"The All-American Handful": Dennis the Menace, Permissive Childrearing and the Bad Boy Tradition
by Henry Jenkins

"Physically, he is sturdy, active, agile, tireless, and hard-to-catch. Mentally he is lively, inquisitive, imaginative, and of an experimental turn of mind, which frequently leads him into situations he can't always control. Add an unruly shock of hair, freckles, a smudge on his nose, dirt on his pants and traces of paint and chocolate on his hands, and you have Dennis, the All-American Handful."
-- Hank Ketcham, Creator of Dennis the Menace

"Permissiveness is an attitude of accepting the childishness of children. It means accepting that 'boys will be boys,' that a clean shirt on a normal child will not stay clean for long, that running rather than walking is the child's normal means of locomotion, that a tree is for climbing and a mirror is for making faces."
-- Dr. Haim G. Ginott, Between Parent and Child

Alice is watching a soap opera on television when Dennis returns home. Immediately, he begins to lecture her, "Hey, Mom...don't you know too much telebision is bad for your eyes?" At first, she tries to ignore him, "Mmm" but he continues, citing the fact that "there's a lotta JUNK" on television, that television violence "learns ya a lotta BAD stuff," and that she should be doing something better with her time. She finally gets up and turns off the set before asking Dennis what he thinks she should be doing instead. "Bakin' cookies! The cookie jar's clean empty!" This exchange from a 1964 Dennis the Menace comic book follows familiar logic. As Lynn Spigel has shown, the place of television within the American domestic space and specifically its influence on family interaction had been debated and negotiated for more than a decade. Here, however, the power relations within the debate have been inverted for comic effect. The child now rules the home and hectors his mother on her bad media consumption habits.

This inversion of traditional parental authority reflects the anxieties and tensions surrounding the child-centered doctrines of permissive parenting. Proponents of permissiveness saw its less restrictive approach as providing a more "democratic" domestic life for the post-war era. Permissiveness permitted the child to develop into a spontaneous, creative, exploratory human being without fear of trauma and repression. Its critics warned that it put the parents, especially the mother, at the mercy of the child, who often became a spoiled brat and a domestic tyrant. The parent in the permissive household, Jules Henry warned, became "driftwood in the tides of his child's demands."

By the 1950s, permissiveness, although not without its detractors, had become the dominant discourse about childhood within postwar American society, promoted by a seemingly endless flood of childcare books, prescriptive articles in women's magazines, and advertisements; its implications were explored by learned sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists but also pervaded popular culture, shaping the comicbooks, television programs, films, records, and children's books of the period. Permissiveness is most closely associated with pediatrician Benjamin Spock, anthropologist Margaret Mead, the child studies of the Gessel Institute at Yale, and the advice provided by Parents magazine, yet for almost two decades, most childrearing information was either framed in permissive terms or in explicit reaction to them. what, when and how the children liked; sleep when sleepy -- no regular nap or bedtimes; later, toilet training based on the child's readiness; toys' and rooms' order left up to the child; sex play accepted; angry, quarrelsome play accepted, hostility (kicks, hits, spits and so forth) against parents accepted; choice of friends, TV programs, comic books left completely to the child; occasional absence from school accepted; attendance at Sunday school or church dependent on the child's choice." By contrast, "strict" parents were described as those "who had fed their babies on a regular schedule, toilet trained them early, later insisted on clean hands, good table manners, 'please's' and 'thank you's' regular bedtimes, orderly rooms; who hadn't allowed sex play or quarrelsome, noisy play or the expression of anger against mothers and fathers; who had exercised careful supervision over TV programs, choice of friends and spare-time activity in general; who saw to it that school and church were attended without whim." Helen Puner, "Discipline: Strict or Permissive?," Parents, 1959, p.39.

For many of us who are adults today, permissiveness shaped our earliest perceptions of American life, defined our relations with parents, friends, and schools, influenced our understanding of our gender and sexual identities. If permissiveness fell into disrepute in the late 1960s, if shifting economic structures have led to more working mothers and thus a renegotiation of power within the family, if today parents confront multiple, competing and contradictory discourses about childhood and parenting, our sense of how parents should respond to their children took shape during the post-war years. Many parents evaluate their performance according to the all-but-impossible standards of good childrearing that represent Benjamin Spock's legacy in our national culture, while we have no recollection of the contradictions, debates, and controversies that surrounded the initial introduction of those standards. The power of permissiveness to naturalize its assumptions has led us to forget just how contingent and short-lived its reign has been. This essay, thus, represents a search into the collective past of the baby boom generation, to better understand the cultural site of our childhood and to better decode the ideological construction of American family life. The comic strip and television series, Dennis the Menace was an important part of that cultural environment, speaking to postwar parents and children about the nature of masculine experience in suburban America.

Hank Ketcham's Dennis the Menace first appeared in March 1951, just two years after the initial publication of Spock's Baby and Child Care. By 1953, Dennis was appearing daily in three hundred papers, featured in his own comic book, and linked to a diverse range of merchandise. A CBS sitcom based on the character ran from 1959 to 1963. In the midst of debates about permissiveness, Dennis, "The All-American Handful," was perhaps the best known child in the country, a figure comparable in his cultural impact to Bart Simpson's place in contemporary popular culture. Ketcham remarked in 1953 that Dennis was "typical of almost every American boy in this particular age bracket." Far from unique, "There are literally millions of 'menaces,' the boys making their own surprising and spontaneous reactions to a sometimes hostile and incomprehensible grownup world."

How might we understand the relationship between Dennis the Menace and permissive child-rearing? Is he the monstrous child whom some feared would emerge from the permissive family or does he reflect the more benign assumptions about childhood fostered by Spock and Parents magazine? How did Dennis, himself, figure into the public debates about permissiveness? What kinds of responses did he provoke from postwar parents and children? In what ways do the strip and television series embody dominant assumptions about gender, family life, and nationhood in 1950s and 1960s America?

This chapter makes a number of basic assumptions about the relationships between parents, children, and popular culture. Children's fiction (broadly defined) constitutes, as Jacqueline Rose has argued, an "impossible fiction" shaped as much by adult desires as by children's interests; the production, circulation and consumption of children's fiction is mediated at all levels by adults who mold both its form and content according to their own ideological construction of childhood as a social space removed from the adult world and "innocent" of its concerns. At the same time, through a process of miniaturization, childhood becomes a key metaphor through which adults speak about their political concerns, an allegory for the adult order. In the post-war period, everything from civil rights and integration through anti-communism and the space race was mapped onto and debated through the figure of the "innocent" child. The central subject of children's fiction is the relationship between adults and children and as a result, children's fiction becomes a privileged site for understanding the shifting balance of power between mothers, fathers, and children. Paradigm shifts, such as the emergence of postwar permissiveness, are obsessively enacted within children's fictions. The ideological stakes in these debates are difficult to identify in traditional political terMs. Both liberals and conservatives have an active interest in controlling children's cultural consumption and regulating their bodies. A discourse such as permissiveness may evoke liberal categories, such as democracy and empowerment, while preserving traditional conceptions of gender and national character.

