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Grubby Boys and Tomboy Girls: Mormon Tweens

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 10, 2009

We might think of the childhood period now called “tweens” as a recent phenomenon, mostly because the label was a late 20th century marketing invention. Our Primary organization, though, has always been directed largely toward children of that age – after all, Aurelia Spencer Rogers’ inspiration for Primary came from her concern over the wild behavior of the pre-teen children, especially the boys, in her town.

Primary’s love for and interest in what we now call “tweens” – girls and boys – is suggested by the 1920 remarks of Miss Amy Bowman (1875-1936), a long-time public school teacher and member of the University of Utah faculty, whose expertise in child development was often sought by the Primary and MIA organizations. In this case, Amy addressed a Primary teachers’ institute for the seven (!) stakes in the Salt Lake Valley. Some excerpts:

The problem of the workers in the Primary Associations is one concerning the period of childhood … usually taken to mean that between the ages of 5 or 6 years, on one hand, and 12 or 13 on the other. …

Play is nature’s means of giving the child the proper exercise to stimulate growth. In the earlier years of the period, children usually get a great deal because they are not strong enough to do much work, but the danger of curtailment lies in the more difficult epoch between the ages of 9 and 12.

This is the “grubby” stage of boyhood when the boy goes just as dirty as the watchful eyes of his mother will allow, when he can’t be shamed into keeping clean or being good. The only use he has for water is in the form of a swimming pool, and he likes to sleep in the hay because then he’s already dressed in the morning.

Just as this is an extremely difficult period for the boy because of the constant conflict between the adult point of view and his, it is a danger period for the girl. Her critical physical period is not the adolescent period so much as the one just preceding adolescence – the years between 10 and 15 are the danger years. It is a time when pressure from unwise adults and the example set by older sisters hurry her into adulthood prematurely.

As civilization becomes more complex, we must do all in our power to extend the period of childhood, not to shorten it. Anything that increases nervous strain and tends to excitement hurries the child into the adolescent period. Not amusement, but play and play and more play is what children need. The child who is playing hard physically, usually has his thoughts well occupied by the game. This is not true in the case of amusement.

Let us encourage the Tom-boy girls. How many of the finest, sanest women of today were the Tom-boys of yesterday? Tough muscles, great lung capacity, and good red blood are the results of plenty of play during this preparatory period of life and they lay the foundation for the steady nerves and the sanity of outlook of the woman. The girl who romps and plays in the open air until she is fourteen will come through the period so fraught with blues and tears, from which no girl escapes entirely, with far fewer tears and fewer unhappy moods than her companion who instead of playing with the boys in that healthful spirit of comradeship early finds her way to her older sister’s powder box and eyebrow pencil and who begins to think and talk beaus …

As childhood is preeminently the period of forming habits it is right that both boys and girls be trained in habits of regularity and industry. Performing some disagreeable tasks at this period will not hurt the child, but there should never be an undue amount of drudgery, for the greater the interest in a task the greater the power of concentration, whether the task be physical or mental.

A boy of ten or eleven ought not to be expected to work all day in the field simply because many fine men did it as children. That is no argument in its favor. Neither should the girl at this age be expected to do all the dish washing or to tend the baby from morning till night. Many a hunch backed woman owes her deformity to too much baby tending in the years before bones and muscles were strong enough for the burden. We have no right to exploit the children, to use them up in getting our work done, just because an occasional boy is willing to be overworked and because many girls are docile. Docility is not a sign of goodness; it often means weakness.

In the city and small town there is a most unfair division of labor between the boy and the girl. The girl is required to do all the dish washing, most of the baby tending, and even tidy up after her untidy brother whose time is entirely at his own disposal. They would both be better off if the work were divided between them. Surely the work of the mother is not belittling to her boy. …



7 Comments »

  1. Re: The “grubby stage.” This made me laugh. Our 9-year old boy avoids the shower at all cost. And, we have our version of sleeping in the hay. When we tell him to put on his pajamas, 8 of 10 times he says, “I am in my pajamas!” In his mind, the sport shorts and t-shirt he has played in all day “become” his pajamas.

    On a more serious note, Sis. Bowman’s comments about extending childhood, not hurrying it, are very wise.

    Comment by Martin Willey — February 10, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

  2. Funny, Martin Willey. Our 9-year old daughter avoids the shower, too. And she answers the same way regarding getting into her pajamas. Grubby, indeed!

    I thought it was interesting that the author pushes “play” as wholesome, but then limits it to things that are not “amusement.”

    Thanks for this, Ardis. [printing...]

    Comment by Hunter — February 10, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

  3. Both the Primary and MIA materials I’ve been reading make a clear distinction between “amusements” (the passive watching of or other minor participation in activities performed by others) and “recreation” (the active, whole-hearted involvement in creating an activity oneself). The kids on the baseball field are engaged in recreation; those cheering from the stands are engaged in amusement.

    I’m sure it’s that meaning used here, rather than implying that play should not be entertaining.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 10, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  4. A question, Ardis: Was Amy Bowman a member of the Church? You say she was a noted expert on child development and frequently taught Primary and MIA groups. Much of the human relations/child development training I’ve seen in the Church today is taught by persons of some expertise, yes, but who are inevitably Church members. I just wanted to know whether a 1920s Church auxiliary would dare invite an “outsider” to teach and preach to the flock?

    Comment by Hunter — February 10, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

  5. Yes, she was a church member. Amy was born in Salt Lake City, in the covenant, to pioneer parents from England. She did quote lots of outside experts in her paper, if that counts. ;)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 10, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

  6. I am chuckling over the comment about Tom-boy girls who develop tough muscles, great lung capacity, and good red blood by romping and playing in the open air until age fourteen. Actually, I think boys and girls today spend too much time in passive activities, but I can’t imagine the Young Women leaders telling the youth to romp in the open air.”

    Comment by Maurine — February 10, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

  7. Re: #6. The vernacular is a little different, but it sounds like an argument for Title IX to me.

    Comment by Martin Willey — February 11, 2009 @ 10:12 am

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