The period of the newborn’s growth and development over the first 1-2 months is known as the neonatal period of development.
Review the milestones of neonatal development
- There are five states of arousal in which newborn babies spend their time: regular sleep, irregular sleep, drowsiness, quiet alertness, and crying.
- Newborns use crying as a means of communication—there are different cries to elicit various responses from caregivers.
- Some of the newborn’s senses are well developed at birth, whereas others will take months to fully develop. Touch is the most highly developed at birth, while vision is the least developed.
- There are several important reflexes that a newborn baby shows after birth, each with a specific duration and function. The rooting/sucking, Moro, stepping, and Babinski reflex are a few of the most common at this age.
- colic: Severe pains that grip the abdomen or the disease that causes such pains (due to intestinal or bowel related problems).
- plasticity: The brain’s ability to change and adapt over the course of a lifetime; changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, and emotions.
- neonatal: Of or pertaining to the period of time immediately following birth.
A newborn baby is born helpless and needs constant care in order to survive. The newborn’s first and greatest task is adjusting to the world outside the womb. The first two months of newborn growth and development are known as the neonatal period of development.
States of Arousal
There are five states of arousal in which newborn babies spend their time; these include regular sleep, irregular sleep, drowsiness, quiet alertness, and crying. Most of an infant’s time is spent in either regular or irregular sleep (8-9 hours of each); it is during this time that the infant’s brain continues to develop the necessary connections for survival and growth. Brain plasticity refers to the idea that the brain is not yet committed to specific functions. If certain areas of the brain are damaged during this sensitive period, other areas of the brain can take over and handle new functions not previously assigned to them.
Newborns use crying as a means of communication—there are different cries to elicit various responses from caregivers. Whimpers or weak crying may simply indicate the desire for attention (“pick me up and cuddle me”), whereas intense screaming could mean hunger or some other form of distress. Most parents do well at identifying their newborn’s unique cry for each need; however, some infants suffer from colic and/or cry for no apparent reason.
Some of the newborn’s senses are well developed at birth, whereas others take months to fully develop. For example:
- Touch—Touch is well developed at the time of birth, and infants are highly sensitive to pain. Because touch is important for bonding and emotional development, it makes sense that this is one of the infant’s earliest active senses.
- Taste/Smell—Newborns have the ability to distinguish between several different tastes; sweet is the preferred taste at birth, perhaps because mother’s breast milk has a sweet taste. Again, this is a basic survival mechanism—the child needs food to survive and prefers the food their mother can provide. Newborn babies can also recognize their mothers’ smell and will show a preference for smells they recognize from the womb.
- Hearing—Sensitivity to sound improves greatly over the first few months of life; however, newborns recognize familiar sounds that they heard while in the womb, especially their mother’s voice. Newborns prefer the human voice to other sounds, and infants as young as 3 days old can distinguish between several different sound patterns.
- Vision—Vision is the least developed of the newborn baby’s senses. Newborns can only see objects or people clearly when they appear within 18 inches in front of them—usually the distance between the infant and his or her mother’s face when the infant is being held. Visual acuity is very limited but develops rapidly over the next several months. Color discrimination occurs around the age of 4 months, but newborns still prefer bright colors and patterns to gray or dull ones.
There are several important reflexes that a newborn baby shows after birth; each has a specific duration and function. For instance:
- Rooting/Sucking—This reflex allows the baby to find the mother’s nipple (or bottle nipple) in order to eat. It can be elicited by stroking the baby’s cheek; the baby will turn in the direction of the stimulation and look for the nipple. Rooting (the stroking of the cheek to stimulate the feeding response) is replaced by sucking at around 4 months of age.
- Moro—The Moro reflex is thought to help babies cling to their mothers for safety and protection. If a loud banging noise is made near the baby, the baby will make an “embracing” motion (extending arms and legs then bringing them back toward the body) in an attempt to cling. This generally disappears around 6 months of age.