Read in this fashion, Dennis the Menace becomes a semiotic "handful," speaking to, for, and about both children and adults at a time of dramatic social shifts within the family. While Ketcham saw Dennis as representative of all permissive children (or at least of all boys), he actually constituted a particular articulation of permissive discourse, one which used the notion of childhood innocence and the generic tradition of Bad Boy comedy to express male anxieties about domestic containment and the challenges of fatherhood. For Ketcham, as for many postwar children's writers, the model permissive child was male and the problems he confronted centered on the formation of masculine identity. My goal, here, is to use Dennis as a point of entry into the complex and sometime contradictory discursive space of permissiveness, to tease out the ways that this new conception of the child linked together changing perceptions of family politics, gender relations, and national identity. Permissiveness, understood in these terms, is not a timeless and universal understanding of childhood innocence, a purely progressive reform of domestic space or the ideology underlying the problem-free suburban utopia of our nostalgic daydreaMs. Permissiveness, rather, represented a temporary readjustment of the power-relations within the postwar American family within which the child gained power at the expense of its mother, the father gained greater childrearing responsibilities alongside his traditional breadwinning role, and parental authority was exercised in a more covert and indirect (but no less tangible) fashion.


"At four years of age, Dennis Lloyd Ketcham was...too young for school, too big for his playpen, too small to hit, not old enough for jail -- and one hundred percent Anti-Establishment."
-- Hank Ketcham

Although its proponents worked hard to "naturalize" its core assumptions about the nature of childhood through appeals to "common sense" and biological determinism, the emergence of the permissive family was not a simple or painless process. Parents were raising their children according to principles dramatically different than the more authoritarian and behaviorist approaches which dominated the pre-war period of their own childhood and this shift produced a high degree of confusion and uncertainty. As child study expert Eda J, LeShan summarized the situation:

I have been impressed by the parents who struggle to do things differently, to give their children experiences they never had themselves....Sometimes, because what we have tried to do is strange and new, we take ourselves too seriously, and try much too hard. In trying to help their children to be less frightened of their feelings, parents often become more afraid of their own feelings!

Nobody explicitly advocated total permissiveness; permissiveness exists almost entirely as a position to argue against. Rather, it might be more accurate to speak of a permissive impulse reforming childrearing practices, while parents and experts alike struggled to maintain some awareness of the need for discipline and structure, for "setting limits" in children's lives. Spock adjusted his views to counterbalance prevailing tendencies, arguing for greater permissiveness in the late 1940s when discipline-centered approaches still maintained wide acceptance and for stronger discipline in the late 1950s when permissiveness held court. Parents embraced "constructive discipline" while the Gesell Institute's 1955 Child Behavior called for "informed permissiveness." A 1957 study of 379 mothers found most sought some uncertain balance between authoritarian and permissive tendencies on a situation by situation basis. Permissiveness involved a constant negotiation between the interests of adults and children, between the internalized restraints of the previous era and the conscious reformation of domestic relations.

The stakes in these debates were high. Confronted with an unprecedented demographic expansion, the so-called "baby boom," America had become a child-centered nation. Postwar Americans married earlier, had more children and at an earlier age than any other point in the twentieth century. By the end of the 1950s, 70 percent of all American women were married by the age of 24 in contrast to just 42 per cent in 1940 and 50 percent today. Nearly one third of all American women had their first children before they reached their twentieth birthday. At the same time, suburbanization was resulting in a breakdown of the extended family, leaving these young women isolated from traditional sources of childrearing information. In this context, childrearing guides, such as Spock's phenomenally successful Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, took on an unprecedented importance; such a situation allowed for a more dramatic change in parenting styles than would have been conceivable in a more rooted community. Dennis the Menace's representation of parent-child relations helped to articulate the ambiguities and uncertainties of this process, melding into a single figure the innocent child of permissive discourse and the monstrous brat many feared might emerge from the overly permissive home.

In promoting the comic strip, Hank Ketcham presented himself as the typical American Dad of the postwar generation. A world war II veteran, he had settled down in Carmel, California, to raise a family and to earn a living as a freelance cartoonist. He fathered a son in 1947 on the cusp of the baby boom and struggled to raise him according to modern parenting principles. In his autobiography, Ketcham describes his own childhood as strict and authoritarian; his mother was "a sweet, loving softie who seldom raised her voice in anger" while his father, who used to beat Hank and his sister with a three foot long horsewhip, became a symbol of "raw violence, hoping it would scare the whey out of the two Ketcham ragamuffins." Like many other parents of his generation, he tried to show greater acceptance of his son's own rambunctious tendencies and a fuller understanding of child psychology.

If many of the architects of postwar permissiveness, such as Benjamin Spock and Dr. Seuss, were pulled to the left by the antiwar movement, Ketcham has become more vocally conservative. Ketcham, today, expresses discomfort with many permissive ideals:

I have a built-in conservative straight arrow in me that pops to the surface like Old Faithful, especially where children are concerned. There is a Behavior I expect, certain codes of dress and etiquette I demand, and areas of language and respect I insist upon. I am painfully aware that this is extremely old-fashioned and out of step in light of today's permissiveness...but there is no room for fads in these basic matters. The fundamentals must never vary if we plan to peacefully share space with others.

In the 1950s, however, Ketcham often appealed to permissive childrearing experts to authenticate his representation of "normal" American boyhood. quickly was codified as the normal pattern of development. Ketcham told a group of high school newspaper editors in 1954, for example, that he had been assured by "child psychiatrists" that Dennis's antics "demonstrate a four-year-old's normal curiosity in the world opening up around him." While Ketcham claimed to be "just as bamboozled as the next parent," he proudly shared a letter from an unnamed child psychiatrist with Women's Day readers in 1956 which lavishly praised his understanding of children's "human nature." A 1954 Time magazine essay used a Dennis cartoon to illustrate a report on a national conference of child psychiatrists, quoting Ketcham as suggesting that "Dennis the Menace could have told the child psychiatrists long ago that there was something wrong with all of the rules." Ketcham formed a company in the mid-1950s to design playgrounds which reflect the tastes, activities and interests of children rather than those of their parents; he described the playgrounds in terms which stress the active, spontaneous, uninhibited, and creative child who was the permissive ideal.

Ketcham often told stories of his own son, Dennis, who helped to inspire the cartoon character, grounding the strip in his own parenting experiences. Ketcham describes in his autobiography how the "spark" for the strip emerged from a particularly problem-ridden day with his four year old:

The little darling was supposed to be taking a nap. Instead, he had spent the better part of one hour quietly dismantling his room -- bed, mattress, springs, dresser, drapes and curtain rods. When the accidental load he carried in his underpants was added to his collection of plastic toys, cookie crumbs, and leftover peanut butter sandwich, it formed an unusual mix.

Alice, his wife, started screaming at him when he returned home from work, "YOUR son is a MENACE!" Here, Ketcham evokes an image of domestic disorder and flared tempers, accounting for why Dennis so often seemed like a "menace" to his parents and other adult authority figures. Such images were common in the Dennis strips of the 1950s. The titles of the paperback collections of Dennis cartoons often depict the home or the playschool as a contested space, a site of struggle between parents and children (And In This Corner...Dennis the Menace, Dennis the Menace v.s. Everybody); Dennis is characterized in other book titles as Teacher's Threat and Household Hurricane, even if he was also a Happy Half-Pint and Make-believe Angel. In one early panel, Henry snarls at his wife, "I hope I live long enough to cause him as much trouble as he's causing me!" In another, Alice stands over the remains of a shattered lamp, Dennis still clutching its cord, and gasps, "That SETTLES it! You're going to be an only child!" The image of Henry, red in the face in anger, drenched to the bone, rattled out of his sleep, or locked out of his own house must have spoken to frazzled young parents, struggling to apply Spock's book -- and fantasizing about using it to paddle their unruly child's bottom. The give-and-take of the permissive family is suggested by another cartoon, where Dennis stands in the midst of a toy-strewn living room and asks his father, "Wanna draw straws to see who picks up my toys?" Or in another, Dennis organizes a revolt of Kindergartners against their teacher, "Wash your hands! Drink your milk! Take your nap! Don't you see what she's doin'? She's BOSSIN' Us!"

