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Child Development


The study of the sequential physical, cognitive, emotional, and social changes a child undergoes between birth and adolescence or adulthood.

The first detailed scientific study of child development was probably Charles Darwin's Biographical Sketch of an Infant (1877), based on a log he had kept on the development


1877 Charles Darwin's Biographical Sketch of an Infant, observations on development of his eldest child.

1880 G. Stanley Hall, the "father of child psychology in America," publishes The Contents of Children's Minds.

1914 John Broadus Watson publishes his most important work, Behavior—An Introduction to Comparative Psychology.

1926 Jean Piaget publishes The Child's Conception of the World, followed ten years later by The Orgin of Intelligence in Children.

1934 Arnold Gesell publishes An Atlas of Infant Behavior, followed by Child in the Culture of Today (1943), The Child from Five to Ten (1946), and Child Development (1949).

1946 Benjamin Spock publishes The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.

1950 Erik Erikson publishes Childhood and Society.

of his eldest child. In this work, Darwin advanced the hypothesis that each individual's development from birth to adulthood parallels or recapitulates the phylogenetic development of the human species as a whole (he had made a similar observation about the development of the fetus). Darwin's ideas influenced the early study of child development, also known as the child study movement.

In the United States, the most famous figure associated with Darwin's evolutionary approach was G. Stanley Hall, who was labeled "the father of child psychology in America." The development of intelligence testing around World War I directed attention to the intellectual development of children, especially those considered either gifted or mentally retarded. As the century progressed, emphasis shifted from the study of children as a source of scientific knowledge to a more altruistic endeavor aimed at improving their welfare. From Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget to Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton, child development has been studied and written about to better understand of children in order to promote their well-being during the various stages of childhood, and to help them mature into healthy adults.

Freud developed many theories about the enormous influence of childhood experiences on adult behavior and also proposed a five-stage chronological model of childhood psychosexual development. The oral stage (birth to 1.5 years), in which primary gratification is through sucking, is followed by the anal stage (1.5 to 3 years), in which control of elimination is a primary concern. Next comes the phallic stage (3 to 7 years), during which a child experiences and resolves the Oedipal crisis and assumes his or her sexual identity. During the latency stage (ages 7 to 12) sexuality is dormant, and the primary love objects are people outside the home. With the genital stage, which begins at age 12 and lasts into adulthood, instinctual sexual drives increase and parental attachments are dissolved.

Arnold Gesell was among the first psychologists to undertake a thorough quantitative study of normal human development from birth through adolescence. Based on his work at Yale's Child Development Clinic and his own Institute, Gesell produced reports that had a widespread influence on both parents and educators, and created the Gesell Development Schedules, which are still used today to assess motor and language development, adaptive behavior, and personal-social behavior in children between four weeks and six years of age.

Probably the most famous theory of child development is the cognitive development model pioneered by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget divided child development between birth and late adolescence into four stages of increasingly complex and abstract thought, each qualitatively different from the ones preceding it but still dependent on them. The first, or sensorimotor, stage (birth to approximately 2 years) is a time of nonverbal, experimental basic learning when infants experience the world primarily through their senses and gradually gain mastery of their own bodies and external objects. The preoperational stage (ages 2 to 6 years) involves the association of objects with words and the ability to solve more complex problems, although the child's focus at this stage remains egocentric, a term that refers to the inability to consider things from another person's perspective. The third, or concrete operations, stage (6 to 11 years of age) is a period during which categorizing activities and the earliest logical operations occur. The fourth, or formal operations, stage (ages 12 and higher) is characterized by the gradual emergence of a mature ability to reason and deal with abstract relationships.

Another well-known development theory structured in stages is the one proposed by neo-Freudian Erik Erikson in Childhood and Society (1950). While Erikson's eightstage theory encompasses the entire human life span, much of it is centered on childhood and adolescence. Each developmental stage in Erikson's scheme is concerned with a central conflict: trust versus mistrust in infancy; autonomy versus doubt and shame in early childhood; initiative versus guilt in the preschool period; and industry versus inferiority during the early school years. The goals of the first four stages create the foundation for the successful negotiation of the fifth stage, in which the adolescent must form a stable identity and achieve a sense of self.

Lawrence Kohlberg's work on the development of moral reasoning approaches childhood from a different perspective. After studying the different ways in which children aged 7 through adolescence respond to moral dilemmas, Kohlberg determined that there are universal stages in moral development, which, like the cognitive stages delineated by Piaget, differ from each other qualitatively. Children from the ages of 7 through about 10 act on the preconventional level, which involves deferring to adults and obeying rules based on the immediate prospect of punishment or reward. At around age 10, they progress to the conventional level, where their behavior is guided by the opinions of other people and the desire to conform. During adolescence, children become capable of postconventional morality, which entails the ability to formulate abstract moral principles and act on motives that transcend self-interest and even social norms that conflict with one's personal sense of justice.

In recent years, researchers in child development have focused increasingly on the developmental patterns and needs of minorities and women. Carol Gilligan, Kohlberg's colleague at Harvard University, found fault with Kohlberg's exclusive focus on white males in his initial research, and in her own study, In a Different Voice, Gilligan differentiates between male and female moral development. In contrast to the male problem solving approach to moral dilemmas based on an "ethic of justice," she describes a female "ethic of care" that is based on empathy and involves the perception of moral dilemmas in terms of conflicting responsibilities rather than competing rights.

Further Reading

Bee, Helen L. The Developing Child. 5th ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Dworetzky, John. Introduction to Child Development. 5th ed. Minneapolis: West Publishing Co., 1993.

Meinhold, Patricia. Child Psychology: Development and Behavior Analysis. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1993.

Owens, Karen. The World of the Child. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1987.

Papalia, Diane E. A Child's World: Infancy through Adolescence. 5th ed. New York : McGraw-Hill, 1990.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaChild Development