No fear of playing doctors and nurses. How small children discover gender

Elke Rüpke

When a child is born, one of the first questions asked by the people around is: is it a boy or a girl? For the baby itself that question is irrelevant. His or her needs are of a general human kind: he or she is hungry, thirsty, needs a lot of sleep, loving attention, warmth and physical care in order to be comfortable, irrespective of whether it is a boy or a girl.

Neither can the child’s developmental steps in the first few years be distinguished clearly by gender to begin with: the way and dynamics of learning to walk and speak, the development of first independent thoughts and social development tend to show something of his or her individual personality rather than being typically female or male.

Gender only becomes clear and distinct both physically and emotionally with the transition from child to adolescent in puberty.

The physical sign of this is the onset of puberty which is associated with the “release of the astral body”, as Rudolf Steiner described it. Not until then is there a basis for the inner experience of our own gender. To this extent a clear qualitative distinction must be made in the way we handle questions of sexuality in adolescence and adulthood or in childhood. But this developmental stage has many prerequisites and builds on prior experiences even in early childhood. In what form, then, do small children occupy themselves with aspects which we subsequently assign to gender and sexuality?

Curiosity and the interest in our own and the other person’s body

When babies start in the first year of life to grasp and feel things, they are gradually exploring their whole body in so far as they can reach it in order to familiarise themselves with it.

That includes playing with their hands and feet, it also includes the genitals, and children do that quite unselfconsciously. Some children notice in infancy already that their genitals react with particular sensitivity to touch and that rubbing them can produce a nice, pleasurable feeling. In this way so-called “self-gratification” can be a means by which children sooth themselves or create a sensory perception. The increase in all-day kindergartens in which the children have a sleep after lunch means that this phenomenon has also become observable for daycare staff. The curiosity to explore our own body is later joined by the interest also on some occasion to see other children or even adults naked, and eventually by the well-known game of “doctors and nurses” which we frequently encounter among five-year-olds. All these things are not yet about sexual pleasure for the children but about the basic need to become familiar with the world. Why should they make an exception with regard to such elementary aspects as the human body and physical differences between the genders?

From the second year of life onwards, children begin to understand that girls and boys, women and men are different and that they themselves are either a girl or a boy. But the distinctions they mention tend for several years to be externally visible factors such as clothing, hair and beards, voice level or playing with particular toys. They also sometimes still consider it possible that someone is first a boy and then becomes a girl later on. These are the first steps on the years-long path to our own gender identity.

Jokes and swearwords

Most children turn “dry” between the ages of two and four, although individually that can happen at very different stages. They begin to notice for themselves when they need to go to the toilet and begin to be able to control their sphincter. At this age they are often very proud about this and their “products”. This is very frequently accompanied by “wee-wee” and “poo” turning into a sustained topic in children’s conversations and jokes over a longer period of time. Some children now also like on occasion to display their naked penis, vagina or bottom at home or in kindergarten to larger or smaller groups. Like everything else we have mentioned so far, these are developmental phases which by no means occur with every child in this way but which belong to the normal psychosexual development of children and in most cases disappear again by themselves after a while.

At some point thereafter, the feeling of embarrassment about their body develops in every child which can be recognised in that they no longer want to leave the door open when they go to the toilet or prefer to change alone in their own cubicle at the swimming pool. The time when this happens is different for every child, as can easily be observed in siblings: the range can extend from three to nine years old. But this feeling is also strongly dependent on upbringing and the moral ideas which happen to be prevalent at the time in their culture. A further field in the everyday life of children in which references to sexuality can be found is the use of rude words and swearwords or maybe even the imitation of sexual intercourse in children of pre-school age. In both cases we can safely assume that they have picked up something somewhere which has a certain excitement value for the observing participants and which they now imitate without generally having understood the proper meaning, even if it may be associated with much giggling!

The above aspects can show that the psychosexual development of small children frequently runs its course out of sight and is only partly revealed through the observable expression of behaviour. But in dealing with it, the following applies: the knowledge that the occupation with questions of gender generally has its origin in the impulses arising from their interest in the world, and should by no means be interpreted on the basis of the adult understanding of sexuality, can make it easier for us in bringing up children to remain relaxed when they start playing at doctors and nurses and other similar things. That in turn will make it easier for the children later on to find a good and healthy way of dealing with their own body and sexuality.

About the author: Elke Rüpke is a lecturer at the Waldorf Pre-school Teacher Training Seminar in Stuttgart