No matter how much Henry may contemplate a more aggressive response, the worst punishment Dennis ever receives is being forced to sit in the corner or being sent to bed without a dessert, disciplinary actions most permissive guides would have found acceptable. A noteworthy exception is a 1950s vintage cartoon simply labeled "Discipline," which shows Dennis reaching for a cookie from a plate, being swatted in the hand by his mother, crying bitterly and then, as soon as Alice's back is turned, lunging for the cookie plate again with renewed determination. Traditional forms of discipline are not only inappropriate but ineffectual in the world of Dennis the Menace. Dennis means no harm. As Ketcham notes,"Mischief seems to follow wherever Dennis appears, but it is the product of good intentions, misdirected helpfulness, good-hearted generosity, and possibly, an over-active thyroid."

American parents clearly identified with Henry and Alice. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, newspapers around the country ran essay contests where proud permissive parents sought to demonstrate "why your youngster most resembles Dennis the Menace." In each contest, Hank Ketcham promised to use the winning entry as the basis for a newspaper panel, recasting the real-world incident with Dennis and his family. The children described in contest entries often display levels of aggressiveness towards the adult world far beyond anything found in the funny papers. One boy ripped all the buttons off his aunt's blouse in the middle of Christmas dinner and took great pleasure in going around unzipping zippers, especially those on the back of women's skirts; another removed his mother's bathing suit top on a crowded beach. Young cooks were described as preparing pancakes on Mommy's bed spread, storing butterscotch under the sofa cushions, baking Dad's golf balls in a muffin tin, putting the oatmeal box in the oven, or drinking a bottle of bleach. The contest children seemingly inhabited a world of minimal parental supervision or constraint. One boy tripped a fire alarm at a professional basketball game; another "climbed out the upstairs window and swung on the telephone line"; a third took his father's wallet and passed out money to all of the children in the neighborhood. Parents expressed pride in their children's destructive tendencies, bragging that "the life of an average toy is four hours." Ketcham, in turn, embraced and celebrated their misbehavior, writing of one contest winner, "Freddy Klinger...seems to be all boy and all American and I'm glad his parents have a sizable farm in which he can expend his amazing energy and imagination."

As these comments suggest, what a previous generation might have regarded as the worst kind of misbehavior was here tolerated and even celebrated as "natural" and "normal" parts of growing up. Far from a "menace," Dennis is simply an adventurous young boy who wants to explore and understand the adult world. In early comic strip panels, Dennis was sometimes demonic, as in one where he teaches a neighborhood kid how to make a pretty effective weapon by filling a sock with sand. An early publicity picture of the real-world Ketcham family shows Dennis clubbing his parents with a baseball bat. As Ketcham developed a firmer sense of the character, he increasingly "set limits" on Dennis's conduct. Ketcham protested a proposed publicity photograph showing Jay North trying to trip a man on crutches:

He is not a Katzenjammer kid. He is a totally well-meaning, totally honest little boy. Everything he does is out of curiosity, energy or just because he is being helpful -- in short, all the things that are normal in a young animal. Always there is his belief that he is doing the right thing. If a child is provoked into an action, he usually has a logical reason. In most cases he is perfectly justified in what he's done.

If Ketcham's Dennis the Menace revived the "bad boy" genre associated with the Katzenjammer Kids , permissive discourse rendered the bad boy's potentially antisocial impulses "innocent" and "normal."

Writing in 1951, Martha Wolfenstein identified "a changing conception of human impulses and an altered evaluation of play and fun" within the dominant childrearing practices. Newer conceptions of childhood embraced "fun morality," an acceptance of sensation, pleasure, spontaneity as important parts of how humans grow and learn. She saw permissiveness as standing in stark contrast to the more discipline-centered approach of pre-war authorities. The paradigm reformation reflected both changing understandings of child psychology (particularly the emergence of a Freudian model of child sexuality) and larger shifts within the American society from a culture of production towards a culture of consumption.

At the risk of being overly schematic, parental power was exercised in a repressive rather than a permissive fashion within the pre-war conception of childrearing. Prewar parents rigidly controlled children's bodies and regulated their sensory experience. Child study experts characterized children as "endowed with strong and dangerous impulses...notably autoerotic, masturbatory and thumb-sucking." Children, the authorities feared, would be "spoiled" by too much pampering, seduced by sensuous environments and softened by mother love. The impulses had to be contained and mastered, rather than redirected or sublimated. Masturbatory impulses were met with physical restraint. The child's room was to be kept sparse and orderly, lest too much visual stimulation might provoke uncontrollable urges and impulses. Discipline, control, regularity was essential, with behaviorist assumptions underlying much of the advice. By feeding the child on a regular schedule, putting it to bed and picking it up according to the clock, toilet training it at the appropriate age, the parent would instill in their infant good "habits" for adult life. A 1929 child-rearing guide identified the "habits" which good parenting should foster: self-control, obedience, self-reliance, consideration for others, honesty and sincerity, and service. No mention was made of the personality traits much valued by permissive discourse, such as spontaneity, creativity, curiosity, or expressive individualism. The development of good habits required absolute and unwavering parental authority. Ada Hart Arlitt's The Child From One to Six (1930) called for the home to be regulated not by "mother love" but by "the kitchen timepiece" and argued that parents should "cut down the number of times that one speaks to the child. Speak only when necessary then expect to be obeyed." The signs of adult authority were to be overt and unmistakable; the separation between the child's sphere and the parent's sphere was to be rigidly enforced.

The new postwar generation, on the other hand, saw children's groping fingers as evidence of an innate curiosity about the world. Constraint, far from necessary, was potentially harmful to the child's natural development; critics denounced behaviorism as "brainwashing" that constituted "a throttling of the child's spontaneity and a stifling of his creativity." Parents were encouraged to relinquish some of their traditional authority so that children could develop autonomy and self-worth. A period of tightly scheduled feedings gave way to feeding on demand; mothers who once were cautioned to ignore children if they cried out of loneliness were now encouraged to play with them, take pleasure in time spent together. Permissive writers, such as Spock, described a world where children's sexual and bodily interests were natural and healthy, where play serves a central role in the child's mental and social development, where problems can be solved by redirecting and rechanneling exploratory impulses. The permissive household was to be organized around the child with the parent (typically the mother) taught to read the child's body (its cries, its excrement, its complexion, its gestures) for signs of unsatisfied desires and needs. What once seemed to be dangerous impulses were now seen as natural and not open to change; the parents should find ways to restructure the family routine or the domestic space to fully facilitate them. Not surprisingly, the brunt of this accommodation falling on the backs of mothers who remained the dominant domestic figure despite a new ideology stressing the playful and companionate role of the father in childrearing.

