The developmental processes of children and adolescents have intrigued theorists and researchers for centuries. Prior to the time of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, most people viewed children as miniature adults. During the Middle Ages children as young as six years of age were often sent off to work as apprentices in professions such as farming, blacksmithing, and carpentry. However, toward the end of the Middle Ages, the economic situation dramatically shifted; many occupations switched from requiring manual labor to necessitating academic skills. Thus, the treatment of children became refocused, away from integration with adults and toward educational instruction. This article is designed to introduce readers to topics (i.e., physical, cognitive, language, personality and social, and morality development) that have helped us to better understand how children and adolescents are not miniature adults but unique, intriguing beings.
Research and Theory
Much of the physical growth and development that occurs in childhood is a continuation of earlier growth patterns seen in infancy. As was the case in infancy, development continues on the cephalocaudal (i.e., a pattern of physical and motor growth from head to tail) and proximodistal (i.e., a pattern of physical and motor growth from the center of the body outward) track. In other words, physical and motor development begins with the head, chest, and trunk and then follows with the arms and legs, ending with the feet and hands. When children enter the adolescent period this growth pattern reverses, with hand and foot growth followed by that of the trunk or upper body. Examples of associated milestones of motor development in childhood include walking up and down stairs using alternating feet between the ages of 3 to 5 years; developing abilities to jump, hop, and skip; and increasing upper-body motion when throwing and catching a ball. Between the ages of 7 and 12 years, there are increases in speed when running, increases in vertical-jump height, increased accuracy in throwing and kicking, and overall fluidity in physical body movement. However, it is important to note that because the extremities (hands and feet) grow before the upper body during the adolescent spurt of physical growth, teens may experience a brief period of awkward stature and movement.
Much of the physical growth that occurs in childhood and adolescence is coordinated by endocrine glands through the release of hormones. Human growth hormones are released primarily by the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is regulated by and located near the hypothalamus, toward the base of the brain. One pituitary hormone that is secreted throughout the life span is growth hormone (GH), which influences the growth of bones. Another important hormone that influences growth and development is thyroxine, a hormone released by the thyroid gland that influences body and brain maturation. Thyroxine is necessary for GH to have its fullest impact on a body’s development. During adolescence, the pituitary gland releases sex hormones (estrogens and androgens). Both of these hormones are found in males and females, but at differing levels, dependent upon the sex of the individual. It is during prepubescence (the period leading up to completion of development or puberty) that the release of hormones spurs the continued development of the brain and growth of primary and secondary sex characteristics. Primary sex characteristics include the development of the sex organs (i.e., in females, the ovaries, uterus, and vagina; in males, the penis, scrotum, and testes), whereas secondary sex characteristics consist of outward signs of pubertal growth (e.g., growth of underarm and pubic hair, facial hair for boys, breast development for girls, and skin changes for both sexes). The signal of puberty completion for girls is the occurrence of menarche (the first menstrual cycle and period). Puberty ends for boys with the completed development of their testes, seminal vesicles, and prostate gland. The spermarche, or ability to ejaculate semen, is indicative of the end of puberty for boys. The process of adolescent physical growth begins and ends earlier for girls than for boys.
Because of the dramatic hormonal, physical, and emotional changes that occur during adolescence, researchers have traditionally recognized this time as a period of “storm and stress.” This concept, although originally recognized by influential philosophers (e.g., Aristotle and Socrates) and theorists (e.g., Rousseau), was explicitly described by G. Stanley Hall. Hall believed that humans experienced a tumultuous time during which they transition from being children to becoming adults. During this turbulence, researchers saw adolescents as engaging in conflict with their parents, experiencing mood fluctuations and disruptions, and engaging in risk-taking or reckless behavior. Interestingly, Jeffrey Arnett (1999) revisited the concept of storm and stress in light of more recent research and found that although great individual differences exist within the experience of storm and stress, most adolescents do experience variations of the three components. He also noted that culture has a significant influence over the extent and experience of storm and stress.
