How American Parenting Has Changed in Eight Decades of ‘Goofus and Gallant’

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For more than 75 years, the boys have been boxed in. Since 1948, Goofus and Gallant, the stars of their eponymous comic strip in Highlights for Children magazine, have taught generations of kids the dos and don’ts of how to be. The premise is as simple as it is effective: two panels, side by side, depicting two approaches to the same situation. On the left, Goofus does the wrong thing. On the right, Gallant does the correct thing. If Goofus is rude, Gallant is polite. If Goofus lies, Gallant tells the truth.

The boys are prepubescent, but their exact age is unclear, as is their relationship to each other. Though the style of their illustration has changed over the years (they were briefly elves with pointed ears before transforming, unannounced, into human boys), they have always been essentially identical to each other. Are they twin brothers? Friends? The same kid in alternate universes? Or is it more of a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation?

It doesn’t really matter. Goofus and Gallant are symbols more than characters. In every issue, they play out a sort of Calvinist destiny. Their essential nature was preordained by a higher power long ago—Goofus forever doomed to be a screwup, Gallant to be a smug little do-gooder. What can they do but play the roles that were laid out for them?

The higher power that created them was Garry Cleveland Myers, who first wrote a version of the strip called “The G-Twins” at the magazine Children’s Activities, before he co-founded Highlights with his wife, Caroline Clark Myers. But in another sense the characters sprang directly from the moral compass of society. I recently spent a day at the Library of Congress, reading Goofus and Gallant strips from over the years, and found that the panels are remarkable windows into history. They chart the shifting freedoms and boundaries of childhood, and illustrate how adults’ expectations of kids have changed over the decades.

Highlights is explicitly edutainment. The magazine’s tagline is “Fun with a purpose,” and many issues over the years have included guides to its contents for teachers and parents. A flyer tucked into a 1948 issue at the Library of Congress explains to parents how the magazine can be used for the “home training of the child.” “Character building threads through the book from cover to cover,” it reads.

That philosophy remains, and is perhaps most obvious in Goofus and Gallant. “The feature is designed to be a part of our work to help kids become their best selves,” Christine French Cully, Highlights’ current editor in chief, told me. “It’s about helping kids develop character and moral intelligence.”

Goofus and Gallant (as elves) sit on their beds. Goofus says "I hope I get more Christmas presents than anybody else." Gallant says "I hope Santa Claus is very good to Danny."
A Goofus and Gallant strip from 1948 (Courtesy of Highlights)

Many of the comic’s themes are timeless. Again and again, I saw Goofus pocket lost money while Gallant chased down the owner. Goofus left a mess while Gallant tidied up; Goofus bullied and excluded other kids while Gallant welcomed them. If you crack open a December issue from any era, you’ll probably find Goofus being a greedy little gremlin about his Christmas presents, while Gallant rhapsodizes about the pleasures of giving to others. The strip also has a few oddly specific preoccupations—not messing with other people’s mail, changing from good clothes into “play clothes,” putting your bike away instead of dumping it on the lawn, and not blocking the sidewalk all appear multiple times over the decades. The core of what it means to be considerate hasn’t changed dramatically from 1948 to today.

But a lot has changed. Technology is an obvious example, and the strip has guided kids through the etiquette of sharing the TV with your family and taking a polite phone message all the way through to being quiet during a parent’s Zoom meeting and not giving out personal information online. (Poor Goofus has fallen prey to a couple of scams over the years.) Gender roles, in the world and in the magazine, have also grown more expansive over time. The boys’ father seems more present in modern strips, after an unsurprisingly long time in which I only ever saw their mother doing domestic labor.

Less immediately obvious are deeper shifts in the nature of childhood, and in adults’ conception of the ideal well-behaved child. For instance, the range of a child’s independence has shrunk considerably from Highlights’ early days. Goofus and Gallant ran amok in old strips, with little to no parental supervision. They completed errands on their own in 1955; they stayed out until the streetlights came on in 1965. As recently as 1990, Gallant simply left a note for his mom on the counter letting her know where he’d be, and peaced out. By today’s standards that feels more like Goofus behavior.

On the left, Goofus says to his mother, "I was at Joey's house! Why are you so angry?"; on the right, Gallant scribbles a note on the counter while a couple friends watch, saying "I'll leave a note so my mom will know where I am."
A Goofus and Gallant strip from 1990 (Courtesy of Highlights)

Kids don’t have as large of a roaming radius as they used to, Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the history of childhood, told me. “Until my kids were virtually teenagers, they were never out of my sight. Or if not my sight, my wife’s sight, or some adult that I viewed as responsible.”

Newer strips don’t explicitly illustrate helicopter parenting or tell us that the boys have a packed and highly supervised extracurricular schedule. But previous indications of their independence are largely absent now. The boys are rarely pictured alone when they’re out in the world.