- Stepping—The stepping reflex prepares the baby to start walking independently. When the baby is held under the arms with their bare feet touching the ground, the newborn will make “stepping” movements with his or her legs. This generally disappears around the age of 2 months.
- Babinski—The function of the Babinski reflex is unknown, although it may have to do with walking. After stroking the bottom of the baby’s foot from toe to heel, the baby’s toes fan out and the foot pulls up and away toward the shin. This can last up until the end of the first year of life, though it often disappears around 8-9 months. At this point the reflex changes, and the toes curl down and the foot curls in response to the same stimulation. If the earlier Babinksi reflex is found in an adult, it can indicate some form of brain damage.
Physical Development in Childhood
Children’s physical development occurs rapidly during the first few years of life as they develop both gross and fine motor skills.
Review the milestones of physical development in childhood
- The development of both gross and fine motor skills helps a child go from being a completely dependent newborn to being an independently functioning toddler in about three years.
- Gross motor skills coordinate the large muscle groups that control our arms and legs and involve larger movements like balancing, running, and jumping.
- Fine motor skills involve the coordination of small muscle movements, usually involving the hands working in coordination with the eyes.
- Children meet a myriad of physical development milestones in the first few years of life, from walking to drawing to self-feeding.
- posture: The way a person holds and positions their body.
- dexterity: Skill in performing tasks, especially with the hands.
Infants and children grow and develop at a rapid pace during the first few years of life. The development of both gross and fine motor skills helps a child go from a completely dependent newborn to an independently functioning toddler in about a 3-year span.
Gross versus Fine Motor Skills
Motor skills refer to our ability to move our bodies and manipulate objects. Gross motor skills coordinate the large muscle groups that control our arms and legs and involve larger movements like balancing, running, and jumping. By the end of the second year of life, most children (except those with disabilities or other special needs) can stand up, walk/run, climb stairs, jump, and skip. As children grow older (ages 4-5), many can also catch balls, ride bikes, and run with more speed and agility. The prerequisite to all these skills is postural control—the ability to hold one’s head up, sit independently, and stand. Appropriate posture allows the child to learn to walk, run, and engage in other gross motor skills.
Fine motor skills, by contrast, involve the coordination of small muscle movements, usually involving the hands working in coordination with the eyes. Hand-eye coordination allows a child to perform such skills as drawing, using buttons and zippers, eating with utensils, and tying shoes. Children increase their mastery of these skills through practice. For example, at age 2, a child’s drawing might be a series of crayon scribbles, but by age 5, he or she might be able to draw a person’s face complete with eyes, nose, and mouth.
As stated above, children grow very quickly and meet physical milestones rapidly in the first few years of life. The following is a list of the major milestones that occur in children during those first formative years.
Up to 24 months:
- Crawls skillfully and quickly
- Stands alone with feet spread apart, legs stiffened, and arms extended for support
- Gets to feet unaided
- Can walk unassisted near the end of this period; falls often; is not always able to maneuver around obstacles, such as furniture or toys
- Uses furniture to lower self to floor; collapses backwards into a sitting position, or falls forward on hands and then sits
- Enjoys pushing or pulling toys while walking
- Repeatedly picks up objects and throws them; direction becomes more deliberate
- Attempts to run; has difficulty stopping and usually just drops to the floor
- Crawls up stairs on all fours; goes down stairs in same position
- Enjoys crayons and markers for scribbling; uses whole-arm movement
- Helps feed self; enjoys holding a spoon (often upside down) and drinking from a glass or cup; not always accurate in getting utensils into mouth; frequent spills should be expected
- Helps turn the pages in book
- Stacks two to six objects per day
Up to 3 years:
- Walks up and down stairs unassisted, using alternating feet; may jump from bottom step, landing on both feet
- Can momentarily balance on one foot
- Can kick big ball-shaped objects
- Needs minimal assistance eating
- Jumps on the spot
- Pedals a small tricycle
- Throws a ball overhand; aim and distance are limited
- Catches a large bouncing ball with both arms extended
- Shows improved control of crayons or markers; uses vertical, horizontal and circular strokes
- Holds crayon or marker between first two fingers and thumb (tripod grasp), not in a fist as earlier
- Can turn the pages of a book one at a time
- Enjoys building with blocks
- Builds a tower of eight or more blocks
- Enjoys playing with clay; pounds, rolls, and squeezes it
- May begin to show hand dominance
- Manipulates large buttons and zippers on clothing
- Washes and dries hands; brushes own teeth, but not thoroughly
By age 6:
- Gains greater control over large and fine motor skills; movements are more precise and deliberate, though some clumsiness persists
- Enjoys vigorous running, jumping, climbing, and throwing etc.