Our understanding of cognitive development comes, in large part, from the research and theory of Jean Piaget. Piaget developed his theory of cognitive development based upon observations of his own and other children. Before outlining his theory, it is important to understand the underlying assumptions. First, although Piaget recognized the probability of individual differences in development, he believed in an invariant sequence of developmental stages that were qualitatively different. Second, Piaget’s theory is constructivist; children are not simply waiting for development to occur or maturation to take place, they actively construct the experiences they have and make sense of the environment. Third, under normal circumstances there should be no stage regression. That is, the knowledge and skills gained in each stage build upon one another and, barring unforeseen circumstances, individuals should not regress in their cognitive abilities.
Piaget’s observational research allowed for an understanding of how children gain and refine their knowledge (thought patterns or schema) of the world. Children are born into this world with very little knowledge and only a set core of reflexes, but as they mature and interact more with their environment, they begin to integrate and change their existing knowledge. There are two processes by which children deal with new information. One such way is called assimilation—an attempt to integrate new information into what they already know. For example, as children are learning the different sounds animals make, they may have a clear understanding of the sound a cow makes, “moo.” When confronted with new information, they will likely rely on their old knowledge to make sense of the world. So, when the child sees a horse for the first time, and you ask what sound a horse makes, he or she may respond “moo!” Clearly, at some point children learn that horses do not “moo.” Piaget explained this shift in understanding as accomodation—altering existing knowledge to incorporate new information. So, a child’s learning that a horse “neighs” is an example of accommodation of knowledge and new schemes developing. Piaget described our cognitive process as being in a state of balance or equilibrium. However, when we are confronted with information that does not fit, we are thrown into a state of disequilibrium and must reorganize our thinking to fit new information and achieve equilibration. Piaget is most well known for his four stages of cognitive development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.
Sensorimotor period (birth to roughly 2 years of age). Piaget believed that generally children gain knowledge through their senses and motor behavior. Piaget outlined six substages to this first stage of development.
- Reflexes (0 to 1 months). Infants are born with a set of reflexes that are uncoordinated at first, but quickly become synchronized and serve as the foundation for later cognitive development.
- Primary circular reaction (1 to 4 months). During this substage there is a crude beginning of intent in behavior. Specifically, as infants accidentally produce a desirable occurrence using their body, they will attempt to recreate that event. For example, an infant may unintentionally brush her lips with her hand and induce the sucking reflex. In an attempt to recreate that pleasurable experience of sucking, the infant may more purposefully put her thumb or finger in her mouth. This recreation of an experience is an example of how, at a very early age, children are constructing their experiences within the environment.
- Secondary circular reactions (4 to 8 months). Whereas the focus of recreating occurrences during the primary circular reactions stage is on the infant’s body, the focus for secondary circular reactions is outside the self. For example, if a baby were to accidentally shake a toy that had a rattle inside it and create a pleasurable noise, the baby would attempt to recreate the noise by shaking the toy again. Piaget described this recreation of events in the environment as demonstrating the infant’s interest in the world.
- Coordination of secondary circular reactions (aka meansend behavior; 8 to 12 months). This stage offers a clear indication of intentional behavior. For example, if an object is in front of a toy the child desires, the child will intentionally move the object to grasp the toy. An important cognitive milestone of this stage is object permanence— understanding that objects exist even though we cannot perceive them. Once a child has the understanding of object permanence, he understands how to find a missing toy by removing the blanket that covers it. Object permanence is another indication of the child’s further development of schemes.
- Tertiary circular reaction (12 to 18 months). At this stage Piaget described children as little scientists because they are experimenting within their environments. There is clear and combinational intent in children’s behavior at this stage, building on the intent found in stage four. It is at this point that babies will repeat actions using different objects only to see what the end result will be. For example, a child may drop different objects over the side of her high chair, only to see what sounds each object will make.
- Mental representation (18 months to 2 years). At this stage, children continue to develop and refine their schemes and are able to solve simple problems in their heads. It is at this point that children begin to play make-believe and also demonstrate differed imitation. For example, because a child now understands what it looks like to sleep, she may pretend play that she is sleeping to “fool” her parents.
Preoperational period (2 to 7 years). The preoperational period is an expanded time frame that consists of rapid cognitive development. Children at this stage are able to represent schemes mentally and can think about objects and events that are not physically present. The biggest limitation at this stage of cognitive development is children’s egocentrism—the inability to take the perspective of another. Piaget described children’s egocentrism as perceptual, affective, and cognitive. Perceptual egocentrism is illustrated by children’s believing that others can see (or hear, or some other sensory experience) what they see. Although egocentrism is defined as a child’s lack of ability to understand the emotions of another, cognitive egocentrism is best described by the term conservation. Piaget discovered that children during this stage lack the understanding that changing the size, shape, or location of an object does not change the amount of that object (i.e., conservation).