From the outset, Spock links psychoanalysis with consumerism and democratic ideals to create an approach uniquely suited to childrearing in suburban America. The Journal of American History, vol67, no.3, Spring 1980, pp.612-629; Michael Zuckerman, "Dr. Spock: The Confidence Man" in Charles Rosenberg (Ed.), The Family in History (Philadelphia: 1975). This more child-centered home, which Martha Weinman Lear's The Child Worshipers (1963) described as "plasticized, laminated, veneered, ironized, aluminized, asphalt-tileized, metal-frame-ized, and otherwise sterilized beyond all aesthetic consideration," was a godsend to consumer capitalism. Wall coverings, carpets and furniture were sold to permissive parents on the basis of their child-resistant surfaces ("In your family room, it's 'do!' -- not 'don't!'); jeans and kid's shoes were marketed on the basis of their ability to withstand the inevitably rough treatment of a healthy boy or girl. In a 1950s television commercial, a mother returns home from grocery shopping to find her three children hopping on Pogo sticks on her freshly mopped kitchen floor. "Sometimes my kids seem like a bunch of kangaroos!" she complains, but then, shrugs towards the camera, "what can I do? I can't change my family." An authoritative male announcer explains, "True but you can change your floor wax." Beacon floor wax, we are told, make floors safe from "heavy family traffic." The pre-war authority, John B. Watson, had insisted that children were "made not born," but within the permissive household, the child's rambunctious and disorderly impulses can be accommodated, but not changed.

Popular culture often based comic or dramatic generational conflict around this shifting conception of appropriate childrearing practice. Hank Ketcham structured Dennis the Menace around the basic opposition between the child-centered Mitchells and the child-hostile George Wilson, suggesting the divide between the pre-war and post-war paradigMs. Dennis's problems often stem from his attempt to deal with the suburban neighborhood as an extension of his free and easy domestic sphere. As George remarks in one strip, "he sleeps over there but he lives over here." Dennis barges into the Wilson's house unannounced, helps himself to food from their icebox and when it isn't provided, coaxes the grandmotherly Martha to fix cookies. He expects George to become his playmate, just as permissive guides stressed the playful dimensions of contemporary fatherhood. George's angry responses stem from the expectation of more traditional forms of discipline. In Mr. Wilson's world, children are to be seen and not heard; their misbehavior is to be punished; rules and regulations are to be strictly obeyed. Dennis's impulsiveness strikes him as anarchic and barbaric.

By the time the comic strip came to television in the 1959-60 season, the neighborhood has "mellowed" towards Dennis, just as the society at large had embraced a permissive culture. Jay North played Dennis as such a clean-cut, good-spirited, and polite boy that the other characters often found it difficult to dislike him. Joseph Kearn's George Wilson is at times a cranky killjoy but one who is consistently linked to adult consumption and recreation, spending his days trying to put his stamp and coin collection in order, outraged over the constant destruction of his flowerbeds. He also displays a good deal of affection for the boy next door, helping Dennis build a soapbox derby, participating in July 4th competitions. Assuming the central role following Kearn's death, John Wilson (Gale Gordon), George's brother, adopts an even more benign view of Dennis. Himself more active and outgoing, John respects Dennis's spunk and considers him a friend. The neighborhood's growing tolerance of Dennis is aptly displayed in "The New Principal," a 1963 episode dealing with the arrival of a discipline-centered principal at the local school. Mr. Spivey tells his students that his demands are simple: "work hard, make good grades, conduct yourself properly and give me no trouble." When Dennis runs into trouble with this new authority figure, the community rallies around him, with many of his previous foes pretending to be his absent father and defending his decency so that he can play in the little league game. As permissiveness gained greater acceptance and the pre-war paradigm became a faint memory, Dennis seemed much less a menace than the "all-American" boy who was the pride of his community and whose innocent curiosity could be taken in stride.


Between the innocence of babyhood and the dignity of manhood we find a delightful creature called a boy....A boy is truth with dirt on its face, beauty with a cut on its finger, wisdom with bubblegum in its hair, and the hope of the future with a frog in its pocket....A boy is a composite -- he has the appetite of a horse, the digestion of a sword swallower, the energy of a pint-size atomic bomb, the curiosity of a cat, the lungs of a dictator, the imagination of a Paul Bunyon, the shyness of a violet, the audacity of a steel trap, the enthusiasm of a firecracker."
-- Press release, Dennis the Menace, circa 1953 as he represented it in Dennis the Menace.

Permissiveness ushered in the era of what Leslie Fiedler called "The Good Bad Boy." As Fiedler notes, the Good Bad Boy's badness is "a necessary spice to his goodness," with his mischievousness and disrespect for the established order a mark of his masculinity. The Good Bad Boy, for Fiedler, represented America's self-perception as "crude and unruly...[but possessing] an instinctive sense of what is right."

Not all writers of the period, however, embraced this benign conception of the permissive-reared child, evoking instead the image of "wild Indian kids bucking control -- outstanding in wilfulness but flunking in perseverance -- natural candidates, all, for juvenile delinquency." Jules Henry's Culture Against Man warned that permissiveness had reconfigured the oedipal conflict with the mother and father competing with each other for the attentions of the child. Henry's anxiety about child rule is vividly represented in Jerome Bixby's acclaimed 1953 science fiction short story, "It's a Good Life," later adopted as an episode for Rod Sterling's Twilight Zone. Here, not only the parents but the entire community cowers before the fickle will of a psychically powerful brat. Whatever he demanded was judged "good" by the adults since otherwise, he will punish them with his superpowers.

Dennis the Menace straddles the line between Leslie Fiedler's "Good Bad Boy" and Jules Henry's domestic tyrant, with much of that ambiguity tied to the more problematic issue of the audience. Ketcham initially saw the comic strip as appealing to "the babysitting age," young adults, particularly parents, in their twenties and thirties. Much of the earliest Dennis merchandise, such as BBQ aprons, cocktail glasses, and matchbooks, were aimed at adult consumers. Quickly, however, Ketcham discovered that the strip had tremendous appeal to children who imitated Dennis's antics "much as they would play cowboys and Indians." Here, the "menace" becomes a role-model and therefore, Ketcham responded to greater pressure to make his behavior comprehensible and sympathetic. The television series was pitched to this same double audience of menaced adults and "happy half-pints." Series writer Bill Cowley told the LA Mirror:

We don't consider Dennis a show for children. It gives adults a chance to recapture their childhood. We think a great many sophisticates watch Dennis for relaxation. Don't forget that Albert Einstein used to play the violin and that the late secretary Foster Dulles polished pots and pans as a hobby.

A disgruntled Hank Ketcham scribbled in the margin of his scrapbook, "What has this got to do with watching a kiddie show?" After all, this program for "sophisticates" was scheduled immediately following Lassie on Sunday nights. Following its cancellation, Dennis the Menace was aired as part of CBS's Saturday morning line-up.

