The preference was real and important; so slight that it was swamped by the feeling lavished on it, but nevertheless genuine. No preference of any kind is unimportant, and a girl’s preference of one boy above another or many others is as inevitable as her preference for one girl above another, or for one flower above another. That girl friend will not always be the best friend, or that flower the favorite flower. This is not from fickleness, but from growth. The liking is genuine now and probably permanent. Our stupidity shows in treating her likings as if they were unreal, because they seem to us to shift so fast; and her liking for a boy as if it were different from all other likings in being funny.

Through these shifting preferences, boy and girl should be finding their way, in spite of the bewilderment of their natural instability, into a rational largeness of balance. They should be learning relative values and a sense of proportion, and how many things or persons at once may all be best. But our ways of talk mislead them. As did the talk of our own elders fail us, making us self-conscious and foolish, so does our talk now fail our boys and girls.

And in other ways, too, we fail. At present, most boys and girls are supplied with no chance to play together except in the age-old ways which tend to emphasize sex. Sex is one of the things which does not need emphasis. It makes itself felt wherever it goes. What need emphasis are the common interests and healthful pleasures which they can share as persons, putting sex where it belongs, in the undercurrent. Dancing parties without favoritism, game parties, outdoor sports, singing together, loud reading, and the like.

But their elders can easily counteract all the healthful and steadying influence of rational intercourse between girls and boys, if they persist in keeping up the antiquated vocabulary and hinting at the old-time jokes. We must gradually, as fast as we can, give up the idea that sex is funny. If we think of it as a purely scientific physiological phenomenon of rare significance and extraordinary power, the time-worn jokes will cease to enter our consciousness and our conversation, because they will be actively irrelevant. There will be no association of ideas to draw them out. For we shall know that sex is our greatest blessing, and shall coöperate heartily to banish all the mismanagement which makes it a curse.

But to the suggestion that the sexjoke has got to go, the world says, ‘Impossible! It is as old as Adam!’ Yes, and the drink-joke is as old as Noah, and the hell-joke as old as Orpheus. Old as they are, they are not immortal, for the hell-joke is practically dead in educated America, and the drink-joke can hardly raise a smile, it is so feeble. The first has died because children are no longer threatened with hell and grown people no longer think about it. The second is moribund because liquor is less and less familiar to children and by grown people it is more and more disused and disapproved. A joke needs a basis of familiar reality from which to turn its somersault. Even now the sex-joke has disappeared where the grown people have ceased to misuse sex, and the children regard it simply as a scientific fact. Thus science is rapidly removing many of our old-time errors and the reliable old jokes that went with them. Nature is never funny. Fun implies choice, and I here is no choice about a scientific fact. It is merely so.

Not only talk and play, but work, needs to be vivified, beautified, and amplified for the youngsters, if we are to show ourselves intelligent creators of civilization. School and home at present are pretty stupid purveyors of labor opportunity, take it by and large. Boys’ schools as a rule proffer lessons from books in which good work is rewarded by funny little things called marks;and athletics in which good work is rewarded by clumsy big things called letters. There’s always a little ‘laboratoryߣ science; in some schools there is even a little chance to sing, and in some a trifle of shop-work. Girls’ schools are generally a little more interesting, but not much. The same ingenuities in manufacture which have deprived women of their usefulness at homo are depriving youth also of all usefulness.

And outside of school, — in the evenings, or Saturdays, or Sundays, — there are often music lessons and dancing lessons, and possibly church and Sunday school. There are the theatre and the moving pictures and the magazines, the automobile and the trolley— all enjoyed through the passive reception of other people’s industry. But comparatively few young people accomplish anything that is truly useful to anyone. In fact, they are treated exactly as they were when they were ten years old, except that they sit up later, have longer lessons, and are allowed more personal choice in the matter of clothes and amusements. They need responsible work which they shall do, in common or apart, with such zest that they will talk about it between themselves, just as they are to do when they are grown. Whether they shall go to school together depends on many practical considerations; but together or apart, their change from primitive to rational beings is not now marked by increase of responsibility or by opportunity for creation or execution.

If their elders can but alter their whole point of view about these restless young things, and think of them as interesting budding women and stripling men, — not as overgrown children, but as individual persons and future companions,— then the necessary changes in talk tolerated, in play provided, and in work expected, will come naturally; and there will emerge an adequate preparation for the grown-up world where men and women work together, where everyone works at something, and where pleasures must be selected, not merely accepted. Then boys and girls will no longer waste the years of their early maturity, but will be steadily growing up all the time.