March 30, 2012

Freud vs. Kohlberg: Gender Development

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Gender role is described by Golombok & Fivush (1994) as, “…the behaviors and attitudes considered appropriate for males or females in a particular culture” (p. 3). Gender role development is the process of early advancement in which learned interests, behaviors and motives are culturally defined. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective has been adapted, modified, reviewed, analyzed and expanded upon for many years and has become part of our social consciousness. He was the first to develop a psychodynamic/psychoanalytical theory of gender development at the turn of the century when it was a given that men and woman were unlike one another. (para. Golombok & Fivush, 1). He was a neurologist but, his work began with his adult patients and their fears and anxieties. He studied how to cure or resolve their complaints and began researching a theory of personality as a cure. He realized that through earlier unresolved traumatic experiences in early childhood a correlation could be surmised with gender development. According to Golombok & Fivush (1994), “Moreover, Freud stressed the importance of early experiences and thoughts in influencing later personality” (p. 55).  He also discussed the idea that biological drives having one main purpose, to procreate hence, as Golombok & Fivush (1994) stated, “…all biological drives must ultimately serve the fundamental sex drive” (p. 18). In other words, it’s instinct that drives our personalities.

Freud’s theory of psychological development explained that children satisfy their basic biological motivations which were discovered through a treatment known as psychoanalysis, the examining of the unconscious. As Ovesey (1983) commented, “Thus, psychoanalysis was the first comprehensive personality theory that attempted to explain the origins of what we now call gender” [1] He concluded that there were primary aspects of the psychoanalytic theory: the id, ego and superego. The personality combined the id (basic instincts such as, hunger, desires and aggression/personality for example, an infant is 100% id), ego (reality testing and rationalization/psychological) and the superego (conscience, moral judgment/social).

The stages of psychosexual development were developed and based upon a particular erogenous zone. If a stage is unsuccessful and not completed it meant that a child would become fixated on that particular erogenous zone and either over or under indulge once he or she becomes an adult.[2] The first stage called the oral stage takes place between birth and two years old where pleasure and self-gratification is centered on the mouth through the erotic, rooting energy of sucking. The next stage of psychosexual development is called the anal stage. The anus is the erogenous zone. The child must learn to control the id and meet the demand of society and parents by becoming toilet trained. Conflicts take place due to the child wanting to control retention and elimination. There is a conversion of involuntary to voluntary behavior and the first attempt at controlling instinctual impulses. Sexual identity is formed in the third early stage called the phallic stage. According to Freud, gender role development occurs during this stage at about five or six years old where identification takes place with the same sex parent. This is a time of discovery and pleasure which is now focused on the genitals. It is during this stage that patterns were seen in males and were considered the norm, yet female patterns were somehow deviant. (para., Golombok & Fivush 1994, 57). It is at this age when castration anxiety creates fear resulting in Oedipal Conflict. Also when boys are proud of their penis, and girls wonder why they don’t have one. By five or six the child has completed the period of early development.

Whereas, Kohlberg’s concept was the first constructivist approach to gender development called the cognitive development theory. The belief was that a child’s understanding of gender developed with age from stereotypical conceptions of gender, what they see and hear around them. Children’s gender understanding moves through three stages. The first is called gender identity and takes place at around two years old where a child recognizes their gender as well as others and is a cause for gender role learning. As Blakemore, J. E. O. & Berenbaum, S. A. & Liben, L. S. (2009) remarked, “Simply identifying one’s own gender is enough to begin to motivate the child to learn about and behave in a way that is consistent with that gender” (p206).[3]

First Level: Infants & preschoolers

• 1st stage: Premoral: child believes that evil behavior is punished & good behavior is not.

•2nd stage: Hedonism: good is something pleasant & desirable; evil is unpleasant & undesirable.

moral = conforming to rules and norms of society.

• obeys authority figures

3rd stage: Self accepted Principles

• Individual judges their own

moral standards

•Can distinguish between good and bad laws and rules.

•Individual principles of conscience.

Labeling is reported by Golombok & Fivush (1994) as they commented, “Children are now able to label themselves and others consistently as female or male, but they base this organization on physical characteristics” (p. 91). In other words, an individual is male because he wears a suit and female by the length of hair. Therefore, if the physical appearance changes, so does the gender. It then takes a year or so before the second stage which is called gender stability takes place between three and four years old.  Children understand the invariance of sex over time through gender being consistent for example, a girl is a girl earlier and will be one later in time.  At about five year’s old, children progress into the final stage, gender constancy. It is considered the mastery of the highest level combining all three stages, understanding that gender is constant across time and space (para.).[4]

In relating the stages from Freud’s theory to the stages of Kohlberg’s theory in my opinion, around the age of five seems to be a perfect balance between Freud’s and Kohlberg’s theories. The phallic stage and gender consistency both are seen as a realization that gender is constant over time as boy’s become proud of their penis’s and girls of their vagina’s.


[1] Person, E.S. & Ovesey, L. (1983). Psychoanalytic Theories of Gender Identity. Journal American Academy Psychoanalytical , 11, 203-226.

[2] Chapter 3: Personality Development (2004). Retrieved March 26, 2011 from

[3] Blakemore, J. E. O. & Berenbaum, S. A. & Liben, L. S. (2009). Gender development.  Retrieved March 27, 2011 from

[4] Golombok, S. & Fivush, R. (1994). Gender Development. New York: Cambridge University Press. (p.91).


Golombok, S. & Fivush, R. (1994). Gender Development. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Development table. (n.d.) Retrieved February 4, 2012 from,



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