Such ambiguities had long surrounded the "Bad Boy" figure. Anne Trensky has identified two icons of American childhood emerging in 19th century literature aimed at both children and adults. On the one hand, there was the "saintly child" of feminine fiction, the sentimental ideal whose virtue and innocence redeems the adult world; born martyrs, these children are ultimately too good to live and must die in the books' melodramatic conclusions. The saintly child was most often a girl (though Trensky notes some boys who were described as having "girlish appearances and mannerisms") and was depicted with "pale skin and golden curls." On the other hand, there was the "bad boy" of the masculine imagination, the puckish protagonist of such books as Story of a Bad Boy (1870), A Boy's Town (1890), Tom Sawyer (1876), The Real Diary of a Real Boy (1903) or Being a Boy (1877). The Bad Boy books, she suggests, parody the "sentimental and pious child literature," pitting an aggressive, free-spirited boy against maternal authority, not to mention saintly but spoiled siblings. The bad boy was "rough and tough, quick to play and quick to fight," a shrewd judge of character, intolerant of adult hypocrisies. His pleasure often came in escaping adult control (playing hookey, going barefoot, sneaking off to the river for a swim, or steeling apples from the neighbors yard). If the "saintly child" stories are part of the process Vivianna Zelizer calls the "sacralization" of the child Lynn Spigel, "Seducing the Innocent", op.cit., the "bad boy" literature represented the carnivalization of the child, the celebration of boyhood as a liminal and ludic moment still free from stifling civilization. Interesting, both genres were written to be read by both children and adults, the saintly child a product of the adult female desire for sentimental fiction and the bad boy responsive to an adult male need for comic freedom.

Arguably, the two genres were responsive to the same historical shifts, specifically the increased isolation of the domestic space from the realm of production. As numerous social historians have noted, the agrarian and crafts-based economies of the late 18th and early 19th century gradually gave way to a industrial and factory based economy, which required the husband, the principle breadwinner, to leave the home to work, resulting in the increased domestic authority of the mother. The saintly child lives comfortably within this new feminine-centered household, an embodiment of maternal culture and true womanhood. The bad boy inhabits what E. Anthony Rotundo describes as "Boy Culture," a masculine space existing just outside the mother's watchful eyes. At a time when boys no longer had easy access to the professional world of grown men, Boy Culture allowed them to develop the daring, autonomy and mastery needed to function in a world apart from women. Boy Culture, Rotundo stresses, was an informal and unstructured "course of training for manhood." However, the spontaneity of Boy Culture contrasted sharply with the duty and responsibility awaiting the adult male. Rotundo's Boy Culture was, however, on the verge of disappearing by the late 19th century. With the shift from agrarian to urban (and later suburban) lifestyles, free play gave way to structured organizations for boys, such as the YMCA, the Little League, or the Boy Scouts, which more consciously convey an adult sense of responsibility rather than the pleasures of romping barefoot in the grass.

By the early 20th century, more pathologized Bad Boys appeared in countless early prank films , early comic strips (such as The Yellow Kid or The Katzenjammer Kids), or the popular Peck's Bad Boy books. If the 19th century Bad Boys came from middle class, rural or smalltown backgrounds, the early 20th century Bad Boys were working-class street urchins often from Irish or "Dutch" immigrant families. Their pranks reflect overt hostility towards adults rather than a desire to simply escape their control. As the advertising slogan for the Peck books suggested, "One such boy in every community would retard the march of civilization. One such boy in every family would drive the whole world mad." Peck's Bad Boy (1883) consistently sought to cause his "pa" physical injury, to expose him to public ridicule, or to reveal his drunkenness, gambling, and womanizing to his moralistic mother. If such works reflect a growing horror at children's misbehavior and a fear of their sexual precociousness consistent with prewar authoritarian parenting, George Peck still recognized essential masculine traits in the Bad Boy: "Those who are readiest to play innocent jokes, and who are continually looking for chances to make Rome howl, are the most apt to turn out to be first-class business men." Here, as in the earlier stories, there is an assumption that the world beyond maternal control is the space where boys learn how to become men. However, most often, these stories end with the Bad Boy receiving much deserved, often corporal, punishment for his transgressions, restoring appropriate discipline and proper authority.

The good-natured representation of the Bad Boy found in Dennis the Menace has more in common with the nostalgic tales of 19th century smalltown life than the brutal slapstick of 20th century urban comedy. As Ketcham stressed, Dennis was NOT a Katzenjammer Kid. Living in a world which brings them constant and often unwelcome attention from adults, Dennis, Tommy and Joey try to construct Rotundo's "Boy Culture" amidst the grassy lawns, parks, and vacant lots of American suburbia. If the 19th century Bad Boy primarily sought a refuge from his overly protective mother and the early 20th century Bad Boy sought vengeance on his disciplinarian father, Dennis wants acceptance and understanding from the adult male community. If the problem which led to the rise of the Bad Boy figure was the isolation of the realm of adult male activity from the domestic scene of childhood, Dennis's actions reintegrate the space of boys and the space of men. Many of the television episodes are set in late afternoon or on the weekends, at times when his father is likely to be at home and thus capable of being drawn into the commotion.

As Jay North's Dennis barges past closed doors and snoops into closets, he unearths much that went unsaid about the experience of "Organization Men" and suburban-dwellers and about the great gender divisions which separated male and female experience of the American family. Often, he reveals a breakdown of social ties within the suburban community. As many social historians have noted, suburbanization was often advertised as a move to safer, friendlier neighborhoods, though it was experienced as a loss of the extended social networks that characterized older, ethnic, urban neighborhoods. Dennis finds it remarkably simple to set neighbor against neighbor, as in "The Man Next Door" where the couple across the street becomes convinced that Mr. Wilson is the "silk stocking bandit" reported in the local news while Dennis coaxes Mr. Wilson into breaking into their house in search of stolen jewels. In "Dennis and the Witch Doctor", a series of coincidences spark gossip that Mr. Wilson is practicing voodoo. John Wilson has brought back a witchdoctor's mask from Africa and wants to share his experiences with the neighbors. As fearful rumors spread, the neighbors refuse to come to his party. Ultimately, the police and much of the neighborhood arrive to break up the gathering, finding only Dennis and the other kids eating cake and watching Wilson's home movies. The community's willingness to believe such a silly story about Wilson and their desire to use the local police to enforce community standards point to their inhospility to cultural difference.

Dennis's antics also reveal deep-rooted fears about the potential loss of male autonomy and heroic stature as men became corporate cogs and suburban homeowners. "The Pioneers" opens with Wilson huffing and puffing over a newspaper editorial that claims "the men of this town are a generation of weaklings" compared to their pioneer fathers. After Wilson writes a heated response, the newspaper challenges him to live off the land for a weekend and thus "prove to the world and our readers that modern man is not a cream puff." When Martha wisely refuses to accompany him on this "great adventure," Wilson drags along Henry and Dennis. Much of the episode centers around their clumsy attempts to hunt, fish, set up camp, and survive in the wilderness under the watchful eye of Dennis and the newspaper photographer. The sad truth, the episode suggests, is that suburban men are poor imitations of frontiersmen and might be better off staying at home watching Maverick.

Consistently, the series' male protagonists fall short of their hypermasculine fantasies, often "infantalized" by their close and persistent contact with "Boy Culture." Jules Henry had warned that the loss of traditional masculine authority was one of the negative consequences of permissiveness: "The American father can no longer stand for a Law or for a Social Order he often can neither explain nor defend sensibly against the challenges of his wife and children....It seems to him better to relax and have fun." A Parents magazine ad for a series of childcare books summarizes the problem: "Every Dad wants to be a Pal as well as a good disciplinarian -- but how to be both when your time with your child is so limited? How to win his love and respect as well as his obedience?"