Concrete operational period (7 to 11 years). During the concrete operational period, children become more logical in their thinking and now have the ability to conserve objects and take the perspective of others. Children’s thought processes at this stage are more flexible and organized compared to during previous stages; however, at this stage, children’s thoughts tend to be focused on the here and now. That is, during this time period, children have a difficult time thinking abstractly or in a hypothetical form.
Formal operational period (11 years and beyond). During Piaget’s last stage of cognitive development, adolescents are now able to think logically and flexibly, and they have the newfound ability to think about abstract concepts and hypothetical situations. Adolescents are able to use hypothetic-deductive reasoning, whereby they begin with a general theory of possible factors influencing a situation and then deduce specific hypotheses to test in an orderly fashion. Piaget described a new type of egocentrism as a limitation to adolescent thinking, however. Although adolescents have the ability to understand other people’s perspectives, they tend to focus on themselves. Three examples of this adolescent egocentrism include the personal fable, the imaginary audience, and the invincibility fable. The personal fable is adolescents’ belief that their experiences are special or unique. Because of this belief, adolescents often think that no one could possibly understand their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The imaginary audience consists of adolescents’ beliefs that everyone else is as interested in their appearance and behavior as they are. Because of this egocentrism, adolescents will often feel extremely self-conscious and engage in behaviors to “fit in” with age-mates. Finally, the invincibility fable consists of adolescents’ belief that they will never fall victim to risky or dangerous behavior. Because of this belief, adolescents often will engage in unprotected sex (thinking they will not get pregnant or get an STD), drinking/using drugs and driving, and driving in extreme fashions (e.g., at high speeds).
Piaget is very well known and respected for his research and theory. Still, to understand cognitive development, it is important to consider at least one other influential theorist. Lev Vygotsky is known for his sociocultural theory of cognitive development. Whereas Piaget’s theory focuses on the child interacting with the environment in somewhat of a self-guided process, Vygotsky’s focus for cognitive development is on the benefit of social interaction that children have with adults and others. Vygotsky believed that through social interaction, children are able to master tasks and skills that they would not be able to accomplish if left to their own devices. He called this the Zone of Proximal Development, the differential range of working by oneself versus working with the assistance of a skilled peer or adult.
For the interaction between child and another to be successful, or for a child to be successfully pushed to the higher end of his or her Zone of Proximal Development, two important factors must be involved. First, there must be intersubjectivity—the child and others begin a task with different understandings or knowledge of the situation, but by the completion of the task, they have come to a shared agreement. During the process of intersubjectivity, the adult must work to share his or her knowledge in a manner that is understandable to the specific child.
The second important factor for successful interaction is the process of scaffolding—adults (or skilled peers) change the quality of social interaction by adjusting the amount of assistance they provide to the child. Early in a child’s learning a task, the adult may engage in more direct instruction and heavily guide the child’s actions; however, as the child gains greater insight into the problem or task, the adult begins to withdraw the extra assistance to the point at which the child is able to do the task alone. For example, when a child is first learning how to make her bed, her parent may offer several direct commands and physically show the child how to do the task. However, as the child becomes more knowledgeable, the parent offers less direction but more “helpful hints” and has the child doing the task alone.
Vygotsky also described how children guide their own behavior using private speech—self-directed speech that children engage in as a means to guide their own thoughts and behavior. When children are small, it is not uncommon to hear them talking themselves through a task (e.g., washing their hands, tying a shoe, buttoning a button, etc.). Research has suggested that children will engage in more frequent private speech when the task is difficult, if they have made an error, or if they are uncertain or confused about how to proceed with a problem. However, as we age, this self-direction becomes internalized and private speech becomes more of a thought process than outward expression. Vygotsky was a firm believer in the connection between language development and thought processes. He suggested that as we develop language, there is a profound shift in our thinking processes.
