Children playing in a field

The Psychology of Child Development

The last subject we covered in university before I dropped out was child development – an area of psychology overflowing with zany theories and crazy ideas (cough, Freud, cough). In all seriousness though, child development is one of the most interesting topics in psychology to learn about and is also, arguably, the most important, as just about everything that we think and do today as adults has its roots dug firmly in our childhood.

While it might be too late for you to change your past, with some fundamental training in developmental psychology you should be able to raise your current or future children the best way they can be raised. Also, knowing how your past has shaped the person you are in the present is essential to mending history’s mistakes and moving on so that when the time comes to have children you are better equipped for the challenge. First, like with most things in life, we have to start slow, that is we gotta talk about the history! Walk with me, take the blue pill, and listen closely while I explain to you the fascinating story of psychology’s obsession with children, and their life journey from birth to neurosis.

Lets get a definition of ‘child development’ out of the way first, as it’s important knowledge if you intend to learn about the subject. Child development is an area of psychological study devoted to understanding change and constancy from birth through to adolescence in the average human being. Child development is part of a much larger field called developmental science, which focuses on the changes we experience throughout the entire lifespan, not just through to adolescence.

Table of Contents

  1. The Playground of Child Development
  2. Periods of Development
  3. Basic Issues
    1. Issue # 1 – Is Development Continuous or Discontinuous?
    2. Issue # 2 – One Course of Development to Rule Them All?
    3. Issue # 3 – Nature or Nurture?
  4. Development – A Brief History
    1. Medieval Times
    2. The Reformation
    3. Philosophies of the Enlightenment
    4. Scientific Beginnings
  5. Mid Twentieth Century Theories
    1. The Psychoanalytic Perspective
      1. Sigmund Freud
    2. The Oral Stage
    3. The Anal Stage
    4. The Phallic Stage
    5. The Latency Stage
    6. The Genital Stage

The Playground of Child Development

child development

Child development is one of the few arms of psychology which spawned not only out of scientific curiosity, but also due to the curiosity of men and women in general. Psychological research was mainly stimulated by social pressures to better the lives of children; for example, in the early stages of public education it was a gray area as to what and how children were going to be taught; teachers had no idea what ages children were ready to learn certain information, and so they needed an outline of when children need to learn what in order to develop properly.

Due to the vastness of the subject, development is divided into three broad categories:

  1. Physical – changes in body size, proportions, appearance, functioning of the body systems, perceptual and motor capacities, and physical health.
  2. Cognitive – changes in intellectual abilities, including attention, memory, academic and everyday knowledge, problem solving, imagination, creativity, and language.
  3. Emotional/Social – changes in emotional communication, self-understanding, knowledge about other people, interpersonal skills, friendships, intimate relationships, and moral reasoning and behaviour.

I have already touched base on physical/cognitive development as well as social development in my previous psychology guides; however, these current guides will explore the subject in much more depth. One thing that should be obvious to you so far is that the three areas of development, outlined above, are not detached from each other, but rather coexist in the development of a living, growing child – physical changes (eg: puberty) often come with changes in thought processes and social development.

Periods of Development

Unborn Child wk 8
If you were born with a Facebook account, this might’ve been your profile picture!

Now that we have agreed on the three separate yet connected domains of a child’s development process, we must agree on the periods of development. This has been the subject of much research in the past, due to the demand for an accurate and consistent frame with which to border a child’s development. Here is the model which psychologists generally agree on, each age period has been widely studied and every age brings new capacities and social expectations that serve as important transitions in major theories:

  1. The prenatal period: (conception to birth) – in this 9 month period, the most rapid time of change, a one-celled organism is transformed into a human baby with remarkable capacities for adjusting to life in the surrounding world.
  2. Infancy and toddlerhood: (birth to 2 years) – this period brings dramatic changes in the body and brain that support the emergence of a wide array of motor, perceptual, and intellectual capacities; the beginnings of language, and the first intimate ties to others. Infancy spans the first year and toddlerhood spans the second, during which children take their first independent steps, marking a shift to greater autonomy.
  3. Early childhood: (2 to 6 years) – the body becomes longer and leaner, motor skills are refined, and children become more self-controlled and self-sufficient. Make-believe play blossoms, supporting every aspect of psychological development. Thought and language expand at an astounding pace, a sense of morality becomes evident, and children establish ties with peers.
  4. Middle childhood: (6 to 11 years) – children learn about the wider world and master new responsibilities that increasingly resemble those they will perform as adults. Hallmarks of this period are improved athletic abilities, participation in organised games with rules, more logical thought processes, mastery of basic literacy skills, and advances in self-understanding, morality, and friendship.
  5. Adolescence: (11 to 18 years) –this period initiates the transition to adulthood. Puberty leads to an adult-sized body and sexual maturity. Thought becomes abstract and idealistic, and schooling is increasingly directed toward preparation for higher education and the world of work. Young people begin to establish autonomy from the family and define personal values and goals.
butterfly development

For many youths living in the world today, the transition from adolescent to adult roles has become increasingly prolonged – so much so that some researchers have formulated a new period of development called emerging adulthood, which spans ages 18-25. Although emerging adults have moved beyond adolescence, they have not yet fully assumed adult roles. Rather, during high education and sometimes beyond, these young people intensify their exploration of options in love, career, and personal values before making enduring commitments. As the period of emerging adulthood has only surfaced during the past few decades, researchers have only just begun studying it (Arnett, 2000, 2003; Arnett & Tanner, 2006).