If traditional patriarchal authority was breaking down, permissive discourse encouraged a more playful mode of fathering. Spock notes that "a boy needs a friendly, accepting father. Boys and girls need a chance to be around with their father, to be enjoyed by him, and if possible, to do things with him." Spock stressed the importance of fathers helping their sons to learn how to become a man: "give him the feeling he's a chip off the old block, share a secret with him, take him alone on excursions sometimes." The image of the father as pal, often wallowing on the ground with his kids or allowing them to "play horsey" on his back, recurs throughout permissive era advertising. Dennis the Menace characters appeared in a 1956 advertising campaign for Quick Cream of Wheat. Consistently, the ads depicted Alice preparing Dennis's breakfast, putting him in his winter coat, or watching through the window while Dennis and Henry shoveled snow, splashed in the rain or made a snowman together. "They'll love you for thinking of this," the ad copy says, suggesting that both Henry and Dennis will be grateful for Alice's mothering.

Yet, as Robert L. Griswold notes, the new post-war conception of fatherhood represented a reform, rather than a radical shift, in the gender politics of the family. The mother still maintained primary childcare responsibilities, while the father retained primary and often exclusive responsibility as a breadwinner. Men were learning to play catch with their sons and sip tea with their daughters, but they still weren't changing diapers or cooking their meals (aside from the occasional backyard cookout.) While stressing his importance in childrearing, the permissive literature assumes that the father is often away during key moments in his children's lives. A popular campaign for cameras suggested that mothers should photograph children's daytime activities since "moments like this won't wait for Dad!" A photo tip column in Parents expressed a similar concern that family albums might be "filled with pictures of feminine family members while Dad and the boys are conspicuously missing." Its solution was to urge mothers to photograph those activities the modern dad does with his son such as "teaching and joining in a variety of sports and hobbies....washing the family car, painting a fence or repairing a lawn mower." The problem, then, is how to bridge the gap between the father's world and the son's. The most common solution was for the father to join into "Boy Culture," as Henry and Mr. Wilson consistently do in Dennis the Menace. Jules Henry notes that fathers were most often liked because they were willing to participate in the son's activities rather than because they included their sons in their adult interests. Far from preparing the boy for manhood, permissive fatherhood, he feared, represented a retreat back into boyhood:

When a man acts like a boy, he has the impulses of one; often he wants to be a boy because as a child he was protected, though as a man he is vulnerable. The hostility, competition and strain men experience in their occupational lives make them feel exposed and fearful. When a man acts like a boy in the bosom of his family, he can feel that he is accepted and protected by his family as he was by his father and mother when he was a child.

Television's Dennis the Menace centers not only around Henry's playful attempts to become an active participant in his son's life but also the ways that Dennis's playlife bears strong parallels to the anxieties of Henry's professional life. Here, the world of adult men is marked by the ongoing conflicts between insecure yes-men and bragging bullies. The program frequently links Henry's workplace competition against the self-important Mr. Brady and Dennis's schoolhouse feud with the bully, Johnny Brady. Most often, the adult antagonisms are played out through the boys as the two men try to best each other at egg tosses, little league games, and soap box derbies. "The Club Initiation" contrasts Dennis's initiation into the Scorpions, a gang of older boys, with Mr. Wilson's own attempts to gain acceptance into the local country club; Dennis's pranks, which involve keeping a live goat overnight in Wilson's garage, push the adult to more and more erratic behavior. Dennis ultimately rejects the exclusive Scorpions to form his own club with his friends, which, Wilson, having been rejected from the country club, is invited to join.

If they are prepared to take on more parental responsibilities, Henry and Mr. Wilson hunger for something that pushes them beyond the safety and security of their suburban homes. Episodes like "Dennis in Gypsyland" (where Mr. Wilson plans to run off with a gypsy caravan) or "Henry's New Job" (where Henry plans to quit his job and build bridges in the Indian jungles) cast the adult males in the ranks of Barbara Ehrenreich's "gray flannel dissidents." Her important book, The Hearts of Men, suggests that while men underwent intensified pressure to become fathers and breadwinners in the 1950s, they also expressed increased frustration and dissatisfaction in these roles, pointing towards a flight from domestic commitment which would reshape the American family over subsequent decades. Flight from Commitment (Doubleday, 1984). Almost any event might spark the male hunger for something more in life than washing the station wagon or cutting the lawn. When Wilson purchases an old chest at a local auction in "The Treasure Chest," both boys and men display a strong urge to believe it is a pirate's box. Dennis and Tommy use the old coat and spyglass Wilson finds in the box to play pirate, making a pretend map and stuffing it into the vest pocket. When Wilson finds the map, he is convinced it's real and ropes several of the men, including Henry and the town banker, into financing a boat trip to Marsh Island to recover the buried loot. The "practical" Alice and Martha question the men's boyish pleasure in treasure-hunting, but the men disregard them: "women have no sense of adventure." Here, as elsewhere in the series, the men are portrayed as overgrown boys while their wives are cast as nurturing and forgiving mothers. Ultimately, the men's pirate fantasy is shattered when they learn that the map is fake. As Ehreinreich wrote of their contemporaries, Henry "stayed where he was because he could not think of anywhere to go. If he blamed the corporation for his emasculation, he was not about to leave his job....If he blamed women, he was not about to walk away from the comforts of home." The result was a male culture seething with resentment and ripe with misogyny. If men were trapped in no-where jobs and conformist lifestyles, women were their jailers, their "ball and chain" or so the mythology went.

Just as the 19th century "Bad Boy" genre embraced a "Boy Culture" that defined itself in opposition to maternal constraint, the male protagonists in Dennis the Menace struggle against the encroachment of women onto their world. Misogynistic conflicts surface everywhere from Mr. Wilson's ongoing antagonism with the spinster Miss Elkins to Dennis's attempts to dodge Margaret's persistent invitations to "play house." Margaret's efforts to domesticate Dennis are constantly rebuffed, often with a marked attempt to draw a crisp line between masculine- and feminine-appropriate activities. In "Junior Pathfinders Ride Again," Dennis expresses chagrin when he learns that the troopmaster has allowed Margaret to be a "squaw" in their fire-starting demonstration: "You just stay out of the victory dance." Margaret obliges, turning around to reveal a doll papoose on her back, "How could I dance with a little one to take care of?" Tommy, however, remains suspicious, "If the pathfinders are letting girls in, I'm going to desert and become a cowboy!" In another episode where Dennis, Tommy and Margaret discuss how one might identify the genders of their pet frogs. One frog is clearly recognizable as a boy because "he keeps his mouth shut" and because of the vigorous way he hops.