Language development can be understood by highlighting the sequential process of its development and then explaining that process using recognized theories. When examining the process or stages of human language development, we find a path that is fairly universal in nature. All infants begin the communication process with reflexive crying that, although unintentional, clearly sends messages about hunger, pain, or discomfort. The hunger cry is lower in pitch and intensity, whereas the pain cry is high in pitch and intensity. Infants do not have to think about what type of cry they’d like to express; it occurs naturally. Also, although there is some debate as to whether adults can recognize the different types of cries infants express, one can argue that, given enough time with an infant, the adult will quickly pick up on the messages being sent.
Even though there can be great variation and individual differences in the rate of language development, most researchers recognize that the foundation for language begins around the age of two months with vowel-like noises called cooing. Common cooing consists of “oo” sounds. Cooing is an oral expression of sounds that the infant can make. At approximately four months of age, as infants develop greater muscle control over their tongue and mouth, they will begin to add consonant-vowel combinations, typically heard in strings. These combinations are called babbling. An example of babbling from the English language consists of phrases like “bababababa” and “nananana.” It is during this stage of language development, at around seven months of age, that infants begin specialization within their own language. Interestingly, individual maturation and exposure to language within the environment influence the age at which infants truly begin to babble. For babies who are hearing impaired, vocal babbling will most often be delayed, and for deaf babies, completely absent. However, researchers Petitto and Marentette (1991) have found that when infants who are deaf are exposed to sign language within their environment, they will babble similarly with their hands as hearing babies do with their voice.
The third stage of language development is known as one-word utterances. At about one year, infants are expressing their first words. Common first words in the English language include phrases like “mama” and “dada,” but it is important to recognize the influence of the infant’s language environment on his or her first word. The first 50 words a child learns tend to happen rather slowly, but after those first 50 a language explosion occurs. This rapid connection between words and objects or events, called fast mapping, occurs so rapidly that children cannot reasonably understand all possible meanings of the words.
The next stage of language development is called two-word utterances. At about two and one-half years, children begin stringing words together. In their early sentences, children’s language is described as telegraphic speech because, as is the case with telegrams, children use only the important or necessary words to communicate meaning. Unimportant words (e.g., “a,” “and,” “the”) are often left out. So, a child might say or sing, for example, “itsy bitsy spider, up water spout” instead of “the itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout.”
At about three to five years, children enter the last stage of language development and start using what is called basic adult sentence structure. By this age, they have a basic understanding of the way that words are ordered (syntax) and have become quite sophisticated communicators. Sometimes children of this age will misapply grammatical rules to words that are exceptions to those rules. This error is called overregularization and is exemplified by adding an inappropriate –s to make a word plural. For example, a child may say “mouses” instead of “mice.” Another error is inappropriately adding –ed to make the past tense of an irregular verb: “I goed to the store today.”
How can we explain children’s phenomenal ability to acquire language? As is the case with most aspects of development, one theory argues nature’s role in language development, and another suggests the predominant importance of nurture. Beginning with the nurture side, most recognized is an application of B. F. Skinner’s operant Conditioning. Theorists who argue operant conditioning as the explanation of language development would look at how parents reinforce an infant or child through smiles and verbal praise for making different sounds. Another learning approach, Bandura’s social learning theory, explains language development by examining how children imitate what they hear in their environment. Learning theories give some insight into how language develops, and one would be remiss to ignore the impact of the environment on language development, but taking a nurture stance alone is not enough to explain how and why children develop language. For example, why would a child say “goed”? It is highly unlikely that she or he hears parents saying “goed,” and chances are, parents are not reinforcing that utterance. It is through examining the nature side of this debate that we have additional understanding and insight into language development.
Linguist Noam Chomsky is best known for arguing that language is the result of innate processes. Chomsky explains that parents and teachers cannot directly teach language organization and grammatical/syntactical rules. Yet, we see children understanding basic syntax and attempting to apply grammatical rules. Thus, he reasoned, language development must be guided by an internal process. Specifically, he suggested that humans are born with a language acquisition device (LAD). The LAD is innate and allows the child to arrange language in a grammatically logical fashion. Chomsky argued that within the LAD exists what he called universal grammar, a store of grammatical rules that apply to language. Another well-known linguist, Steven Pinker, suggests that it is not that anyone language is within our genes; rather, the ability to arrange and produce language is innate. Nativists like Chomsky and Pinker do acknowledge that children must have at least a limited amount of exposure to language within their environment to prompt the innate process; however, they do not agree with learning theorists that parents or adults must deliberately work with or teach children language. Most theorists and developmental psychologists recognize the importance of both nature (e.g., LAD) and nurture (conditioning of language) in an attempt to understand how language develops.
