Several years ago I became enamored with the work of Marxist developmental theorist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky. I have read and cited multiple articles by him as well as two of his most prominent books, including an English translation of Thought and Language (Vygotsky 1986). I was later given a copy of an earlier translation of that same text (Vygotsky 1962), and only now have I gotten around to reading it. This post is not a comparison of the two translations (though where the wording differs between translations I include footnotes with the alternate wording), but rather a discussion of Vygotsky’s theory of concept development and my application of that theory specifically to how children develop an understanding of the concept of gender.
Vygotsky believed that language is a mediator for thought, and that inner speech emerges from external speech by passing through an intermediate stage known as egocentric speech. For the most part, this is not particularly relevant to the discussion of gender concepts and I mention it only because Vygotsky himself states that “Learning to direct one’s own mental processes with the aid of words or signs is an integral part of the process of concept formation” (1962, p. 59; 1986, p. 108)
So when Vygotsky states, “the word to the child is a property, rather than the symbol, of an object” (1962, p. 50) at the end of the chapter immediately preceding his discussion of concept development, he is setting the stage for a discussion of children’s understanding of the properties of objects in which the word for the object becomes an integral part not only of the child’s conceptual understanding of the object, but of the object itself. (While Vygotsky uses the general term “object,” I am applying his theory to the concept of gender, which is a property of people. When I therefore use the term “object” in this post to refer to a person I do not intend it in a demeaning or objectifying manner; I am simply utilizing the terminology of the author of the text being discussed.)
In gender development, the words “boy” and “girl” are the ones that children are coming to understand. What does it mean to a young child to be a “boy” or to be a “girl”? How do these words as properties of people influence how the child sees the person, or indeed how the child sees themselves?
Phase 1 – Syncretism (The Pregendered Stage)
Vygotsky tells us that “The young child takes the first step toward concept formation when he puts together a number of objects in an unorganized congeries, or ‘heap,’ in order to solve a problem” (1962, p. 59; 1986, p. 110). He identifies several stages within this phase, starting with trial-and-error.
I have seen this to varying degrees in toddlers who use gender pronouns interchangeably, refer to me as “Ms. Jeff” just as often as “Mr. Jeff”, and who see nothing wrong with boys playing princesses or girls playing superheroes, though they may tend to gravitate themselves toward neither. In some ways, this stage is the feminist ideal, in which the concept of differentiation between genders is virtually nonexistent. I would call this the “pregendered” stage of gender concept development.
Of course, as anybody who has worked with children will undoubtedly recognize, toddlerhood is not quite the universal feminist utopia that I would seem to be painting here. Nonetheless, the pregendered stage, while still marred by the cultural influence of gender imposition, does exist in my experience, to a greater or lesser degree, as can be seen in the following interaction in one toddler classroom I taught in several years ago:
Liam (age 2) is underneath the climbing structure with the chimes. Any time another child comes near, Liam tells them, “This is my house.” Seeing the reactions of the other children to being rejected, I decide to intervene. When Liam rejects Mario (age 2) I suggest that maybe Mario is the Daddy in Liam’s house. Liam says, “No, I’m the Daddy.” I start to suggest that Mario could be the brother when Mario decides to take the role of the Mommy. With Mario as the Mommy, Liam has no qualms with letting him play in his “house.”
Phase 2 – Complex Thinking (Gender Exploration)
Following the syncretic (pregendered) stage Vygotsky describes what he calls “thinking in complexes. In a complex, individual objects are united in the child’s mind not only by his subjective impression but also by bonds actually existing between these objects” (1962, p. 61; 1986, p. 112). The stages that Vygotsky identifies within this phase culminate in what he calls pseudoconcepts, in which “the generalization formed in the child’s mind, although phenotypically resembling the adult concept, is psychologically very different from the concept proper; in its essence it is still a complex” (1962, p. 66; 1986, p. 119). He goes on to point out that pseudoconcepts dominate in preschool because “The lines along which a complex develops are predetermined by the meaning a given word already has in the language of adults” (1962, p. 67; 1986, p. 120).