Much like Dennis's discussion of frogs, permissive discourse naturalizes gender difference, translating masculinity into spontaneous impulses towards roughhouse and femininity into maternal "instincts" which are felt at an early age. In the terms of permissive discourse, boys will be boys while girls will become mothers. While acknowledging some contemporary changes in gender roles and some "fuzzy" feminist thinking which sought to make women more like men, Spock argued that gender differences in personality began at birth. According to the pediatrician, boys are "restless and insistent and balky from the start" and girls have a greater tendency to "take life as it comes even in the bassinet." He also pointed towards boy's aggressive play with toy guns and cars and girl's interest in playing house as the first signs of a lifelong set of differences between masculine and feminine priorities and interests. From the crib, Spock was arguing, women sought to domesticate men and men sought to escape into realms of fantastic adventure. The oppositional spheres of boys and girls are vividly represented by two contrasting ads that appear on the same page of the March 1959 issue of Parents. In one ad for Mann Ranch's new Super-Tuff Golden Horseshoe Tex'n Jeans, a gang of boys climb and dangle from a backyard tree; "active happy boys prefer Tex'n Jeans" because of their durable construction. In the other ad, a sedate girl models her Sunday School attire: "The prettiest girl in the Easter Parade wears Yorkster's three piece costume: Sugar'n'spice black coat sprinkled with white." Although sharing the same page in Parents, the "Super-Tuff" boy and the "Sugar'n'spice" girl live in different worlds which mirror the separation of the adult feminine and masculine spheres.

Having made remarkably little progress towards bridging that gap, the confrontations between Margaret and Dennis constitute a contemporary restaging of the nineteenth century encounters between the feminine "saintly child" and the masculine "bad boy." The curly-haired, pale-faced Margaret shares many attributes with her predecessors, including piety, obedience, booklearning, cleanliness, good manners, and an unwavering sense of appropriate femininity. Just as the earlier Bad Boy books parodied this sentimental fiction, Ketcham has no sympathy for her domesticating impulses:

There is a Margaret in every man's life...Threatening, bossy, superior, always pursuing, the incipient castrator. Some of us marry her, some escape, and others are rescued...Perhaps she perceives his freedom in speech and action as a challenge to be met. But more likely, the vitality and disorder of his very male personality appeal to her as a Woman's Problem: an untidy room to be cleaned up and put into order.

Dennis escapes from the threat of domesticity into heroic male fantasies of "Cowboy Bob," who never kisses anyone other than his horse, and who knows how to enjoy the manly freedom of the frontier. An early 1960s children's record based on the Dennis television show explicitly links these cowboy fantasies with male flight from domesticity and commitment: "When Margaret cries, 'Dennis, let's play house,'/ I say/ 'Okay'/ But I'm a cowboy with a range to ride/and so I'm leavin' ya', my blushing bride/ I'm gonna ride all night/ I'm gonna ride all day/ I'll never marry, Margaret/ She won't catch me/ I'm leavin', I'm gettin' away." However, Dennis can never fully escape. A recurring theme in both the comic strip and the television series was Dennis's attempts to run away from home, to enjoy the life on the open road as a hobo, only to return again when he ran out of food or developed a fear of the dark. Like the adult males, he hungers for freedom while desiring to be mothered.

If permissive discourse saw gender differences as a set of natural attributes, it also expressed anxiety that sexual identity might be negated by poor socialization. Ginott's Between Parent and Child (1965) advises us that:

Both boys and girls need help in their progress toward their different biological destinies. Parents can help by not demanding the same standard of conduct from both sexes. Boys should be allowed to be more boisterous both because of their greater energy and because society requires them to be more assertive....Boys should not have to bear feminine names, or to wear restrictive clothes, or to grow girls' curls. They should not be expected to be as neat and as compliant as girls, or to have ladylike manners.

The most problematic figure in Dennis the Menace, Joey is constantly torn between playing house with Margaret and playing cowboys with Dennis. In one story from an early 1960s comic book, Margaret convinces Joey to become a "little gentleman" who is "nice and polite and clean" and shuns Dennis's company. Joey rejects Dennis's play as too "rough...an' noisy" until Dennis tricks Margaret into a long anti-cowboy tirade. "See? She don't know nothin'! So lets play!," Dennis exclaims before the two boys engage in backyard shoot-'em-up fun. Despite his allegiance to the cowboy mythos, Joey is a "sissy." The Gesell Institute's Child Behavior (1955) offers a description of a boy very much like Joey:

This is the boy who, from the beginnings, prefers feminine activities and shuns anything rough and tumble. He prefers to play with girls. He favors such activities as painting, singing, play-acting, dressing dolls. He himself loves to dress up in girls' clothes.

Permissiveness rejected the notion that scolding or ridiculing such a child might push him back into gender-appropriate conduct:"the best treatment seems to be to permit these favored activities within certain bounds." For example, one recommendation taught the young boys how to closet their desires: "No lipstick and no flowers in the hat outside the house." Ultimately, most such boys would "grow up to lead perfectly normal personal lives" and might "eventually become outstanding as artists, musicians, or as actors, costume designers, playwrights," professions linked with homosexuality. Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) pp.69-81. A "Mama's boy" like Joey confounded permissiveness's attempts to naturalize gender differences. Even Dennis seems at times confused about appropriate gender behavior in his presence, as in a 1950s cartoon where Dennis asks, "Mom, would you explain to Joey why boys don't play with dolls? I forget." Given the potential "queerness" of this character and his poor fit within the gender-segregated world of Dennis the Menace, it is hardly surprising that the character appeared only infrequently on the television series. His function as Dennis's pal is replaced by the more traditionally rough-and-tumble, girl-hating Tommy, helping to keep the suburban frontier safe for "Cowboy Bob" and his gang.


Taking the so-called 'Menace' out of Dennis might prove to be a real job of subversion and a truly un-American activity....Dennis may be hard to live with at times. Free people are always harder to live with than slaves. We can be sure we are producing sturdy people as long as we can live with our children who possess qualities like Dennis the Menace.
-Dr. James L. Hymes Jr. (1958)

In 1954, Time reported a remarkable political exchange. Vermont Senator Ralph Edward Flanders accused Joseph McCarthy of being Dennis the Menace, suggesting that he consistently masked his political exploits with "the colossal innocence of children who blunder into the most appalling situations as they ramble through the world of adults." McCarthy, true to form, responded by threatening to call Flanders to testify before the Un-American Activities Committee to determine what he knew about "the Menace." Editorial writers rose to Dennis's defense, insisting that the cartoon character had "restored our faith in American boyhood" and that America could use more boys like Dennis when "the kid up the block slugs us in the kisser." Columnist John P. Kelly questioned whether McCarthy had ever been such a boy:

We suppose his mother loved him and still does if she is living. But it's simply inconceivable to think of Joe as a cute little tyke like Dennis the Menace. A Menace, yes, but not Dennis the Menace. McCarthy apparently didn't get the training he should have gotten when he was Dennis's age....This is the brat, the problem child, the kid who throws tantrums, who spits at his mother, who bites his antagonists, who picks on small children in the neighborhood. This isn't Dennis the Menace.

In this cold war context, the contrast between Leslie Fiedler's "Good Bad Boy" and Jules Henry's monstrous child offered politicians and journalists a vocabulary for talking about adult politics.

Children, their bodies, their impulses, their imaginations, had always carried tremendous political significance within permissive discourse. The architects of the post-war permissive culture had mostly been veterans, many of them involved in the management of American opinion during the war. Early permissive books such as Dorothy Baruch's You, Your Children and War (1942), Dorothy V. Whipple's Our American Babies (1944), and C. Madeleine Dixon's Keep Them Human (1942) saw their approaches as fostering "democracy" within the home and contrasting sharply with the authoritarian regimes of the Germans. Arnold Gesell and Frances Ilg's Infant and Child in the Culture of Today (1943) argued that German Kulture "fosters autocratic parent-child relationships, favors despotic discipline...[and] is not concerned with the individual as a person," traits also linked to the pre-war paradigm. A more democratic approach to child-rearing, on the other hand, "exalts the status of the family as a social group, favors reciprocity in parent-child relationships and encourages humane discipline of the child through guidance and understanding." The rules that structured the family and their enforcement constituted the child's first exposure to democracy; they should be applied in a fashion which left the child feeling a full participant in the family's decision making and which allowed the growing boy or girl a sense of their own freedom and autonomy.

