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Child Psychology

Disciplines and theories concerned with the cognitive, psychological, physiological, and social/inter-personal aspects of human development.

Child psychologists study human development from the earliest stages of life through adolescence and adulthood. These scientists focus on many areas of growth. In the early years of life they include motor skills, perceptual analysis and inference, language and speech, social behavior, and the emergence of basic emotions of fear, sadness, anxiety, shame, and guilt.

The two important strategies for studying development include the longitudinal study in which a particular group of children is studied over a long period of time, sometimes from infancy through adulthood. The second method, which is more popular because it is less expensive, is called the cross-sectional method. In this strategy a group of children or adolescents at a particular age are studied at that age. In order to compare different ages, different samples would be studied but no group would be studied over time.

The major question that developmental psychologists wish to understand is how the maturational forces that are inevitable interact with experience to produce the behaviors, skills, and motives that we observe. For example, all children will develop an ability to speak and understand language before they are three years of age. However, in some cultural settings, children display this skill soon after the first birthday, while in others it might be delayed until the second or third birthday.

A related problem that puzzles child psychologists has to do with the temperamental factors children inherit that make a contribution to their individual personalities. Here, too, the puzzle is to understand how these inherited temperamental biases and experience in the family and with other children contribute to the traits the child develops.

Prior to Sigmund Freud's writings which became popular after the turn of the century, most Western explanations of the differences among children were attributed to temperament or constitution. Freud changed this by arguing that family experience was the more important determinant of differences in children's moods, emotions, and symptoms. Freud believed that those experiences in the family made the child vulnerable to conflicts over hostility and sexuality. The intensity of the conflict and the defenses the child learned to deal with those conflicts were the main determinant of the child's personality. These view were very popular in the United States for the period from 1930 to 1960. However, because of the lack of strong scientific support for these theories, loyalty to these ideas has eroded in a major way.

Erik Erikson substituted for Freud's famous stages on oral, anal, phallic, and genital a more humane set of stages which emphasized the development of attachment relations in the first year of life and more generative and creative aspects of human nature, rather than the more narcissistic and destructive.

Jean Piaget's contribution was to motivate child psychologists to pay more attention to the child's intellectual and cognitive development.

However, it is fair to say that at the present time there is no overarching theory of child development. Child psychologists are working on a series of problems that cover all of the important areas of growth. It is hoped that as these facts are gathered, brilliant theorists sometime in the future will be able to synthesize this information into a coherent theory that clarifies the child's growth.

Jerome Kagan

Further Reading

Bee, Helen L. The Developing Child. 7th ed. New York: Harper Collins College Publishers, 1995.

Gemelli, Ralph J. Normal Child and Adolescent Development. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1996.

Kagan, Jerome. The Nature of the Child. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Roberts, Michael C. Handbook of Pediatric Psychology. 2nd ed. New York: Guilford Press, 1995.

Sroufe, L. Alan, Robert G. Cooper, and Mary E. Marshall. Child Development. New York: Random House, 1987.

Thomas, R. Murray. Comparing Theories of Child Development. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1992.

Vasta, Ross, Marshall M. Haith, and Scott A. Miller. Child Psychology: the Modern Science. New York: J. Wiley & Sons, 1992.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaChild Development