- Span of attention increases; works at tasks for longer periods of time
- Can concentrate effort but not always consistently
- Has fun with problem-solving and sorting activities like stacking, puzzles, and mazes
- Enjoys the challenge of puzzles, counting, and sorting activities, paper-and-pencil mazes, and games that involve matching letters and words with pictures
- Recognizes some words by sight; attempts to sound out words
- Increased functioning which facilitates learning to ride a bicycle, swim, swing a bat, or kick a ball
- Able to trace objects
- Folds and cuts paper into simple shapes
- Can tie laces, string (like shoes)
Cognitive Development in Childhood
Cognitive development occurs rapidly during childhood as the brain continues to grow and develop.
Review the neurological and cognitive milestones of development in childhood
- Cognitive development refers to the development of a child in terms of information processing, conceptual resources, perceptual skill, and language learning.
- The brain grows and matures rapidly during early childhood, faster than any other organ in a child’s body.
- Through a process known as synaptic pruning, neurons that are not useful to the brain die off, making room for more relevant connections that help a child learn.
- The process of myelination improves message transfer between synapses and assists in brain development; essentially, it assists in the development of advanced brain function.
- The concept of neuroplasticity explores how the brain changes in the course of a lifetime and how different areas of the brain can evolve and adapt over time.
- Piaget’s preoperational stage of cognitive development focuses on the development of concept through make-believe play and symbolism. In the concrete operational stage, a child’s thinking becomes more logical and focused.
- synapse: The junction between the terminal of a neuron and either another neuron or a muscle or gland cell, over which nerve impulses pass.
- myelination: The production of a coating of myelin around an axon.
- neurotransmitter: Any substance, such as acetylcholine or dopamine, responsible for sending nerve signals across a synapse between two neurons.
- glial cell: Non-neuronal cells that maintain homeostasis, form myelin, and provide support and protection for neurons in the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system.
The Brain During Childhood
Cognitive development refers to the development of a child in terms of information processing, conceptual resources, perceptual skill, and language learning. The brain grows and matures rapidly during early childhood, faster than any other organ in a child’s body. Once nerve cells in the brain are in place, they form synapses. These synapses release neurotransmitters, which are chemical signals that help the brain communicate. Synapses evolve rapidly, and in doing so, some synapses will die off to make room for new or more important ones. If a neuron is not being used by the brain, it goes through a process known as synaptic pruning—the removal of unnecessary neurons to make room for necessary ones.
Glial cells, which account for half of all brain mass in early childhood, are responsible for a process known as myelination. This process improves message transfer between synapses and assists in brain development. The connection between neighboring neurons (which is made smoother through myelination) allows for advanced brain function, such as planning and implementing behaviors and integrating sensory information from the environment. Due to synaptic pruning, myelination, and a child’s environmental experiences, the developing brain will grow from 30 percent of its adult weight at birth to 70 percent by age 2.