In other words, upon hearing gendered language used frequently, children will try to make sense of the meaning of gender, but their understandings will be incomplete and framed by the contexts of their interactions. They will try to create categories and group their subjective impressions into defining categories of “boy” and “girl.” “Such spontaneous complex formations,” reveals Vygotsky (1962, p. 70; 1986, p. 127), “make up the entire first chapter of the developmental history of children’s words.” This can be seen in another example from the same toddler classroom:
As the class is preparing to go outdoors, I inform the children that I will put my hair in a ponytail because it is so hot outside. Missy (age 3) seems incredulous that I would put my hair in a ponytail since I’m a boy. I tell her, “I’m a boy with long hair.” Liam (age 2) interjects at this point that he’s a boy with short hair, and Mario (age 2) agrees, identifying himself as a boy with short hair as well. Missy points out that Mario’s hair is even shorter than Liam’s, and she then acknowledges that my hair is longer than hers. The conversation then turns to the hair lengths of the children’s family members. Throughout this conversation Ayiana (age 2) merely sits by and listens, absorbing the discussion. Two months later, after Missy has moved on to the preschool classroom, I have my hair tied back while carrying Ayiana when we are outside. Ayiana reaches out and touches my hair, saying, “You’re a lady.”
Phase 3 – Potential Concepts
Vygotsky found that “the development of the processes which eventually result in concept formation begins in earliest childhood, but the intellectual functions that in a specific combination form the psychological basis of concept formation ripen, take shape, and develop only at puberty” (1962, p. 58). Children remain in the phase of complex thinking (gender exploration) for a large part of their childhood, though such complexes undergo a development of their own. Nonetheless, these complexes remain fluid and malleable to varying degrees until children become capable of greater abstraction as they reach adolescence, laying the groundwork for the formation of true concepts. In Vygotsky’s words, “Only the mastery of abstraction, combined with advanced complex thinking, enables the child to progress to the formation of genuine concepts” (1962, p. 78; 1986, p. 139).
However, he does not call his third and final phase one of true or genuine concepts, but rather of potential concepts, I think in large part because he recognizes that thinking in complexes never fully goes away. He is careful to point out that “the adult constantly shifts from conceptual to concrete, complex thinking. The transitional, pseudoconceptual form of thought is not confined to the child’s thinking; we too resort to it very often in our daily lives” (1986, p. 134).
As a teacher, this is where the greatest challenge comes in. Even with in-depth study of gender theory, it is a struggle to abstract what gender truly means in a way that can be said to be a true conceptual understanding. I find I must constantly question my own attitudes and whether they are coming from a conceptual framework of gender definition or from a complex that has built up in my mind through exposure to mass culture. If I myself struggling on these fronts, how can I help my students make sense of this?
The answer would seem to lie in Vygotsky’s statement that “a concept can become subject to consciousness and deliberate control only when it is a part of a system” (1962, p. 92). In other words, I need to help children bring their gender complexes to the level of conscious thought in order to examine them at a deeper level. I must also recognize that this is not something that should necessarily wait until they have already developed the abstraction necessary for potential concepts because “the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it; it must be aimed not so much at the ripe as at the ripening functions” (1962, p. 104; 1986, p. 188).
I welcome and encourage comments and discussion on this post. Also, if you have a book that you think would interest me and would like to see me discuss in this blog, please feel free to comment with your recommendation. Next month I will be discussing the book Literacy Through Play by Gretchen Owocki (Owocki 1999).
Owocki, G. (1999). Literacy through play. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1962 ). Thought and language (E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar, Trans. & Eds.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1986 ). Thought and language. (A. Kozulin, Tran. & Ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
 “to a child the word is a property, rather than the symbol of an object” (Vygotsky 1986, p. 92).
 “the development of the processes that eventually result in concept formation begins in earliest childhood, but the intellectual functions that in a specific combination form the psychological basis of the process of concept formation ripen, take shape, and develop only at puberty” (Vygotsky 1986, p. 106).
 “the adult constantly shifts from conceptual to concrete, complexlike thinking. The transitional, pseudo-concept form of thought is not confined to child thinking; we resort to it very often in our daily life” (Vygotsky 1962, p. 75).
 a concept can become subject to conscious and deliberate control only when it is part of a system” (Vygtosky 1986, p. 171).