Personality and Social Development
Although many theorists have attempted to explain personality differences and development, because of the limited nature of this article, we will discuss only two widely recognized and influential theories: Freud’s psychodynamic theory of personality development and Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory. Two important correlates of personality development (i.e., temperament and attachment) will also be highlighted.
Sigmund Freud was one of the earliest theorists to attempt to explain the root causes for personality development and differences. He viewed personality development as involving five stages that consist of internal biological needs that are the focus of interactions between child and parent. According to Freud, at each stage there is an erogenous zone, or area of the body that is the focus for libidinal energy and gratification. He also believed that if our gratification needs were not met appropriately (i.e., over- or undermet) during the early stages, fixation could occur. Fixation is a process whereby the child would show characteristics of that stage in behavior and personality later in life. Freud also believed there were three separate, but interacting, elements of the mind that guide thoughts and behavior: the id (pleasure seeking), superego (an internal sense of right and wrong or conscience), and ego (the part of the mind grounded in reality that must appease the id and superego). There are many more elements to Freud’s theory, but these are the most important to help in understanding his personality stages:
- Oral (birth to approximately 18 months). At this stage, the erogenous zone is the mouth. Infants gain pleasure through sucking and biting. If the child’s needs are not met (e.g., not being fed when hungry), the child will become fixated at this stage and seek oral gratification later in life. Examples of oral-fixation behavior would be biting one’s nails, chewing on pens or pencils, over- or undereating, and being verbally aggressive. Personality characteristics of individuals who are fixated include being dependent, gullible, and overly optimistic, according to Freud.
- Anal (18 months to 3 years). During this stage, an important milestone is potty training. Hence, Freud believed pleasure is gained through the retention and expulsion of feces. Depending upon how parents manage the potty-training process, children can develop a fixation at this stage as well. If parents are rigid and harsh in the process, children may exhibit signs of anal retention later in life, whereby they are rigid and compulsive in their behavior. Individuals who are considered anal retentive, in Freudian terms, tend to be compulsive, organized, and attentive to details. However, if parents are very lax in the potty-training process, their children may fixate and become anal expulsive. Individuals who are anal expulsive tend to be very disorganized, messy, and inattentive to details.
- Phallic (4 to 5 years). This is considered to be Freud’s most controversial stage. The erogenous zone for the phallic stage is the genitals; it is not uncommon for children of this age to discover their genitals and begin to understand that stimulation of the genitals can bring pleasure. However, Freud believed it is at this time that boys go through the Oedipal complex and girls experience the Electra complex. The theme for each of these complexes is similar—they both involve a sexual attraction to the opposite-sex parent. However, for boys, during the process of sexual attraction toward their mother, they develop a fear of their father’s reprisal that might result in injury to their genitals. This developing fear is called castration anxiety. To compensate for this fear, boys must repress their sexual attraction toward their mother and identify with their father. According to Freud, during the process of this identification, the super ego develops. Freud argued that during this stage girls develop penis envy—the result of anger toward their mother and sexual attraction toward their father (which would result in seducing the father to obtain a penis vicariously). To resolve this complex, girls must repress their anger toward their mother and their sexual attraction toward their father, and ultimately identify with their mother. Freud also believed that girls develop a super ego at this point, but because the Electra complex is not as traumatic as the Oedipal complex for boys, the resulting super ego is not as strong, ultimately meaning that boys/men are more moral than girls/women.
- Latency (6 to puberty). Because the previous stage was very traumatic, a period of rest is needed. During the latency stage all sexual interest and desire is suppressed, and the focus of this stage is developing same-sex friendships.
- Genital (puberty and beyond). Around the time of puberty, our sexual desires and interests are reawakened and result in the desire to find mature, healthy (heterosexual, according to Freud) adult relationships.
Erik Erikson, like Freud, believed that personality develops in stages and that our environment and early relationships can influence who we ultimately become, but Erickson’s theory integrated fewer biological needs and expanded the notion that society may put certain pressures or demands on us that can cause psychosocial conflict or crises. Each of his stages, thus, is described in terms of conflicts that are of focus during specific age ranges. Erikson also described ego strengths, which result from the successful resolution of each of these crises. Although his theory consists of eight stages across the complete life span, because this article is focused on childhood and adolescence, only those age-relevant stages will be highlighted.
