Child Development 101 – History and Theory

Development – A Brief History

Contemporary theories on child development are the result of centuries of change in Western cultural values, philosophical thinking about children, and scientific progress. To understand the field as it exists today, we must return to its early beginnings – to ideas about children that long preceded scientific development study, but remain as important forces in current theory and research.

Medieval Times

medieval timesHistorical artifacts and writings show that childhood was regarded as a separate period of life as early as medieval Europe – the sixth through fifteenth centuries. Medieval painters often depicted children wearing loose, comfortable gowns, playing games, and looking up to adults. Written texts contained terms that distinguished children under age 7 or 8 from other people and that recognised even young teenagers as not fully mature. Laws recognised that children needed protection from people who might mistreat them, and courts exercised leniency with lawbreaking youths because of their young age. Religious writings, however, contained contradictory depictions of children’s basic nature, sometimes portraying them as possessed by the devil and in need of purification, or at other times as innocent and comparable to angels (Hanawalt, 2003). Both ideas foreshadowed later views of childhood.

The Reformation

puritan monster child

In the sixteenth century, the Puritan belief in original sin gave rise to the view that children were born evil and stubborn and had to be civilised (Shahar, 1990). Harsh, restrictive child-rearing practices were recommended to tame the depraved child. Children were dressed in stiff, uncomfortable clothing that held them in adult like postures, and disobedient students were routinely beaten by their schoolmasters. As the Puritans emigrated from England to North America, they brought the belief that child rearing was one of their most important obligations. Although they continued to regard the child’s soul as tainted by original sin, they tried to teach their sons and daughters to use reason to tell right from wrong (Clarke-Stewart, 1998). The Puritans were the first to devise special reading materials for children that instructed them in religious and moral ideals.

Philosophies of the Enlightenment

John Locke

The seventeenth-century Enlightenment brought new philosophies of reason and emphasized ideals of human dignity and respect. Conceptions of childhood were more humane than those of centuries past.

  • John Locke – Lock viewed the child as a tabula rasa – Latin for “blank slate.” According to this idea, children are, to begin with, nothing at all; their personality is shaped entirely by experience. Locke (1690/1892) saw parents as rational tutors who can mold the child in any way they wish, through careful instruction, effective example, and rewards for good behavior. He was ahead of his time in recommending child-rearing practices that present-day research supports. For example, Locke suggested that parents reward children not with money or sweets but with praise and approval. He also opposed physical punishment: “The child repeatedly beaten in school cannot look upon books and teachers without experiencing fear and anger.” Locke’s philosophy led to a change from harshness toward children to kindness and compassion. Locke’s views on child development followed a continuous approach, and he was a firm believer in nurture over nature.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau – In contrast, Rousseau (1762/1955) claimed that children were not blank canvases, waiting to be painted by adults, but instead were noble savages; naturally endowed with a sense of right and wrong and with an inbuilt agenda for healthy growth. Rousseau’s philosophy includes two influential concepts, the first being stages, which arequalitative changes in thinking, feeling, and behaving that characterises specific periods of development, and the second being maturation, which refers to a genetically determined, naturally unfolding course of growth. In case you haven’t guessed already, Rousseau’s views on development were discontinuous, and he preferred nature over nurture, in contrast to John Locke before him.

Scientific Beginnings

The study of child development evolved quickly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Early observations of children were soon followed by improved methods and theories. Each advance contributed to the firm foundation on which the field rests today.

  • Charles Darwin –   A century after Rousseau, British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) joined an expedition to distant parts of the world, where he observed infinite variation among plant and animal species. He also saw that within a species, no two individuals were exactly alike; from these observations, he formed his famous theory of evolution. The theory emphasised two related principles: natural selection and survival of the fittest. Darwin explained that certain species survive in particular parts of the world because they have characteristics that fit with, or are adapted to, their surroundings, while otther species die off because they are not as well-suited to their environments. Individuals within a species who best meet the environments’ survival requirements live long enough to reproduce and pass their more beneficial characteristics to future generations.Darwin’s emphasis on the adaptive value of physical characteristics and behaviour eventually found its way into important twentieth century theories. During his explorations, Darwin discovered that early prenatal growth was very similar in many species. Other scientists concluded from Darwin’s observation that the development of the human child followed the same general plan as the evolution of the human species. Although this belief eventually proved inaccurate, efforts to chart parallels between child development and human evolution prompted researchers to make careful observations of all aspects of children’s behaviour. Thus, scientific study of children was born.
  • The Normative Period – G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924), one of the most influential American psychologists of the early twentieth century, is generally regarded as the founder of the child study movement (Cairns & Cairns, 2006). Inspired by Darwin’s work, Hall and his well known student Arnold Gessel (1880-1961) developed theories based on evolutionary ideas. These early leaders regarded child development as a maturational process– a genetically determined series of events that unfold automatically, much like a flower (Gesel, 1933; Hall, 1904).Hall and Gesel are most known for creating and utilising the normative approach to studying child development, in which measures of behaviour were taken on large numbers of individuals and age related averages were computed to represent typical development. Using this procedure, Hall constructed elaborate questionnaires asking children of different ages everything they could tell about themselves, such as interests, fears, dreams, friendships (both real and imaginary), parents, every day knowledge and more. Similarly, through observations and parental interviews, Gesell collected detailed normative information on the motor achievements, social behaviours, and personality characteristics of infants and children.
  • The Mental Testing Movement – While Hall and Gesel were developing their theories in the US, French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857-1911) was also taking a normative approach to child development, but for a different reason. In the early 1900s, Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon were asked by Paris school officials to develop a way to identify children with learning disabilities who needed to be placed in special classes. To address these concerns, Binet and Simon constructed the first Intelligence Test. Binet defined intelligence as good judgement, careful planning, and critical reflection (Sternberg & Jarvin, 2003). Then he created age graded test items that directly measured these abilities.

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