Trends in Developmental Psychology

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a Reformed Christian philosophy of education (see this page), I have decided that I really need to read some developmental psychology. I want to get a sense for what the world has to say about how kids develop and what their needs are.

Not long ago we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. The short version is that the social sciences as a whole tend to rest on secular, materialistic presuppositions. Because we believe in common grace and we believe that all truth is God’s truth, we do believe that secular scholars can provide us with some good insights, but we always need to take these with a good heaping dose of discernment. In terms of child development in particular, we would expect more truth when the subject is on the smaller scale and deals with temporal matters but we should use more discernment when big picture things are in view.

Last time we looked at the big thinkers in the field of child psychology, with a particular emphasis on their personal beliefs with an eye to how these might affect their scholarship. This post also contains a bibliography of the sources I have used in all of this.

Today I’d like to give an overview of the big trends in developmental psychology (as I have read up on it thus far) with some observations thrown in.

Overview: Big Ideas and Trends

On the most fundamental level, developmental psychology makes one big assumption: that there is development. Children are not merely short adults but they are different in some way and develop over time. Though it is perhaps not necessary that it do so, this assumption often comes from an evolutionary mindset which assumes change, adaptation as a response to environmental stimuli, and a certain trajectory.  Change says that there are differences — the child is not the same as the adult. When we speak of adaptation, we are talking about how change happens. Evolution itself assumes a linear trajectory (as opposed to a cyclical understanding or some other model). Inherent in the idea of evolution is progression. There is progress, movement in a particular direction toward some defined goal or limit. Like a limit in the field of math, the end game may be a limit which is never reached, but when we talk about child development, there is often a goal which can be achieved. There is some point at which, if all goes well, the individual is an adult with all the capacities and skills an adult is expected to have (of course, if something goes wrong in the development the individual may never reach some of these goals).

Here then are some major trends and distinctions:

Stages of Development

As far as I can tell, every major theory of child development assumes that this development happens in stages. That is, there are not just two places one can be, childhood or adulthood, but there are degrees of development along the way. A normally developing 10-year-old is closer to the adult standard than a 2-year-old and not so close as a 14-year-old.

Though the various theories all contain stages, they vary greatly in how many stages they distinguish. Some tie the stages to particular milestones (eg. Steiner of the Waldorf philosophy ties one to the loss of baby teeth), others divide the stages more loosely. If I had to generalize, I would say the common divisions are infancy (birth to age 2), early childhood (ages 3-7, possibly with one more division within that stage), the middle years (8-12 ish roughly), and the teens.

Another question that arises relative to stages is: What happens if a developmental milestone is missed? For almost all the stages are sequential. That is, one must achieve the developmental milestones (whatever that person defines them as) in order.  Some would say that one can make up for lost ground, others that more permanent damage is done if a stage is missed. For most, if not all, some degree of developmental delay is involved when stages are missed.

Trends across Time

In my list of the various the thinkers and their ideas (again see this earlier post), I discussed them more or less chronologically. Seen this way, we begin to distinguish broader trends. Many of the earliest thinkers tended to be philosophers. Their interest was in what man knows and how he knows it. In this, they were rejecting earlier modes of thinking which would have relied on the Scriptures and divine revelation as sources of knowledge. Instead, they turned to more mundane (in the sense of being earthly, not heavenly) sources. Their approaches tended to be sensory and experiential, looking to man’s senses and experimentation as the means of knowledge. They did not necessarily deny man’s spiritual nature, however, or turn completely to scientific explanations.

The next generation of thinkers began around 1850 and was much more materialistic. No longer do we have philosophers but scientists of various sorts providing the theories. The men of this generation were heavily influenced by Darwinian evolution. They tended to view the world and man as entirely physical. Man’s desires and his development can all be traced to biological forces. The interplay between a man and his environment was assumed to be pivotal in his development (much as in evolution an organism is influenced by and responds to its environment). They also tended to view people, and children especially, as animals upon whom one can experiment. Which is not to say that they were cruel but that they assumed that as you can conduct an experiment on animals and get standardized results so experiments on people can and should work the same way.

At the same time, or very soon after, there was a counter-trend, a move toward spiritualism. This spiritualism was not a return to historic Christianity but it was a rejection of pure materialism and an acknowledgment that there is more to man than the physical. In the cultural realm, this was characterized by the rise of theosophism, a movement/belief system which sought deeper and often hidden spiritual knowledge. It was a time when people were conducting seances and seeking our spirits. Maria Montessori turned to theosophism later in her life, and Rudolf Steiner, of the Waldorf movement, initially turned to theosophism and then developed his own, equally bizarre, philosophy/religion known as anthroposophism.

The more modern thinkers on the list tend to be materialistic in their assumptions but less biologically based than their predecessors. That is, they do not acknowledge a spiritual side to man but they do take into account other, not purely physical factors, such as man’s emotions and his need for relationship.

The Parts of the Person

Which brings us to the next point: Human beings are multi-faceted. They develop physically of course but they also have mind and emotions and relationships. The various theories tend to focus on one aspect of development. When they delineate different schemas, it is often because they are addressing different areas of development.