- Basic Trust versus Mistrust (birth to 1 year of age). Society at this stage is represented by the immediate family. The focus of this stage is infants’ learning of whether they can trust their parents to be responsive to their needs. If their needs are consistently met, infants will develop a sense of trust; however, if infants’ needs are not met consistently and regularly, then a sense of mistrust will follow. Resulting Ego Strength: Hope.
- Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt (1 to 3 years). During this period children develop a new sense of independence and make every attempt to exercise this newfound ability. Through events such as walking, potty training, and refining motor skills, infants learn that they can be autonomous apart from their parents. If parents are very supportive and allow the opportunity for freedom of choice, then children will develop a clear sense of autonomy; however, if children are restricted in their behaviors, they will likely develop a sense of shame and doubt. Resulting ego strength: will.
- Initiative versus Guilt (3 to 6 years). Children continue to develop skills and abilities in this stage and begin to imagine who they may become in the future. It is also at this stage that Erikson’s concept of society begins to expand beyond family to include the school setting. In this new setting children are expected to set and follow through with tasks and goals. If a child is in a supportive environment that helps set realistic goals that the child can meet or exceed, then the end result will be initiative; however, if parents and teachers are too demanding and not supportive, the child may develop a sense of guilt. Resulting ego strength: purpose.
- Industry versus Inferiority (6 to 11 years). At this stage, there is increasing societal pressure for children to cooperate and contribute to society. If a child can work or cooperate with others, then she will feel a sense of industry; if the child feels as though she cannot get along well with others, she will develop a sense of inferiority. Resulting ego strength: competence.
- Identity versus Identity Confusion (Adolescence). During the adolescent time period, Erikson believed that we seek to find a definition of self (i.e., identity). Through this process we may question our goals, attitudes, beliefs, and place in society. If adolescents can resolve this questioning with a sense of defining themselves, they will develop an identity; however, if there is not a successful resolution, Erikson argued they will feel a sense of identity confusion, which ultimately can affect the later search for intimacy.
James Marcia built upon Erikson’s adolescent stage of development, recognizing that there can be different identity statuses that result during this questioning or search for identity. Some adolescents do not actively engage in the questioning process, and also have not committed to any personal set of beliefs and values. Marcia describes these individuals as identity diffused. If adolescents do not question who they are and what they believe, but readily accept what others define for them, Marcia suggests they are identity foreclosed. Adolescents who are active in the questioning process but have not yet committed to any set of beliefs or values are labeled as experiencing an identity moratorium. Finally, Marcia notes that the ideal situation is one in which an individual has actively questioned beliefs and values and ultimately commits to a core identity. These individuals are described as identity achieved.
It is clear from Freud’s and Erikson’s theories that the relationships that children have with their parents influence subsequent personality development. From other research and theories we also know that personal characteristics of children (i.e., temperament) can influence the relationships they have with parents and others.
Through research examining behavioral patterns and responsivity, physicians Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess have helped us better understand individual differences in temperament that children exhibit. Because these behavioral response patterns are seen very early in life, researchers suggest that temperament is biologically based and perhaps consists of inherited traits. Based on their observations, Thomas and Chess note that children fall roughly into three categories of temperament:
- Easy Children (approximately 40 percent of American children fall into this category). These children are very easygoing, are adaptable to change, have a positive demeanor, and are not fearful in approaching new situations.
- Slow-to-Warm-Up Children (approximately 15 percent of American children fall into this category). These children are less adaptable to change and can have intense or negative reactions to new situations. They are slow to warm up to new situations and changes in routine, but they can ultimately (with repeated exposure) adapt to change.
- Difficult Children (approximately 10 percent of American children fall into this category). Difficult children are prone to persistent negative mood patterns, do not adapt to change well, and behave in inconsistent patterns.
If you sum the percentages, it is clear that not all children fit into one of these three prescribed categories. Thomas and Chess found that the remaining 35 percent of children are a combination of the three categories. Again, because of early behavioral patterns, heredity is thought to be a possible explanation in individual differences in temperament; however, it is important to recognize the early interaction between parent and child as influencing behavioral patterns as well. For a better understanding of parent-child interaction, attachment theory must be investigated.