Much as the Church once mapped man's relations to his king and his god onto the wife's relations to her husband, permissiveness saw the family as a model for the democratic nation. Selma H. Fraiberg's The Magic Years (1959) compares the permissive father with the American president, since both exerted a form of leadership that "could be challenged and criticized." Fraiberg, however, was skeptical of permissive pretenses of home democracy since "the child does not elect his parents and he is not a responsible and functioning citizen in the society of his family." Fraiberg sought a balance between a totally democratized family which denied the father his patriarchal due and a domestic "tyranny" which crippled the child's sense of freedom and participation. Fraiberg speaks of harsh discipline producing a "neurotic conscience [which] behaves like a gestapo headquarters within the personality...accusing, threatening, tormenting in an interminable inquisition." The strength of the American nation lay in its ability to raise happy, guilt-free, unpersecuted children.

For editorial writers of the 1950s and early 1960s, Dennis became the embodiment of what was right about America. Dennis's attempts to explore the adult world might cause a few problems, but, as James L. Hymes suggested, it was "a wonderfully American kind of response: open, trusting, friendly, cheerful." Dennis possessed qualities which were "inherent in the American way of life," including a strong sense of his own value and an insatiable curiosity about the world: "He tries to find things out. He pokes into things. He explores. An American has to, this is our very nature." Hymes suggests that these would be "the very qualities we would prize in him twenty years from now in a laboratory." Speaking in 1958, Hymes saw Dennis as the perfect response to the Sputnik crisis and to growing anxieties about the American education system.

The television series came to the air in the midst of increasing American concern about the readiness of its children to compete in the space race. If the comic-strip Dennis was most closely associated with the frontier mythology of Cowboy Bob, television's Dennis just as often was shown playing Spacemen. As Dennis remarks in "Trouble From Mars", "we've decided to dessert six shooters for space-guns." Like the traditional "Boy Culture," space becomes a training ground for masculinity and a "frontier" beyond the reach of feminine domesticity. NASA had rejected the idea of female astronauts and so for the immediate future, space might be the one place where men could escape feminine influence. Unfortunately, it was open only for the young; space baffled adults. When they dress up as astronauts in "Trouble From Mars", Dennis and his friends frighten the neighbors who, filled with pulp science fiction fantasies, become convinced that they are "men from mars." Scheduled to be photographed for Graceful Living magazine, Mr. Wilson accidentally gets stuck in Dennis's astronaut helmet, his adult head too big for a spaceman. "The Junior Astronaut" opens with a dream sequence depicting Dennis as an astronaut and Mr. Wilson as mission control. Just as Dennis is preparing for a rocky re-entry, his parents wake him up and we discover that he has fallen asleep over his mathbook. Dennis boasts that he will be an astronaut when he grows up and his father responds, "you might as well be. You're always in orbit anyway!"

The post-Sputnik educational campaigns, with their emphasis on math and science, are often represented as a repudiation of permissive educational and childrearing practices. There was great concern that too many American youngsters were falling asleep over their math books. Yet, Dennis's dream reminds us that there were strong continuities between Sputnik era appeals to science and exploration and permissiveness's focus on children's creativity and imagination. Following permissiveness's "Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down" logic, childrearing articles taught parents how to turn pre-school science and math readiness into fun and play, holding parties with spaceman themes, launching expeditions to better understand the "outer spaces" of nearby meadows, learning to use magnifying glasses and microscopes.

Appropriately enough, Dennis, the "eighth Mercury Astronaut," became the mascot for the United States Junior Astronaut program which encouraged children to buy savings bonds to help pay for the space program; this promotion, which mobilized Dennis's newspaper strip, comic book and television program, effectively linked the permissive child with the exploration of deep space. "Someday," a song on the Dennis record, centers specifically around his hopes that the president will choose him to be the "first boy on the moon." Dennis would be more broadly linked to education in the coming decade as Ketcham produced a series of comicbooks dealing with the boy's adventures around the world, comics designed to direct children's exploratory impulses towards a greater awareness of America's place within the world. If the Bad Boy of the 19th century took great pleasure playing hookey, Dennis, the Bad Boy of the post-war period, was leading the way into the classroom.


Dennis's "Someday" never quite arrived. The President never called him to become the "first boy on the moon." In the real world, the tow-headed youths of the 1950s entered into the "Age of Aquarius" and struggled with their consciences in response to the Vietnam War. If Dennis had been born a real boy in 1951, he would have arrived at draft-age in 1969. Would he have traded in his "Cowboy Bob" buckskins and his Junior Astronaut badge for Army fatigues and a M16 or would he have been one of the "Good Bad Boys" who occupied ROTC buildings and went to Woodstock? Or perhaps we might have read a new comic adventure, Dennis the Menace Goes to Canada? In the eyes of conservative critics, such as Norman Vincent Peale or Spiro Agnew, "permissiveness" was to blame for the revolution. Far from bringing about a new era of democracy, Spock's advice, The New York Times claimed, had "turned out a generation of infants who developed into demanding little tyrants....The small monsters have grown up to be unkempt, irresponsible, destructive, anarchical, drug-oriented, hedonistic non-members of society." This rhetoric evokes the persistent fears of permissive-raised children becoming domestic monsters, or to use Hank Ketcham's suggestive term, Teacher's Threats.

But, as we know, Dennis remained an eternal child, living in his old suburban neighborhood, still pestering good ol' Mr. Wilson, still being raised by permissive principles. Dennis appears in hundreds of American newspapers, the subject of nostalgia for parents and children of the baby boom. Children of the 1990s can watch black-and-white reruns of Dennis on Nickelodeon, can catch a new animated version of the character in syndication, or rent the video of the John Hughes feature film comedy about the boy's antics. Dennis came of age with permissiveness, embodied both its aspirations and its contradictions but he has outlived it and in doing so, he has entered into a twilight zone where popular myths survive beyond their cultural meaningfulness, where old metaphors lose their referents, and old debates get buried in yellowing childrearing books. Dennis no longer seems quite the semiotic "handful" he once did, just another kid strip in the Sunday funnies.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, however, Dennis had enjoyed greater cultural resonance, an important representation of the permissive child. Hank Ketcham had reworked the Bad Boy comic tradition to gain new relevance during a transitional period in the history of the American family. Dennis spoke to parents about their uneasiness in abandoning pre-war disciplinary approaches for the new and still untested methods of permissiveness, embodying the child as at once a "menace" to and an active explorer of the adult world. Dennis also spoke to boys and their fathers about shifting conceptions of gender, about male fears of a loss of heroic status, the adoption of greater childrearing responsibilities, flight from domestic containment and anxieties about the formation of gender and sexual identities. Dennis came to embody a particular conception of American nationhood based on exploration and democracy and he came to become a spokesman for America's space mission and for the new focus on science education. Within this discursive formation, Dennis stood for the permissive child who was always a boy, always an American and always a handful.

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