To those from the most materialistic, Darwinian mindset, the physical is all there is. For Freud the driving force behind everything is one’s desires which are all rooted physically in the body. Piaget’s theory focuses primarily on intelligence while Erikson is concerned with the formation of identity and Bowlby looked at the attachments (i.e. relationships) a child forms. Though they may focus on more than the physical, yet these theories are often still at their base materialistic. Bowlby, for instance, in discussing the attachments that babies and children form argues that these are done because they give an evolutionary advantage — the adult is more likely to protect and provide for the child who is attached to him.

These need not be contradictory theories. Because they look at different aspects of the individual, many of these theories can be combined and, looking at Elkind and other modern writers, this does seem to be a current trend.

A Developing Nature

Many, if not all, of the thinkers we are considering would say that there is a natural, inborn tendency for development in the child. This potential may need to be helped by education or it may be subverted by various detrimental forces, but it is to some degree the way a child is programmed.

Rousseau stands out on this point as one who believed society was the corrupting influence on the child. That is, like others he toured the child’s natural state and tendencies but whereas they saw education as a good which would develop the child’s own potentialities, he saw traditional education as a negative societal force which corrupts the naturally good person.

The Origin of Evil

For Rousseau, the child’s natural state is good and it is society which corrupts him. Most of our other thinkers would not agree about the effect of society but they would agree that the child is either naturally good or at least has the potential for good. Comenius, one of the few professing Christians on our list, said that the seeds of virtue are in the child (obviously, he was nor reformed; he was in fact a Brethren pastor). Pestalozzi said the child is naturally good and will develop along good lines in the absence of negative outside influences. Froebel specifically denied the existence of original sin and believed the child’s inner self is naturally good and that the bad comes from outside and from the adults in his life. Montessori’s views were also along these lines.

Erikson seems to have what might be termed the most dualistic understanding of development. Each of his stages — and he posits some 8 of them — is characterized by two options, the first being trust or mistrust. If the child gets what they need, they develop along the positive line but if they don’t they developed mistrust and later guilt and shames. (Though Erikson was also one who said that it is possible to undo the bad that has occurred in previous stages.)

Locke famously saw the child as a tabula rasa, a blank slate, neither good nor bad, but he did believe character was formed early on and, contrary to Rousseau, that the influence of society through education was necessary to make sure that good character and not bad was the result. Herbart as well saw the child as a blank slate with possibilities for good or evil. He believed morality could be taught.

There is no one on this list who says that there is naturally evil within children or that the evil which might come into their personalities comes from within them. For all evil is external to the person, whether it comes from the environment, society as a whole, or individual adults in the child’s life. I will reiterate here that the role of environment and experience in development tends to be significant for all our thinkers. This, as I have said, reflects an evolutionary mindset but perhaps also simply a godless one (by which I mean one in which God Himself is not a player). With no spiritual component, and in particular no spiritual actor, there are only so many forces and factors one can look to. There is the individual, other individuals, society, and the environment (which may include these others) as well as the individual’s interactions with these players which constitutes his experience. There is no God to act and there is no inner conflict. The forces which act on the individual are largely external to him.

Conclusions and Observations

Every one of our thinkers has his own personal belief system which influences his theories about the development of children. As Christians, we also have convictions which are going to influence how we view these issues. This is not my field and I don’t feel competent to propose a brand new Christian theory of child development, but I would offer some guidelines and questions to consider:

  1. Any Christian theory of child development needs to account for the child’s spiritual nature. We are not purely physical and our theory must reflect that reality.
  2. There is a Force beyond nature which affects our growth. That Force is a Personal God (meaning He is a Person, not a vague power).
  3. Children are not fundamentally different beings than adults. (Though we didn’t touch on it here, some of our thinkers did see children as different creatures, Steiner being the most prominent example.)  They are fully human with all that entails.
  4. Evil comes not from our environment or society or other people but from within ourselves.
  5. In fact, we are born with sinful natures. Children are not innocents.
  6. Sin is always serious, even if it is inadvertent. The fact that a person may not understand their sin as sin or may “not know better” does not make it not sin.
  7. We require a Savior. We cannot be educated out of our sinful nature or into godliness.
  8. Guilt and shame are not inherently bad things. They serve a purpose which is to drive us to our Savior.
  9. Self-esteem is not inherently good. What we need is to see ourselves in our true relation to our Creator. This stance acknowledges both the value of each human life and our fallenness.
  10. While fully human, children are in need of instruction. As they grow physically, so they also need to grow in wisdom and knowledge. (See this post on children in the Bible.)

These points fall far short of a theory of child development and say nothing about the particulars of the stages involved, if indeed there are stages. They do not answer questions about how children think or how we should teach them.

As I said in my post on how we deal with the social sciences, particularly on more mundane matters, there is a lot we can learn from secular scholars. Next time I would like to look a little more specifically at Piaget and his theories regarding intelligence.

Until then,

Nebby

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] In the first post we looked at how as Christians we should think about the social sciences. We then looked at some of the major thinkers in the field of developmental psychology with particular emphasis on their personal belief systems. And last time we looked at some of the major trends within the field and how we as Christians should approach the subject. […]

    Reply

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