Emotional development in children

For the fully developed child, both its physical abili- ties and its intellectual capacities and contacts with its environment are combined with certain emotions. Everything a child experiences, its fears, its pleasures, the things it learns or is not able to do, is reflected more strongly than with adults, in its emotion. The emotions of a newborn cannot be traced, but one is inclined to give ‘adult’ explanation to observed behaviour. The more the child is able to express its emotions with the eyes, gestures, or words, the better is one informed of the true emotions of the child.


A child of less than two years old has no concept of adult physical sex differences. If he is used to seeing his parents naked, he will probably take their appearance for granted until he is six or more. A child ‘s awareness of his own sex and that of other children cornes earlier: perhaps when a baby of the opposite sex is born into the family, or when he sees another child naked. A new baby may also prompt questions about reproduction.

Though a child may be unaware of his own sex until he is two-and-a-half or three, he will have experienced quasi-sexual feelings from an early age. A small baby left without a nappy discovers his genitals and the sensations he gets from touching them. Most children play with their genitals, a normal part of sexual development, although they may hardly realize they are masturbating. Only when masturbation becomes obsessive, or is done in public, do parents need to take any notice of it. Obsessive masturbation may be a sign that the child is bored too often, or even that he is disturbed, and professional advice may be needed. Children who masturbate in public can be told that although it is acceptable in private, this should not be done in front of other people.

Sex role identification

Even before they are old enough to realize that there are two sexes, children may be treated differently depending on whether they are male or female. A male infant may be dressed in blue and played with more vigorously by his father than a female who in contrast may be handled more delicately by her parents and dressed in so-called feminine colours such as pink.

Often without meaning to, parents instil sex-role stereotypes in their children at an early age by providing ‘sex-appropriate’ play activities. Research has demonstrated that female children of three years old show more preference for traditionally masculine toys and games than they do at the age of five, after which time they make increasingly more ‘sex-appropriate’ choices.

Assumptions are continually made about intellectual differences between the sexes. Among the differences found, some may be the result of social learning and others the result of biological dispositions. But even those differences that have a biological basis can be modified by learning. For example, girls who initially score lower on visual-spatial tests – thus supporting the traditional belief that boys are superior to girls in the handling of such tests – can equal the boys’ scores with practice.

Social development and play