!Kung girls and boys play together and share most games. Most cultures, including our own, consider some activities appropriate for girls and others for boys, and encourage the two sexes to play separately from an early age. Our derisive terms "tomboy" and "sissy" seem to have no counterparts in !Kung vocabulary.
!Kung children are not segregated by sex, neither sex is trained to be
submissive or fierce, and neither sex is restrained from expressing the
full breadth of emotion that seems inherent in the human spirit.
Although boys and girls both engage in roughhousing, imitation of adult
aggressive behavior is rarely seen, and the elaborate preparations for
learning to fight found among boys in many societies do not occupy the
time of !Kung boys. Because the !Kung impose no responsibilities on
their children, place no value on virginity, and do not require that the
female body be covered or hidden, girls are as free and unfettered as
We have to reconsider the interaction with our daughters and with our sons. Is how we treat them an applicable and humane way? Can we learn from "primitive" peoples?
A closer look does reveal subtle distinctions in the kinds of activities
engaged in by the two sexes. A study of !Kung children at play showed
that boys were more physically aggressive than girls and that girls
interacted with adults other than their mothers more than boys did. But,
in contrast to studies of children's play in other societies, !Kung
girls and boys were found to be equally active, equally capable of
sustaining attention to tasks, and equal in the amount of time they
spent playing with objects. Also, !Kung children showed no preference
for playing only with children of their own sex.
!Kung children are essentially left to their own devices. Far from
leading to boredom, this freedom results in inventive and energetic
play, which characterizes much of their day. Although this play includes
many different games and activities, sexual play is what many adults
remember most vividly. The amount of such play varies from one group to
another, but experimentation of some kind seems universal. Sexual play
of younger children begins with boys playing together and girls playing
together, and then changes to boys and girls playing with each other,
with the boys as the usual-sometimes aggressive-initiators. The play of
older children often involves some genital contact, but actual sexual
intercourse does not seem to occur until years later, and some girls who
marry young reach marriage without having experienced it.
Adults do not approve of sexual play among children and adolescents, but
they do little to keep it from happening. They remember such play from
their own childhood and, although they usually deny it, they know that
their children are playing that way too.