Unit 1: Child Development – Foundations of Child and Adolescent Psychology

Historical Views of Child and Adolescent Development

Since the dawn of civilization, parents and educators have wondered how to best raise a child. From ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers, to those that wrote the Old Testament and Tripitaka, words of wisdom have been shared on how to correctly raise a child. Of course, one’s view on how to raise a child is going to be influenced by his or her view of human nature.

Aristotle (384–322 BC) believed that children are born as blank slates. This is known as the tabula rasa view of human nature. An English philosopher, named John Locke (1632–1704) shared the tabula rasa view. This view of human nature sees children and their development shaped by their environment and experiences. Locke advocated for parents to be good role models for their children in order to facilitate the development of character. Children learn self-control, kindness, and honesty by observing their parents exhibit these traits.

Original sin is another view of human nature. Within this view, humans are born with the original sin of Adam and Eve. While Baptism can remove this sin, the soul is still warped and susceptible to choosing evil over good. Within this view, children must be raised to accept the moral doctrine of society and to always be mindful to behave in morally acceptable ways. Without such instruction, children are likely to behave in ways that are either harmful to themselves or harmful to others.

The final view of human nature that we are going to learn about is referred to as the innate goodness view. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), a French philosopher, was an advocate of this view. He believed that infants are born inherently good, and that it is society that can corrupt them. In his writings, he refers to the native savage. This is the idea that if a child is raised away from civilization and with minimal restrictions on his freedom, then that child would manifest the innate goodness with which he was born. In this view, parents simply need to give the child freedom to develop along his or her pathway, and to protect them from the corruptible influences of society.

How we view human nature influences every interaction that we have with others. However, we need to examine one more historical issue beyond human nature. At what age are children capable of adult behaviors? In modern America, we do not expect children to be left alone or capable of caring for themselves before late childhood or early adolescence. However, it was not always this way. During the Industrial Revolution, children as young as five worked in factories for up to 12 hours a day. Even today, there are cultures around the globe that allow young children to cook over open fires, carry machetes, and care for younger siblings. Therefore, there is no simple answer to this question. It really depends on where and when you live. (1)

Watch this silent, black and white film. It shows how children were used and treated in hard labor prior to World War I. It shows how the concept and experience of childhood has changed across history.

The Cry of Children (1912) by Carl Lewis Gregory resides in the CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Domains of Development

Development is often viewed as occurring in three distinct, yet interrelated, domains:

  1. Physical
  2. Cognitive
  3. Socioemotional

Our course will examine, in depth, development in each of these three domains. For now, we will just introduce you to the type of topics that are studied within each domain.

Physical development includes genetics, prenatal development, physical development, sensation/perception, and motor skill development.

Cognitive development includes changes in thinking across childhood, attention, memory, intelligence, problem solving, language, and academic skill development.

Socioemotional development includes the influence of parenting style, peers and friendships, play, schools, society, and culture.

While we study these domains separately, it is clear to see how they are interrelated. For example, let us consider a child putting on a pair of shoes. Physically, she has to have the motor skills to put the shoes on. Cognitively, she needs to have the problem solving skills to decide which shoes are appropriate for where she is going. Socioemotionally, her parents, peers, and what she has seen on television are going to influence the type of shoes that she wants. From playing a game to how we grieve, all three domains are always at work. (1)

Developmental Issues

There are a few key developmental issues that help guide research and theory development. The first issue would be the nature/nurture question.

Nature refers to anything biological in nature, such as genetics. Nurture refers to environmental factors, such as family, friends, and schools. Traditionally, this issue was viewed in terms of how much of some characteristic (e.g., personality) was due to nature and how much was due to nurture. However, we now know that such a viewpoint is far too simplistic. Instead, any developmental outcome is due to the collaboration among nature, nurture, and personal agency.

Another developmental issue is the question of sensitive periods of development. Said another way, is there a certain age range where if a child does not acquire a skill or process, it becomes too late? In this course, we will learn about two areas where there is, indeed, a sensitive period: Language acquisition and attachment.

