In the beginning there is misunderstanding

Elke Rüpke

We might think that the parents and teachers of kindergarten children do not yet have to concern themselves with the subject of sexuality. Is that not a subject which is inappropriate at this age?

In fact, actual sexuality which requires mature sexual organs and is associated with clear sexual needs and the search for a sexual partner, only emerges biologically, emotionally and spiritually from adolescence onwards. It is only at puberty that the physical and psychological conditions arise for this developmental step on the way to adulthood. And yet the separate concern of children with questions about, investigation of and games on sexuality do occur occasionally in the first years of life – in the family as well as in kindergarten. Finding out what our own body looks and feels like, perceiving and investigating in greater detail the differences between the genders or understanding how a baby is born – all of these things are fascinating questions for a child.

What can adults and early years teachers contribute to ensuring that their child develops a relationship to questions of sexuality which strengthens the personality and is appropriate for their age? The first step is to reflect on our own attitude to this subject. We are still relaxed and amused as adults about some of the things children say about their own gender identity: “I am a girl because I have pigtails and like pink hair clasps, Luke prefers orange ones, he’s a boy!” We become less relaxed about the child’s urge to investigate when in playing doctors and nurses the sexual organs are inspected and touched for example. Frequently our disquiet about these children’s games is made up of a mixture of influences of which we are not always aware: perhaps a feeling of embarrassment which remains from our own upbringing (“We don’t do that!”), insecurity because we are unsure about what is normal in child development, or a general fear of sexual assault on the child resulting from the investigations into sexual violence against children which are finally taking place.

Doctors and nurses games and their limits

None of this is generally connected with the situation as seen by the child. In all probability they simply want to know and learn something about the parts of the body which would otherwise remain hidden to them. Only if I make myself aware of the origin of my negative feelings in this situation can I look unselfconsciously at what can actually be observed in the child and in many cases I will not have to intervene at all. Without abandoning such a relaxed attitude, however, adults should keep an eye on the children when they are playing doctors and nurses particularly as a group because it can occasionally happen that stronger or older children can get smaller ones through persuasion, enticement or force to show themselves naked or similar to satisfy their thirst for knowledge. Here there is the risk of abuse as smaller children mostly cannot yet defend themselves when they no longer want to continue with the game. Then they need the protection of the adult. A helpful rule in such situations is that such types of game may only take place between children who are of the same age and strength. Just as in “play fights”, the following should additionally also apply: anyone who no longer wants to take part must be allowed to stop at any time. And the more the children have learnt in various situations that they are also allowed to say “no” and do not have to do everything that someone else demands of them, the better they can defend themselves against abuse as they grow older.

Questions and honest answers

The questions about physical gender and its organs are integrated in small children into their experience of the body and their overall knowledge of their own body and the bodies of the people around them. They might have noticed that their little sister or parents look different to themselves when naked. Or they already know that babies grow in their mother’s tummy and want to know whether they come out of the belly button.

The less self-consciously children can ask their questions and receive honest answers appropriate for their level of understanding, the less they experience a taboo which makes them satisfy their thirst by secretive means. In addition an open attitude in the adult enables this area to be discussed between the child and their parents or teacher. That is good prevention if the child later encounters abuse, possibly also of a sexual kind. Because in such cases the child will only turn for help to people from whom it hopes for an open ear on the basis of previous experience in dealing with “difficult questions”.  

In my experience, taking the questions of children seriously and the endeavour to find accurate answers which, adapted to the understanding of the child, should rather be pictorial and poetic than scientifically precise, can lead to wonderful moments of joint wonder about the good and sensible way that the body is organised. That also includes that all parts of the body have a name and can be named if at all possible without embarrassment . Children can only do that if we lead the way as adults and set a good example. If children know that no question is out of bounds, they themselves can choose the point appropriate for their understanding at which to advance their knowledge about the way that babies are born.

In this context I have often experienced that the soul and spiritual part of incarnation, that children come from heaven, is familiar and very easy for them to understand, whereas the physical part, from conception to birth, only becomes a question at a much later stage. A comprehensive understanding of the greater context of the development of a person in the physical, soul and spiritual sphere can only be built gradually in the child over the course of years.

Poetic and therefore authentic stories

One experience in this respect is that it is nicer for children and more appropriate for their understanding if the physical processes they ask about (for example how the baby gets into the tummy) are dealt with descriptively so that they can imagine them for themselves. Their comments and questions let us see where something might still have been incomprehensible or unsuitable. If, in contrast, we show them naturalistic drawings or photos this can often have a repellent effect on children and, being visual, can leave a very disturbing impression because in contrast to descriptive words they are unalterable.

Because children at this age cannot yet comprehend in their feelings the needs and positive feelings associated for adolescents or adults with sexual intercourse, the idea must initially seem strange to them and they depend on bridging this gap by drawing on their own stock of experience and knowledge.

Once they have received answers to their question, they can turn to other fields of experience in their need to understand the world with their minds put at rest.

About the author: Elke Rüpke is a lecturer at the Waldorf Early Years Teacher Training Seminar in Stuttgart. See also the contribution in issue 4/2014.