Neuroplasticity is also an important aspect of early childhood development. Also known as brain plasticity, neuroplasticity is an umbrella term that refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses caused by changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, and emotions—as well as changes resulting from bodily injury. The concept of neuroplasticity explores how the brain changes over the course of a lifetime and how different areas of the brain can evolve and adapt over time. This change occurs on a variety of levels, ranging from cellular changes (caused by learning) to large-scale changes in response to injury. The role of neuroplasticity is considered important to healthy development, learning, memory, and recovery from brain damage.
Cognitive Development and Piaget’s Stages
The Swiss cognitive theorist Jean Piaget was one of the most influential researchers in the field of child development. He developed his four-stage theory of cognitive development based on the idea that children actively construct knowledge as they explore and manipulate the world around them. Two of these stages, the preoperational and concrete operational, are especially important in early childhood development. According to Piaget, each stage of development incorporates previous knowledge; that is, a child needs to go through an earlier stage in order to fully develop in a later stage.
Preoperational development allows children to increase their mental representation of objects, generally through make-believe play. Piaget states that language is the most flexible means of mental representation; at the same time, young children do not yet have the capability to use language alone as a means of representation. Rather, children perform actions as a means to master language and symbolic thought. Sociodramatic play, in which children play with others and create elaborate plots and characters, culminates in the understanding of representational thought and activity. Much thought during the preoperational phase is egocentric—focused only on the child’s point of view.
Concrete Operational Development
During the concrete operational stage, a major turning point in cognition occurs: the appearance of more logical and organized thought. Several key thinking processes emerge during this stage, including reversibility, seriation, and transitive inference. Reversibility is the capacity to go through a series of steps and mentally reverse them, ending up at the beginning. Seriation is the ability to order items by a quantitative dimension, such as height or weight. Transitive inference is a relational concept in which children can understand how objects are related to one another; for example, if a dog is a mammal, and a boxer is a dog, then a boxer must also be a mammal.
Socioemotional Development in Childhood
Childhood is a time of rapid emotional and social development, as children learn to regulate emotions and interact with others.
Review the milestones of socioemotional development in childhood
- Emotional development is essentially the way emotions change or remain constant across the human lifespan. Social development is the way in which humans learn to interact with one another.
- Emotional self-regulation refers to a child’s ability to change his or her emotional state to either match that of others (social), or make the child more comfortable in a particular situation (social and personal).
- The ability to empathize, or identify with the feelings of another person, helps aid in the development of prosocial (socially positive) and altruistic (helpful, beneficent, or unselfish) behavior.
- Play is one way in which children develop relationships with others. Several types of play exist, and each type builds upon the last in a three-step process.
- Intersubjectivity refers to the psychological relation between people; in child development, it refers to the very rapid cultural development of newborn infants.
- Between 3 and 5 years old, children come to understand that people have thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are different from their own; this is known as theory of mind.
- empathy: The capacity to understand another person’s point of view, or the result of such understanding.
- temperament: A person’s normal manner of thinking, behaving, or reacting.
- intersubjectivity: The state or condition of involving or occurring between separate conscious minds; a term used to represent the psychological relation between people.
Emotional development is essentially the way emotions change or remain constant across the human lifespan. Social development is the way in which humans learn to interact with one another. Together, the development of both of these factors reflects the changes in a child’s emotions and relationships with others that occur throughout childhood.
During a child’s life, he or she goes from looking at emotions from an external point of view to an internal point of view. As children develop advanced language skills, they develop the ability to regulate emotions. Emotional self-regulation refers to children’s ability to monitor, evaluate, and modify their emotional reactions in any given situation. It is a skill that develops over time, and involves both responding to situations with emotions that are socially acceptable and developing the ability to withhold emotions or delay spontaneous reactions when necessary. A child’s temperament has a large impact on emotional self-regulation: children who are more negatively focused tend to have a more difficult time with regulation than those who are focused on the positive aspects of life.