Attachment is an intense emotional bond, often referred to in the context of parent-child relationships. Much of what we know about human attachment comes from the research of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Bowlby was primarily interested in the attachment disturbances experienced by children who were raised in institutionalized settings. The lack of exposure to close intimate relationships left many of these children with emotional problems and the inability to form subsequent connections with others. Based on his research and observation, Bowlby offered a description of what could be considered normal phases of attachment. His theory is based not only on his observation, but also on his ethological and instinctual beliefs about attachment.
- Phase 1: Preattachment (birth to 6 weeks). During the first phase of attachment, babies show similar responses to all people.
- Phase 2: Attachment in the Making (6 weeks to 6 to 8 months). During this phase, infants become more intentional and less reflexive in behavior. In response to this shift, babies become more restrictive in their smiles, babbling, and even crying behavior. Infants begin showing a preference for two to three people.
- Phase 3: Clear-Cut Attachment (6 to 8 months to 18 months to 2 years). During this phase infants show a clear preference for one person. An indication of this preference is seen via separation anxiety. That is, when infants are separated from their preferred care provider, they will signal distress, and when they are reunited with the care provider, infants will show a sense of relief. Children also show stranger anxiety, or a fear of adults with whom they are not familiar, at this time.
- Phase 4: Reciprocal Relationships (18 months to 2 years and beyond). The relationship between care provider and child becomes much more of a give-and-take process, whereby the child not only receives care and attention but also is attentive to the caregiver’s emotional displays.
Based on his research with institutionalized children and children who were separated for periods of time from their parents, Bowlby offers a description of the effects of separation. At first, children will protest the separation with cries and refusal of care from other adults. In the next phase, they experience a period of despair in which they become introverted, withdrawn, and inactive. Bowlby describes this phase as a period of mourning the loss of the attachment. After this period of quiet, children enter the final stage of detachment, during which they may become more active and accepting of substitute care.
Mary Ainsworth entered the attachment arena when conducting naturalistic observations of attachment between children and their mothers in Uganda. When she returned to the United States she began formal research with babies and their mothers in Baltimore, Maryland, and developed and refined a widely accepted measure of attachment behavior known as the strange situation. The strange situation consists of separations and reunions between mother and child in an unfamiliar setting. There also is an introduction of a stranger during the process to see how the baby or child responds to a stranger in comparison to the mother. Based upon her initial research, Ainsworth identified three patterns of attachment:
- Securely attached infants. Infants who are securely attached are upset when mothers leave the room, but are easily comforted upon reunion. When in the room with the mother, these children use their mother as a secure base, or a source of reassurance to go and explore the environment. There is a clear preference for the mother over a stranger.
- Insecure/avoidant infants. These children are not upset when their mother leaves the room. In fact, they have very little interaction with the mother at all. Avoidant children show no preference for their mother over a stranger.
- Insecure/ambivalent infants. These children are very preoccupied with their mother’s location during the strange situation process. When the mother leaves the room, these children become very upset and inconsolable. Upon her return, these children are often resistant to comfort from their mother as well.
Subsequent research led Ainsworth and colleagues to relabel the insecure/ambivalent category “resistant” and add another category, “disorganized/disoriented.” Disorganized/disoriented children are very inconsistent in their behavior during the strange situation and appear to be very confused by the relationship and process of assessment.
Although there is some debate as to whether early attachments are predictive of later attachments, most researchers and theorists agree that early relationships have an impact on how children develop and on the connections they will have with others. More recent research has focused on factors that affect the quality of attachment, examining variables such as sensitivity in caregiving, infants’ characteristics, parents’ experiences with attachment, the influence of daycare, and cultural differences. One area that has been underinvestigated historically, but has been more researched recently, is the role of child-father attachment. (Mothers have been the primary focus for attachment research because of social roles [i.e., mothers are seen as the primary caregiver], and because of their availability and willingness to participate in such research.) Findings to this point suggest that infants can securely attach to their fathers just as easily as they do to their mothers. Important factors in promoting attachment with fathers are similar to attachment with mothers (e.g., sensitivity, parental investment, expression of care, and nurturance).
