Child development is the process that continues from the child’s birth to early adulthood and includes the formation of the human psyche in general. It is a period of great importance due to its influence on a person’s whole life. For example, severe stress in childhood can lead to devastating life problems in the future life. Various theories show how the child’s psycho develops, how traumatic experiences can influence their lives, and how they can grow into a healthy and prosperous adult.
Psychoanalytic theories see children’s development as a series of stages, each responsive to a particular part of the development. Various approaches see those stages differently, but the fundamental psychoanalytic perspective is based on Sigmund Freud’s id, ego, and super-ego (Berk, 2018). Other psychoanalysts then widened this theory while remaining within the boundaries of the stages and strict distinctions between the unconscious id, conscious ego, and authoritative super-ego. As the approach considers all children as basically similar organisms, it sees development stages as universal for all of them.
They are based on interactions between the instinctive id and conscious, authoritative super-ego parts; their development depends on a child’s nurture. There are internal psychological tensions between the unconscious id and directive, authoritarian, and often forbidding super-ego; they are integrated by the ego, creating the young personality. In children 0-1.5 years, the first stage is the tension between trust and mistrust (Berk, 2018). Between 1.5-3 and 3-6 years, the second and third are tensions between autonomy and doubt and initiative and guilt, respectively. They both are responsible for the development of child’s self-esteem and attitude toward the world, impacting their whole lives. Other phases describe the child’s social development based on the formed ego. I think the psychoanalytic perspective explains ego formation and is one of the best perspectives in general, but its rigid boundaries between stages still limit it.
Behavioral & Social Cognitive Perspectives
Sociocultural theory, developed by Lev Vygotsky, considers the cultural and social environment as crucial elements for child development. Social interactions are central elements of the idea: they condition the child’s behavior and make them adapt to a specific culture (Berk, 2018). In that way, behavioral processes, typical for society members, are transformed in the child, and one can evaluate how successfully the child apprehends them. The behavioral perspective is similar and comes from behaviorism: it shows the child’s development as based on the behavior, conditioned by praises and punishments. While praises promote some desired behavior, penalties prevent children from repeating the undesired behavior.
Behavioral and social cognitive perspectives are closely related theories that show the child’s development as conditioned by external stimuli. They argue that children should be nurtured while almost wholly ignoring their nature (Berk, 2018). They see the child as a biological mechanism that should be “programmed” by education and social influence. Thus, those perspectives see the child’s development as totally conditioned by the surroundings and external forces; it is the reason I find it limited.
Cognitive development theory, introduced by Jean Piaget, considers children as conscious agents who are developing in stages, exploring the world and manipulating it. There are four stages of such cognitive development, each characterized by a particular mental pattern. First, at the age of 0-2, is a sensorimotor stage when an infant “thinks by action,” constantly trying to catch everything by hand and mouth. The second phase, pre-operational, is when children start to learn signs and language without a clear understanding of their meaning: they love to play with words and other symbols and make fun with them, learning to combine them in various ways. The third and fourth stages are concrete and formal operational stages, respectively: during the first one, the child starts to organize symbols and objects by logical order, and during the second, learns abstract thinking (Berk, 2018). Thus, this theory presents development as a series of stages, during which the child learns how to interpret information and use it to communicate with the world and understand it. I think that the cognitive perspective is very useful in understanding the development of information processing by the human mind, but it is limited by this field.
Ethological and evolutional perspectives consider children as, firstly, animal biological organisms. They implement concepts of imprinting and critical period, which proved themselves essential for child development (Berk, 2018). Those concepts are based on the human species’ evolutionary development and show how they are conditioned in their childhood. This theory sees the child as the animal of the Homo sapiens species and studies its developed evolutionary mechanisms. Imprinting is the process of instant “learning” that leads to the formation of deeply rooted reflexes. An example is when the child feels no safety in infancy: there will be anxiety in adolescence and adulthood. This feeling will be “programmed” on a level of hormones and reflexes and, thus, totally unconscious, while very distressing. The critical period is when a child is vulnerable to imprints, and all influences in this period can be vital to a child’s development. In my opinion, this theory helps understand the imprinting and critical period, but it is limited by them.
Ecological systems theory, first developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner, is the most complex theory, as it sees children’s development as the set of their interactions with various ecosystems. Examples of them are home and school; their elements and influences describe each of the children (Berk, 2018). A child’s responses to those influences are considered signs of the child’s development; in that way, each child is viewed as an individual with their lines of development. A child with typical development would react with love and happiness to showing love from the surrounding, for example, parents. On the contrary, if a child has some traumas or other issues, reactions will be inappropriate: aggressive, anxious, or indifferent. The theory allows us to classify those reactions and make conclusions about the child’s development: how successful it is and how it can be changed in the case of problems.
There are various types of systems considered by this theory, classified on their importance and scale. These are microsystems, mesosystems, ecosystems, and macrosystems: each is on a larger scale than the previous one. Microsystems are the smallest element in this theory: it shows, describe, and signify a child’s closest surroundings at each moment. They directly influence a child’s development, which can be evaluated based on their reactions and emotions (Berk, 2018). Mesosystems are formed by interactions between microsystems and show elements of a child’s routine: the example is the academic life when a child is learning in school and then doing classwork at home. By evaluating those mesosystems, one can understand a child’s life quality. Exosystems and macrosystems are large-scale external systems that influence the child’s life in general almost every time. Exosystems are local routines, places, and customs, for example, religious institutions, parents’ workplaces, or community services. Macrosystems are global cultural contexts where the child lives, such as the country’s laws, customs, and values. Together, those systems of different levels create a framework of influences and responses, which allows understanding the development process of each child.
This child development perspective is my favorite due to its vastness and completeness. I consider other theories as limited and appropriate only for evaluating aspects of human life, while each tries to pretend to be universal. Unlike them, the ecological perspective poses almost no limitations, considering all influences on the child’s development and responses. It unites those influences in systems, enabling them to see them more precisely and understand them better. This perspective shows child development as the continuous individual process which occurs in various ecosystems and describes their influence on the child. In that way, I think this perspective is the best way to understand such a complex process as a child’s development.
As one can see, all five theories are helpful from different perspectives, but in my opinion, the ecological theory is the most complete and practical among all of them. The psychoanalytical perspective shows the stages of the child’s ego development based on the id’s unconscious instincts and superego’s rules and authority and is restricted by them. Cognitive one shows only the development of how a child’s psyche interprets the information. The social cognitive perspective shows the influence of the surroundings on the development: culture, beliefs, and social opinions, along with such factors as praises and punishments, but it is limited to them. The ethological perspective considers only physiological responses and basic instincts, which is helpful in its field but tells nothing about the conscious and personality. On the contrary, the ecological perspective limits itself neither by stages nor by rigid boundaries and considers the whole process of a child’s development, along with its contexts. In that way, I find it the most useful to evaluate the development process in general, while other theories are still helpful, but only in their narrow fields.
Berk, L. (2018). Exploring child development. Pearson Education.