Perhaps another reason the lads are rarely by themselves is that Highlights editors are intentionally focusing the strip more on “social-emotional learning,” Cully told me. The modern Goofus and Gallant are not only demonstrating politeness, but teaching kids emotional intelligence and social skills. This is the most striking evolution I observed over the strip’s history. In the July 1955 issue, after some fairly benign panels about going to bed on time and not leaving garden rakes face up, comes a truly disturbing diptych of 1950s emotional repression. “When Goofus falls and skins his hands and knees, he cries like a baby,” the caption reads beneath a wailing, injured Goofus. Meanwhile, “Gallant gets up smiling, even if blood is seeping from his knees.” And indeed, Gallant sports a chilling smile in the drawing, as droplets of his blood sprinkle the earth.

On the left, Goofus is on his hands and knees, crying. On the right Gallant smiles while holding his knee dripping with blood
A Goofus and Gallant strip from 1955 (Courtesy of Highlights)

A couple other comics present a less extreme but similar morality tale in which Goofus complains about being hurt, while Gallant cheerfully insists on helping his parents with chores even though his arm is in a sling. The message is clear: Expressing discontent is tantamount to misbehavior, and pain is no excuse.

This motif in the early strips is certainly shaped by the fact that Goofus and Gallant are, well, boys. Even fictional boys in the 1950s, it seems, were told not to cry. All the more notable, then, that by 2021, Goofus is the one telling another kid to stop crying while Gallant affirms that it’s okay to cry, and asks a sad friend if he wants to talk about what’s bothering him. And as we know, Goofus is always wrong, and Gallant is always right.

On the left, Goofus says to a sad boy, "Stop crying about it! You're making me uncomfortable." On the right, Gallant crouches down next to a sad boy and says "It's okay to cry. I can't fix it but I can listen if you'd like to talk."
A Goofus and Gallant strip from 2021 (Courtesy of Highlights)

I started to notice a particular attentiveness to the boys’ emotional life starting around the 2000s, which grew more prominent over time. The strip has attempted more and more to account for the effect kids’ emotions can have on their behavior, and to demonstrate how to acknowledge those feelings while still behaving appropriately.

In a strip from 2000, Goofus clenches his fists and screams at a boxy monitor, “This computer is really annoying me!” Meanwhile, “Gallant politely asks for help when he feels frustrated.” In another, from 2005, Goofus complains about waiting in line, while “Gallant takes a few deep breaths when he feels impatient.” The Gallant of the new millennium addresses his feelings; he doesn’t repress them.

Goofus and Gallant are waiting in line in their separate panels. Goofus says "I wish she would hurry up." Gallant takes a deep breath.
A Goofus and Gallant strip from 2005 (Courtesy of Highlights)

“One of the things that happens over time is that parents are not just disciplining their children, but they’re expecting their children to, in some ways, learn to discipline themselves,” Paula Fass, a professor emerita at UC Berkeley and the author of The End of American Childhood, told me.

Cully told me that at Highlights, they sum up what a child ought to be with what they call the “four C’s”: “curious, creative, caring, and confident.” Those are the traits the magazine tries to encourage. She added, “We try to keep our finger on the pulse of what concerns parents, and right now it’s mental health, making sure kids are kind.” Kind not just to others, but to themselves. Goofus beats himself up for being “bad at math” when he makes mistakes on an assignment, while Gallant admits his mistakes and instead says, “I need to study this chapter again.”

“These cartoons are much more psychologically knowledgeable and psychologically attentive” compared with the ones of the past, Mintz told me when I shared a selection of strips through the years with him. “There’s a certain kind of child that they’re trying to produce who has communication skills, who’s self-regulated. I think that’s our vision of what a child ought to be [today].”

The other thing that Cully really wants to convey about how Goofus and Gallant has changed is a message that is somewhat at odds with the format of the strip.

“We try really hard now, and have for a long time, to be clear that Goofus is not all bad, and Gallant is not all good,” she said. To do that within the confines of the dos-and-don’ts binary that is the strip’s raison d’être is “probably the hardest editorial job in the whole magazine.”

Every installment of Goofus and Gallant now has a line at the top that reads “There’s some of Goofus and Gallant in us all. When the Gallant shines through, we show our best self.” And alongside the comic, Highlights also publishes submissions from young readers talking about moments when they felt like either Goofus or Gallant, to show that everyone can relate to both of them at different times.

This mirrors a larger shift in the culture of American parenting, Fass told me, where it’s become prevalent to emphasize that although a particular behavior or choice may be bad or wrong, the child is not a bad kid.

“We just try to be really clear that Goofus isn’t always bad. He’s not. He’s just often making choices that aren’t thoughtful or safe,” Cully said. One recent example that illustrates this is a strip from July 2022 in which Goofus and Gallant both fight with a friend. “When Goofus gets upset, he yells unkind things he’ll regret,” the caption reads. We would never have gotten such insight into the future mental state of the Goofus of old. But the new Goofus is not a total monster—he will regret it later.

The starker differences between the Goofus and Gallant of the past and present aren’t signs that all parents of previous decades were emotionally distant disciplinarians, or that all parents today have endless patience for their kids’ big feelings. Nevertheless, the boys’ evolution reflects American parenting culture’s own evolution. As the fire and brimstone of “Because I said so” authoritarian parenting has fallen out of favor, Goofus and Gallant have also become more than the messengers of strict commandments. They have a spark of humanity.

So even if Goofus and Gallant will always be the devil and the angel sitting on kids’ shoulders, nowadays, you might say, there is a little more sympathy for the Goofus.