Basic Issues

Research on child development didn’t begin until the late 19th and early 20th century, but ideas about how children grow and change have a much longer history. As these speculations combined with research, they inspired the construction of theories of development. A theory is an orderly, integrated set of statements that describe, explain and predict behaviour. For example, a theory on infant-caregiver attachment would:

  1. describe the behaviours of infants around 6 to 8 months of age as they seek the affection and comfort of a familiar adult.
  2. explain how and why infants develop these strong desires to bond with a caregiver, and:
  3. predict the consequences of this emotional bond for future relationships.

Theories are vital tools for two good reasons, firstly they provide organising frameworks for our observations of children, in other words, they guide and give meaning to what we see. Secondly, theories that are verified by research often serve as a sound basis for practical action; once a theory helps us understand development, we are in a much better position to improve the welfare and treatment of children. As we will discover, theories are influenced by cultural values and belief systems of their times; however, theories differ in one important aspect from mere belief and speculation: a theory’s continued existence depends on scientific verification. In other words, every theory must be tested using a fair set of research procedures agreed on by the scientific community, and its findings must endure, or be replicated over time (we will explore various research procedures in the next installment of this guide on child development).

While there are many theories on child development available, none provide the ultimate truth as investigators and parents do not always agree on the meaning of what they see. Children are complex beings too, they evolve physically, cognitively, and socially; no single theory has been able to incorporate and explain all of these elements. There are three basic issues to consider in the field of child development, they are:

  1. Whether the course of development is continuous or discontinuous.
  2. Whether a course of development characterises all children, or only some.
  3. Nature vs Nurture: are genetic or environmental factors more important in influencing development? (this one’s a biggie!)

On the next page we will begin to explore these basic issues. We are all very used to chronological order, so I will begin with the 1st issue on the list: continuous vs discontinuous development.

Issue # 1 – Is Development Continuous or Discontinuous?


Some theorists believe that development is a smooth, continuous process, that is children gradually acquire more of the same types of skills that were there to begin with. Other theorists think that development takes place in discontinuous stages, that is children develop new ways of understanding and responding to the world at at specific ages  in their life span. The discontinuous theory compares development to climbing a staircase, with each step prompting the child to interpret and respond to the world in a qualitatively different way. The difference between the two perspectives is that discontinuous development assumes that change is fairly sudden and predictable at certain ages, while continuous development states that the process is more smooth and gradual.

Issue # 2 – One Course of Development to Rule Them All?

cambodian children

Stage theorists (discontinuous) assume that people everywhere follow the same sequence of development. For example, in the domain of cognition, a stage theorist might try to identify the common biological and environmental influences that lead children to represent their world through language and fantasy in early childhood, to think more logically in middle childhood, and to reason more systematically and abstractly in adolescence. At the same time, the field of child development is becoming increasingly aware that children grow up in distinctly different contexts – unique combinations of personal and environmental circumstances that can result in different paths of change.

For example, a rich and spoilt child living in a Western city mightn’t develop a value for work and money until well into adulthood. Compare this to a child – living in a poverty stricken Cambodian village – who needs to work at a very early age in order to support their family. Not only do children living in different countries (at this present moment) develop differently, but so do they in different points in time (as the world is constantly changing); a child living in a poor Cambodian village right now, for example, will have a completely different upbringing than one that was raised during Pol Pot’s ruthless regime in the mid to late 70s. So the question remains: how many courses of development are there? Is there only one, which can be generalised to all children with moderate accuracy? Or are there infinite courses, none of which can be confined into a single scientifically proven framework?

Issue # 3 – Nature or Nurture?

nature vs nurture

In addition to describing the course of development, each theory takes a stand on a major question about its underlying causes. Are genetic or environmental factors more important in influencing development? This is the classic nature-nurture debate. By nature we refer to inborn biological traits – the hereditary information we receive from our parents at the moment of conception. By nurture, we mean the complex forces of the physical and social world that influence our biological makeup and psychological experiences before and after birth.

Although all theories grant at least some role to both nature and nurture, they vary in emphasis. Consider the following question: Is the adolescent’s ability to think in more complex ways largely the result of an inborn timetable of growth, or is it primarily influenced by stimulation from parents, friends, and teachers? Do children acquire language because they are genetically predisposed to or because parents intensively teach them from an early age? And what accounts for the vast individual differences among children – in height, weight, physical coordination, intelligence, personality, and social skills? Is nature or nurture more responsible?


