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Key Points of the Theories of Child Development

by Sheri Oz

From the moment of birth, you recognize each of your children's unique personalities and you want to raise them to reach their full potential and live happy lives. Perhaps you have heard of well-known child development theorists, such as Sigmund Freud, John Bowlby, Jean Piaget, Erik Erickson, Margaret Mahler and Lawrence Kohlberg, and you may be wondering if their theories can help you understand your impact on your children's development and how to enhance it. . In fact, there are some key points that all the child development theories have in common that you can keep in mind as you raise your children.

Developmental Stages

Every theory of child development suggests that children experience various distinct stages of growth, called developmental tasks, whether these are in cognitive, emotional, or social competencies. The book, “Child Development: A Thematic Approach,” describes how children progress along a predetermined path as they achieve increasingly sophisticated reasoning and social skills. Each child’s path is affected by his or her inborn abilities and interaction with the environment. Accomplishment of a developmental task in one area affects the ability to develop in another area. For example, a child who acquires language quickly may engage more readily with older children than one who lags behind, thereby developing social skills at a younger age. Their different rates of development, however, may all fall within the normal range, meaning that slower children eventually catch up with their faster peers.

Critical Periods and Risk Factors

All child development theories refer to milestones that must be achieved before the child can go on to the next stage of development, and often suggest that if milestones are not achieved within a given age-range, the child will not be able to make up for it later. Many theorists assert that certain risk factors, such as poverty and deprivation or maltreatment and trauma, can cause irreversible developmental delays. However, according to an article published in January 2010 by the National Institute of Health entitled, "How the Timing and Quality of Early Experiences Influence the Development of Brain Architecture,” the brain’s plasticity allows a child to close developmental gaps at a later age when the environment provides emotional security and sufficient cognitive and social stimulation. The article also suggests that there is is an upper limit to how much a child can achieve at each developmental stage; therefore, pushing your child to be a "super-achiever" might not really given him or her any advantage in the long run.

Interaction Between Nature and Nurture

Early child development theorists suggested that children progress through predetermined stages based on their own inborn qualities. However, later theories found that parental behaviors have an important impact. The article, “A Unified Theory of Development,” published in January 2010 in the journal "Child Development" describes current understanding of the interactions between the environment and the child, whereby the child’s nature determines how he reacts to the environment and that leads the environment to react to him in a certain way, in an ongoing cycle of responses. For example, a baby that smiles easily causes parents to smile and talk more with him, leading him to smile even more, etc. The baby that does not smile as easily may not be cooed at as much unless parents make a special effort to do so. Developmental skills that are practiced first with parents are later practiced with peers at school and then applied to romantic relationships and adult friendships.

What Parents Can Learn from This

The key points of child development theories include the fact that your children are born with certain personality traits and genetic tendencies, emotional and intellectual growth occurs by recognizable stages, and you can influence the growing expression of your children’s inborn qualities in positive and negative ways. Awareness of developmental stages can help you have realistic expectations for your children and not frustrate them, or yourself, by pushing for achievements that are beyond their age norms. Being sensitive to each child’s natural talents and limitations can help you select the appropriate stimulation to help them develop the former and overcome the latter. If, for some reason, you are not able to satisfy some of the emotional, social or cognitive conditions needed for certain developmental tasks, this can be corrected later, either through educational programs or counseling.

About the Author

With an Master of Science in marital and family therapy, Sheri Oz ran a private clinical practice for almost 30 years. Based on her clinical work, she has published a book and many professional articles and book chapters. She has also traveled extensively around the world and has volunteered in her field in China and South Sudan.

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