The development of empathy is a crucial part of emotional and social development in childhood. The ability to identify with the feelings of another person helps in the development of prosocial (socially positive) and altruistic (helpful, beneficent, or unselfish) behavior. Altruistic behavior occurs when a person does something in order to benefit another person without expecting anything in return. Empathy helps a child develop positive peer relationships; it is affected by a child’s temperament, as well as by parenting style. Children raised in loving homes with affectionate parents are more likely to develop a sense of empathy and altruism, whereas those raised in harsh or neglectful homes tend to be more aggressive and less kind to others.
Play is one way in which children develop relationships with others. Several types of play exist, and each type builds upon the last in a three-step process. Non-social or solitary play occurs in the beginning of childhood, when children spend most time alone with preferred playthings. It then shifts to parallel play, when children begin to take an interest in other children but prefer to play alone and side-by-side. Children engaged in parallel play will sit next to one another during a play session, but each will engage in his or her own activity. Finally, there is associative and cooperative play in which children begin to engage with one another, exchanging and sharing toys and creating games together.
Intersubjectivity refers to the psychological relation between people; in child development, it refers to the very rapid cultural development of newborn infants. Research suggests that as babies, humans are biologically wired to coordinate their actions with others; this ability to sync with others facilitates cognitive and emotional learning through social interaction. Additionally, the most socially productive relationship between children and adults is bidirectional, where both parties actively define a shared culture. Emphasis is placed on the idea that children are actively involved in how they learn, using intersubjectivity.
Theory of Mind
Between 3 and 5 years old, children come to understand that people have thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are different from their own. This is known as theory of mind. Children can use this skill to tease others, persuade their parents to purchase a candy bar for them, or understand why a sibling might be angry. When children develop theory of mind, they can recognize that others may have false beliefs (Dennett, 1987; Callaghan et al., 2005).
Influence of Parenting Style on Child Development
There are four main parenting styles that most parents fall into: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and uninvolved/neglectful.
Contrast the four main parenting styles
- Researcher Diana Baumrind (1966) identified three initial parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive. Maccoby and Martin (1983) later expanded upon Baumrind’s work and added the uninvolved/neglectful style.
- Authoritative parents set realistic expectations for their children, and they provide their children with fair (or natural) consequences. Of the four parenting styles, this style is most encouraged in modern American society.
- Authoritarian parents tend to be very strict parents, whereas permissive parents tend to be warm and loving but do not set appropriate limits or rules.
- Neglectful parents are often uninvolved or indifferent; they don’t respond to the child’s needs and make relatively few demands. This parenting style has been associated with the most negative outcomes for children.
- antisocial: Antagonistic, hostile, or unfriendly toward others; opposed to social order or the principles of society.
Parenting style refers to the way in which parents choose to raise their children. The way that people parent is an important factor in their children’s socioemotional growth and development. In her research, Diana Baumrind (1966) found what she considered to be the two basic elements that help shape successful parenting: parental responsiveness and parental demandingness. Through her studies, Baumrind identified three initial parenting styles: authoritative parenting, authoritarian parenting, and permissive parenting. Maccoby and Martin (1983) later expanded upon Baumrind’s three original parenting styles by adding the uninvolved or neglectful style, which has the most pervasive negative consequences across all domains. While not every parent falls neatly into one category, these parenting styles generally correspond with the type of discipline a parent chooses to use with his or her child or children.
Authoritative parenting is generally regarded as the most successful approach to parenting because of its high level of involvement and balanced levels of control. Authoritative parents set realistic expectations and consistent limits for their children, and provide them with fair or natural consequences. Natural consequences are those that occur as a natural result of the child’s behavior (or lack of a particular behavior), with no intervention required; for example, if a child touches a hot stove and is burned by the heat, the burn is a natural consequence. Authoritative parents express warmth and affection, listen to their child’s point of view, and provide opportunities for independence. Parents set rules and explain the reasons behind them, and they are also flexible and willing to make exceptions to the rules in certain cases—for example, temporarily relaxing bedtime rules to allow for a nighttime swim during a family vacation.