Moral development is an area that is influenced greatly by many of the previously discussed topics. Obviously we must have physical maturation and cognitive development to achieve moral reasoning. We also use our language to express and explain our moral reasoning. Without question, our personality and social surroundings influence our reasoning and justification for our moral decisions.
Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan are two noted theorists in this area. Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, based largely on Piaget’s thoughts of moral reasoning, stems from his longitudinal research (i.e., research spanning several years with the same group of participants) with adolescent boys. To best understand how his participants morally reasoned, Kohlberg posed moral dilemmas that had no clear right or wrong answers, asking the participants what would be the right thing to do, and why. He was more interested in the reasoning behind participants’ answers than the answers themselves. Based on his research, Kohlberg developed a theory with three levels and six stages to explain moral reasoning development; he did not give specific age ranges for his stages and levels, but assumed that as we age, we become more sophisticated in our reasoning, and thus progress in an invariant sequence:
Preconventional level: Moral reasoning at this level generally is guided by external forces.
- Stage 1: Obedience Orientation. Children look to authority figures for determining right from wrong and use punishment as a determinant for moral reasoning. If someone is punished for an act, the act must be wrong. For example, children are told by authorities (e.g., parents, teachers) that stealing is wrong, and thus believe that a person who steals is committing a wrongful act. Also, people who are caught stealing are punished, so stealing must be wrong.
- Stage 2: Instrumental Orientation. Individuals are concerned about their own personal well-being, gain, and needs. Right and wrong are often determined by some exchange of favors that directly benefit the self. For example, a child may reason that it is not wrong to report a friend for stealing candy because the friend shared the candy.
Conventional level: Moral reasoning is guided by society’s norms.
- Stage 3: Interpersonal Norms. This stage is also known as the “good boy/good girl stage.” Individuals are concerned with the perceptions of others, and use that concern to determine right from wrong. For example, people who steal are often seen as “bad” people by others, thus stealing must be wrong. However, if, for example, parents steal food because they have no money to buy it for their children, perhaps the parents would be seen as “good,” and stealing may be justified in this case.
- Stage 4: Social Systems Morality. Stage 4 is also known as the “Law and Order” stage because individuals who reason at this stage firmly believe that there are laws in society to maintain order and promote good within society, and breaking those laws would likely lead to chaos or anarchy.
Postconventional level: Generally at this level, moral reasoning stems from a personal moral code.
- Stage 5: Social Contract. Individuals who reason using Stage 5 principles believe that laws are based on an agreed-upon contract that is meant to benefit the members within society. However, if those laws are unjust to the society’s members, there may be cause for breaking them.
- Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles. Individuals rely upon abstract principles such as justice and equality to guide their moral reasoning. They also recognize that their personal moral beliefs may, at times, conflict with societal expectations, but they take ownership and responsibility for their reasoning and beliefs.
Kohlberg’s theory, although supported by his and others’ research and widely accepted, falls short, according to researchers, such as Carol Gilligan, who point to the limitation of Kohlberg’s sample (i.e., only including boys/ men as participants). Gilligan also argued that Kohlberg’s theory bases moral decisions on the notion of justice, and whereas justice may be the guiding focus for boys and men’s moral reasoning, she suggests that women reason using the notion of care.
In response to Kohlberg’s theory, Gilligan devised a three-level theory. At the preconventional level, Gilligan notes that there is an emphasis on caring for the self. Thus, self-preservation influences decisions about right and wrong. At the conventional level, women shift their focus of care and concern from themselves to others. Finally, at the postconventional level, the focal point for moral reasoning is care for self and others in an interdependent manner.
Although there has been research support to suggest that girls and women use a “care” model in determining right from wrong, there has also been research to suggest that some men also use a similar model of “care,” and some women use a model of “justice,” as proposed by Kohlberg. Hence, sex may not be the sole explanation for these different approaches to moral reasoning; other factors such as family upbringing may contribute to how we determine right from wrong.
Childhood and adolescence is a very exciting and vital time frame of development that sets the foundation for who we will ultimately become when we reach adulthood. Although we have examined various topics, it is essential to understand that none of these aspects of development occurs in isolation; each is dependent on the others, and their combination can greatly influence the course of development for the person. Without question, we know that children and adolescents are not simply miniature adults—they are fascinating creatures, unique in and of themselves.
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