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Themes and Theories of Child Development

The field of child development analyses attempts to account for the gradual evolution of children's abilities and behaviors as they develop by seeking to uncover the processes that underlie these changes and in the strategies that children use. These analyses encompass different points of development, including motor abilities and emotional, social, and cognitive behaviors.

Scientists study children to increase scientific knowledge, studying the ways in which development proceeds and observing the processes that may promote or alter its progress. Researchers also study children to develop practical information that can help those who care for children: parents, teachers, health professionals, and legislators.


The field of child psychology began to form with Charles Darwin's study of children's emotional and perceptual capacities. Until the end of the nineteenth century, children were regarded as small adults, were often exploited as cheap labor, and were not valued in their own right. Today, child psychologists are concerned with increasing their scientific knowledge about children and helping to shape social policy on behalf of children.


Although in the past development was held by many to be the result of maturation, modern developmentalists are concerned with discovering the ways in which biological and environmental forces interact to produce developmental variations.

The study of child development has continued to confront a variety of significant themes or issues that are debated anew whenever new research on development becomes available.

Biological versus Environmental Influences

Most modern viewpoints recognize the importance of both biological and environmental influences, although many psychologists and others continue to disagree over the relative contributions of each set of factors to human development.

The Active versus the Passive Child

Most modern developmentalists believe that children actively shape, control, and direct the course of their own development; some, however, still hold that children are the passive recipients of environmental influence.

Continuity versus Discontinuity

A number of theorists view development as a continuous process, whereby change over time takes place smoothly and gradually, but others see development as a series of qualitatively different steps or stages. The more closely and more frequently we examine the child's development, the more gradual the process appears.

Situational Influences versus Individual Characteristics

Some developmentalists continue to debate the question of whether situational influences or individual personality characteristics are more important in determining how stable a child's behavior will be across varying contexts. Many contemporary psychologists avoid this debate by taking an interactionist viewpoint that stresses the complementary roles of personality and situational factors.

Cultural Universals versus Cultural Relativism

Developmental psychologists who emphasize cultural universals seek culture-free laws of development that can be applied across all societies and cultures. Those who stress cultural relativism study the effects of distinctive cultural settings on children's development. Most developmentalists agree, however, that cultural contexts must be considered in any account of development.

Risk and Resilience

A number of child psychologists have become interested in the contradictions posed to a child's development by the presence, early in life, of high risk factors such as family disintegration, poverty, and illness and the evolution in the child of the quality of resilience, the ability to cope with such negative influences and to create a satisfying and useful life for himself/herself.


Theories serve two functions. First, they help organize and integrate existing knowledge into a coherent account of how children develop. Second, they foster research by providing testable predictions about behavior. Different theories take different positions on the issues or themes of development, and in general they also account for different aspects of development. In this sense they can be seen as complementary rather than as competing with each other.

Learning Perspectives

According to traditional behaviorism, development is a continuous process, which uses the same principles of learning across the life span. On this view, the child is relatively passive, molded by environmental factors that modify behavior by either classical or operant conditioning.

Cognitive social learning theory extended the behavioral perspective to include imitation as another form of learning. Studies based on this perspective have focused our attention on both the positive and negative aspects of television, a common source of models for children's imitation. According to this theory, children are selective about who and what behaviors they imitate.

Cognitive Developmental Perspectives

Piagetian theory describes the child as actively seeking information and new experiences. Children adapt to their environment by assimilating new information when possible or by accommodating their existing frameworks to new information. Development results from increasingly complex reorganizations of mental frameworks as the child moves through an invariant sequence of stages to more advanced levels of cognitive functioning.

In his sociocultural theory of development, Vygotsky emphasized the interaction between the active child and her social environment. From this perspective, the child grows and changes as a function of his/her own efforts, supported by the guidance and help of more skilled others.

Information-processing theories focus on children's representations of information and how they operate on the information to achieve their goals in particular situations. Theorists in this tradition often use computer analogies and flow charts to help describe the steps involved in solving a problem. This approach has been applied to a wide range of problems in studies of cognitive development and social behavior.

Psychodynamic Perspectives

Freud's psychoanalytic theory presents a discontinuous view of development in which the child is motivated by a set of basic biological drives that are focused on different sensory zones and different activities during the early years of development. The concepts of id, ego, and superego are integral to Freud's notion of the development of personality, as are his formulations of the Oedipus and Electra complexes. According to Freudian theory, later adult personality is a direct result of whether the child's drives were deprived or satisfied at each earlier stage. Erikson expanded Freud's theory to include social and cultural factors as influences on the child's development, as well as to extend the theory to cover the entire life span. Erikson's psychosocial theory is organized around a series of fundamental personal and social tasks that need to be accomplished at each stage.

Systems Theory Perspectives

Dynamic systems theories view the developing individual as a member of a system or series of systems that are complex, self-stabilizing, and self-reorganizing. The continuing interactions among system members and among systems make development a highly dynamic enterprise in which relationships and processes are the primary focus.

Ecological theory stresses the importance of understanding the relationship between the organism and various environmental systems, such as the family, school, community, and culture. Development involves the interplay between children and their changing relationships with these different ecological systems-the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem. The child's subjective experience or understanding of the environment and the child's active role in modifying the environment are important aspects of this perspective.

Ethological Theory

Ethological theory takes a biological-evolutionary approach to describing development. Ethologists, whose primary mode of study is direct observation of behavior in natural settings, seek similar patterns of behaviors across human and infrahuman species and across human societies and cultures.

Life Span Perspective

Life span theory emphasizes development over the entire life course. According to this view, developmental change can be traced to normative age-graded events, nonnormative events, and historical or cohort events.


Some theoretical perspectives on child development are particularly useful in explaining certain aspects of children's growth and change, whereas other perspectives illuminate other aspects more successfully.

Because every aspect of development is related to several others, however, it is often useful to apply several different theoretical perspectives to the analysis and study of a particular problem or issue. The interrelatedness of different domains of development makes a systems approach increasingly attractive.

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