Of the four parenting styles, the authoritative style is the one that is most encouraged in modern American society. American children raised by authoritative parents tend to have high self-esteem and social skills and work well with others. However, effective parenting styles vary as a function of culture, and the authoritative style is not necessarily preferred or appropriate in all cultures.
In the authoritarian style, parents put a high value on conformity and obedience. The parents are often strict, tightly monitor their children, and express little warmth. These parents exhibit a large amount of control over their child’s decisions and behavior. Authoritarian parents set rigid rules with firm consequences; in contrast to the authoritative style, authoritarian parents probably would not relax bedtime rules during a vacation because they consider the rules to be set, and they expect obedience at all times.
Children who grow up in authoritarian homes often become anxious or withdrawn or suffer from self-esteem problems. Due to gender socialization, those raised as male may experience anger problems, while those raised as female may become dependent upon others for approval. Although these children may do poorly in school, they do not tend to engage in antisocial behavior for fear of their parents’ reaction. However, it is important to keep in mind cultural differences: different cultures respond better to different parenting styles than others (Russell, Crockett, & Chao, 2010). For instance, first-generation Chinese American children raised by authoritarian parents did just as well in school as peers who were raised by authoritative parents (Russell et al., 2010).
Permissive parenting tends to be warm and loving but lacks follow-through on setting limits or rules. Permissive parents tend to be overindulgent, make few demands, rarely use punishment, and allow their children to make their own decisions, regardless of the consequences. They tend to be very nurturing and loving and may play the role of friend rather than parent. These parents might be caught up in their own lives and therefore inattentive (although not neglectful) and exhibit little control over their children.
Children raised by permissive parents tend to lack self-discipline, and the permissive parenting style is negatively associated with grades (Dornbusch, Ritter, Leiderman, Roberts, & Fraleigh, 1987). The permissive style may also contribute to other risky or impulsive behaviors such as alcohol abuse (Bahr & Hoffman, 2010), risky sexual behavior, especially among female children (Donenberg, Wilson, Emerson, & Bryant, 2002), and increased display of disruptive behaviors by male children (Parent et al., 2011). However, there are some positive outcomes associated with children raised by permissive parents: many tend to have higher self-esteem, better social skills, and report lower levels of depression (Darling, 1999).
With the uninvolved style of parenting, the parents are indifferent and sometimes referred to as neglectful. They don’t respond to their child’s needs and make relatively few demands. This could be because of severe depression, substance abuse, or other factors such as the parents’ extreme focus on work. Neglectful parents may look to their children for support and guidance, and these children often end up “parenting their parents.” These parents may provide for the child’s basic needs, but little else; in more extreme forms of neglect, basic needs may not be cared for at all or children may be placed in harmful situations.
These children, much like those raised in permissive homes, tend to have myriad problems, but often the problems are often much more serious. Children raised in this parenting style are usually emotionally withdrawn, fearful, and anxious; perform poorly in school; and are at an increased risk of substance abuse (Darling, 1999).
Cultural and Societal Influences on Child Development
Culture plays an important role in influencing childhood development, and what is considered “normal” varies greatly from one culture to the next.
Examine the influence of culture on childhood development
- The society and culture in which one grows up influence everything from developmental milestones and parenting styles to what kinds of hardship one is more likely to face.
- While biological milestones such as puberty tend to be universal across cultures, social milestones, such as the age at which children begin formal schooling or individuate from their parents, can differ greatly from one culture to the next.
- Effective parenting styles also vary as a function of culture. While the authoritative parenting style is the style that is most encouraged in modern American society, other cultures value more authoritarian styles.
- Race and racial stereotypes can have detrimental effects on a child’s development. Children are taught the stereotypes that go along with their race(s) and the races of others, and these stereotypes can have a strong influence on their development.
- Race is also closely linked to class, and children of color are still statistically much more likely to lack access to basic resources and to experience economic hardship.