A third developmental issue is focused upon whether development occurs continuously or in stages. If you think about prenatal development, development is occurring every day, from conception to birth. However, when we study prenatal development, you will find that it is divided into three stages, with each stage ending due to an event or major milestone. Some topics that we will study in here will look at development as continuous, while others will be examined as occurring in stages. (1)

Stages of Development

Think about the life span and make a list of what you would consider the periods of development. How many stages are on your list? Perhaps you have three: childhood, adulthood, and old age. Or maybe four: infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Developmentalists break the life span into nine stages as follows:

  1. Prenatal Development
  2. Infancy and Toddlerhood
  3. Early Childhood
  4. Middle Childhood
  5. Adolescence
  6. Early Adulthood
  7. Middle Adulthood
  8. Late Adulthood
  9. Death and Dying

This list reflects unique aspects of the various stages of childhood that will be explored in this course. So while both an 8 month old and an 8 year old are considered children, they have very different motor abilities, social relationships, and cognitive skills. Their nutritional needs are different and their primary psychological concerns are also distinctive. But first, here is a brief overview of the stages of life.

Click on each box for information.

Prenatal Development

Conception occurs and development begins. All of the major structures of the body are forming and the health of the mother is of primary concern. Understanding nutrition, teratogens (or environmental factors that can lead to birth defects), and labor and delivery are primary concerns.

Infancy and Toddlerhood

The first year and a half to two years of life are ones of dramatic growth and change. A newborn, with a keen sense of hearing but very poor vision is transformed into a walking, talking toddler within a relatively short period of time. Caregivers are also transformed from someone who manages feeding and sleep schedules to a constantly moving guide and safety inspector for a mobile, energetic child.

Early Childhood

The ages of six through eleven comprise middle childhood and much of what children experience at this age is connected to their involvement in the early grades of school. Now the world becomes one of learning and testing new academic skills and by assessing one’s abilities and accomplishments by making comparisons between self and others. Schools compare students and make these comparisons public through team sports, test scores, and other forms of recognition. Growth rates slow down and children are able to refine their motor skills at this point in life. And children begin to learn about social relationships beyond the family through interaction with friends and fellow students.

Middle Childhood

The ages of six through eleven comprise middle childhood and much of what children experience at this age is connected to their involvement in the early grades of school. Now the world becomes one of learning and testing new academic skills and by assessing one’s abilities and accomplishments by making comparisons between self and others. Schools compare students and make these comparisons public through team sports, test scores, and other forms of recognition. Growth rates slow down and children are able to refine their motor skills at this point in life. And children begin to learn about social relationships beyond the family through interaction with friends and fellow students.

Adolescence

Adolescence is a period of dramatic physical change marked by an overall physical growth spurt and sexual maturation, known as puberty. It is also a time of cognitive change as the adolescent begins to think of new possibilities and to consider abstract concepts such as love, fear, and freedom. Ironically, adolescents have a sense of invincibility that puts them at greater risk of dying from accidents or contracting sexually transmitted infections that can have lifelong consequences.

Early Adulthood

The twenties and thirties are often thought of as early adulthood. It is a time when we are at our physiological peak but are most at risk for involvement in violent crimes and substance abuse. It is a time of focusing on the future and putting a lot of energy into making choices that will help one earn the status of a full adult in the eyes of others. Love and work are primary concerns at this stage of life. (2)

The late thirties through the mid-sixties is referred to as middle adulthood. This is a period in which aging, that began earlier, becomes more noticeable and a period at which many people are at their peak of productivity in love and work. It may be a period of gaining expertise in certain fields and being able to understand problems and find solutions with greater efficiency than before. It can also be a time of becoming more realistic about possibilities in life previously considered; of recognizing the difference between what is possible and what is likely. This is also the age group hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic in Africa resulting in a substantial decrease in the number of workers in those economies (Weitz, 2007).

Late Adulthood

This period of the life span has increased in the last 100 years, particularly in industrialized countries. Late adulthood is sometimes subdivided into two or three categories such as the “young old” and “old old” or the “young old”, “old old”, and “oldest old”. We will follow the former categorization and make the distinction between the “young old” who are people between 65 and 79 and the “old old” or those who are 80 and older. One of the primary differences between these groups is that the “young old” are very similar to midlife adults; still working, still relatively healthy, and still interested in being productive and active. The “old old” remain productive and active and the majority continues to live independently, but risks of the diseases of old age, such as arteriosclerosis, cancer, and cerebral vascular disease increases substantially for this age group. Issues of housing, healthcare, and extending active life expectancy are only a few of the topics of concern for this age group. A better way to appreciate the diversity of people in late adulthood is to go beyond chronological age and examine whether a person is experiencing optimal aging, normal aging (in which the changes are similar to most of those of the same age), or impaired aging (referring to someone who has more physical challenge and disease than others of the same age). (2)