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The Comic Strip That Explains the Evolution of American Parenting

What eight decades of "Goofus and Gallant" illustrate about society’s changing expectations of children.

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.