- The concept of intersectionality is important to keep in mind when examining the cultural influences of various forms of discrimination on child development.
- stereotype: A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image.
- racialized: Categorized or treated in a particular way based on race.
- milestone: An important event in a person’s life or career, in the history of a nation, in the life of some project, etc.
Child development refers to the biological, psychological, and emotional changes that occur in humans between birth and the end of adolescence, as the individual progresses from dependency to increasing autonomy. Culture plays an important role in influencing this development, and what is considered “normal” development varies greatly from one culture to the next. The society and culture in which one grows up influence everything from developmental milestones and parenting styles to what kinds of hardship one is more likely to face.
The normative approach to development examines the question “What is normal development?” In the early decades of the 20th century, normative psychologists studied large numbers of children at various ages to determine the average ages at which most children reach specific physical, cognitive, and psychosocial milestones in development (Gesell, 1933, 1939, 1940; Gesell & Ilg, 1946; Hall, 1904). Not all of the milestones were universal, meaning they are not experienced by all individuals across all cultures. Biological milestones such as puberty tend to be universal, while social milestones, such as the age at which children begin formal schooling or individuate from their parents, can differ greatly across cultures (Gesell & Ilg, 1946).
Effective parenting styles also vary as a function of culture. While the authoritative parenting style (characterized by the parent giving reasonable demands, setting consistent limits, expressing warmth and affection, and listening to the child’s point of view) is the style that is most encouraged in modern American society, this is not necessarily the case in other cultures. American children raised by authoritative parents tend to have high self-esteem and social skills. In contrast, authoritarian parenting (characterized by parents placing high value on conformity and obedience, tightly monitoring their children, and expressing less warmth) is seen as more beneficial in other cultures. For instance, first-generation Chinese American children raised by authoritarian parents did just as well in school as their peers who were raised by authoritative parents (Russell et al., 2010).
Race, Class, and Intersecting Identities
Race and other identities are often sites of discrimination and oppression in societies; as such, they can have a tremendous impact on childhood development. The United States is a very racialized society, and children—especially children of color—often become aware of the dynamics of racism at a very young age. Children are taught the stereotypes that go along with their particular race(s), as well as the races of others, and these stereotypes can have a strong influence on their development.
Stereotypes and racialized expectations often contribute to stereotype threat , in which a child experiences anxiety or concern in a situation that has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about his or her social group. For example, if an African-American child is given the message that black people are not as “smart” as white people, she may worry if she is not doing well in school because it will, she fears, confirm the negative stereotype. Importantly, stereotype threat has been shown to be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy—not because the negative stereotype is accurate, but because fear of fulfilling that stereotype can lead to additional anxiety, which in turn can reduce performance. For example, stereotype threat can lower the intellectual performance of black students taking the SAT, due to the stereotype that they are less intelligent than other groups, which may cause them to feel additional pressure and anxiety.
Intersectionality is the study of the intersections, or the relationships, between different forms or systems of discrimination or oppression. This theory suggests that—and seeks to examine how—various biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, and other areas of identity interact and contribute to various forms of social inequality. Intersectionality holds that different forms of discrimination—such as racism, sexism, biphobia, ableism, transphobia, and classism—do not act independently of one another; instead, they interrelate and create a system based on multiple forms of discrimination.
All of these factors are important to keep in mind when examining the cultural influences of such discrimination on child development. For example, the experience of growing up as an African-American girl in the United States cannot be understood only in terms of being black or of being female; instead, the ways in which these identities interact and frequently reinforce each other must be examined. Race is also closely linked to class, and people of color are still statistically much more likely to lack access to basic resources and experience economic hardship. These resources include everything from proper nutrition and healthcare to good education systems and neighborhood parks. All of these societal factors intersect and interact to influence a child’s development, so much so that a child from a middle-class white family has many more opportunities than a child from a lower-income family of color.