Personally, I believe that both genetics and our environment play an important role in shaping our personalities. Obviously physical characteristics such as height and appearance are purely genetic – you can’t learn how to be tall, you are simply born that way. However, we are born with a genetic instinct to learn from our environment, to survive no matter where and who we are raised by. To help illustrate this idea I will tell you about the songbird, a marvelous creature who clearly demonstrates the importance of both nature and nurture in its development. The song bird, when it is still a baby perched in its nest, listens attentively to the songs produced by adults of the same species around it. Months later, when it has fledged (capable of flight), the bird starts to sing its own songs, which are largely reproductions of songs it has heard in the past, gradually it refines its song until it is less mimicry and more original.

song bird

Once it reaches adulthood, the bird produces its very own unique song, which it uses to mark territory and to court potential mates. The songbird’s vocal learning is the classic example of instinctual learning, which is the genetic predisposition to learn from one’s environment. The song it emanates from its beak is not hardwired into its brain, it was passed down from generations, learnt by the bird, and altered to its own taste. However, the whole process of acquiring this song is genetic, and is therefore largely the result of nature rather than nurture. Humans too are like the song bird; we mimic others and learn from example – as we are designed to do – and the result is our very own unique song (personality) which we, eventually use to acquire our own territory (our place in the world) and court potential mates and begin a family, where we will pass our song to our children

The rest of the guide on child development will explore the history of the movement, and how it has evolved and taken shape to be what it is today. So fasten your seat belt and click on the next page to continue!

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 times

Historical 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 mould the child in any way they wish, through careful instruction, effective example, and rewards for good behaviour.

    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.

Mid Twentieth Century Theories

In the mid twentieth century, the field of child development expanded into a legitimate discipline. Specialised research centers and professional societies devoted to the scientific study of children were founded. A leader among these is the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), which was established in 1933 with 425 members; today that number has risen to 5,500 researchers, applied professionals, and students from more than 50 countries. As child development attracted increasing interest, a variety of theories emerged, each of which continues to have followers today. In these theories, the European concern with the child’s inner thoughts and feelings contrasts sharply with the North American academic focus on scientific precision, and concrete, observable behaviour.

The Psychoanalytic Perspective

sigmund freud

According to the psychoanalytic perspective, children move through a series of stages in which they confront conflicts between biological drives and social expectations. How these conflicts are resolved determines the person’s ability to learn, get along with others, and to cope with anxiety. Among the many individuals who contributed to the psychoanalytic perspective, two were especially influential: Sigmund Freud, the founder of the psychoanalytic movement, and Erik Erikson.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist, sought a cure for emotionally troubled adults by a method he had created called free association; this involved having his patients lie on a couch and talk freely about whatever came to mind, while Freud took notes and provided verbal cues to help direct the patient’s thoughts to memories of their early childhood. Freud was the first person in the history of psychology to use talk therapy, that is he was the first to see value in talking to a patient in order to bring about their recovery from neurosis. Freud was also the first psychologist to dive into patients dreams, and developed a method of dream interpretation, relying on common symbols found in dreams to dissect a patient’s unconscious; another concept he introduced to the West.

freud ego id

According to Freud our mind isn’t singular, but is actually comprised of three psychological components, which he called the id, ego, and superego; I guess you could also call them the personality trinity!

The id is the largest part of our personality, and is largely repressed in our unconscious, it is the aspect of our instinctual, animal nature and is fueled by instant gratification and basic biological needs and desires; when we are born, our personality is purely that of the id, only later as we grow older do we develop the other personalities. The id is often approached with analogies, such as that of a chained animal, which if released as an adult, has the potential to cause social chaos.

The ego is the conscious, rational part of our personality that emerges in early infancy, and is the personality that we most associate with. The ego is the personality structure that attempts to satisfy the id’s desires without disrupting social norms and taboos, therefore it plays an important role in repressing the id’s unrealistic demands, instead it redirects its impulses so they can be fulfilled in socially acceptable ways.

homer freud

Between the ages of 3 and 6, the superego, or conscience, develops through interactions with parents, who insist that children conform to the values of society. Now the ego faces the increasingly complex task of reconciling the demands of the id, the external world, and conscience. For example, when the ego is tempted to gratify an id impulse steal a toy in the store that the child wants, the superego may warn that such behaviour is wrong. The ego must decide which of the two forces (id or superego) will win this inner struggle, or work out a compromise, such as asking their mother to buy the toy. This interplay between the three personality types is often depicted in cartoons as a devil and angel appearing on either shoulder of a person faced with a tough, moral decision; this image is also sometimes interpreted at face value as following either the devil, or God – arguably both aspects of our own personality!

Through examining the unconscious motives of his patients, Freud constructed his most famous theory, and the one which caused the most heated debate. This was the theory of psychosexual development, which emphasised the importance of child rearing, and how parent’s managing of their children’s sexual and aggressive drives in the first few years are crucial for healthy personality development…

… no wait, there’s more – Freud suggested that human beings, from birth, possess an instinctual libido (sexual appetite) that develops in five stages. He proposed that adult neurosis (functional mental disorder) was often rooted in childhood sexuality, and that therefore neurotic adult behaviors were manifestations of childhood sexual fantasies and desire. Given the predictable timeline of childhood behavior, Freud proposed “libido development” as a model of normal childhood sexual development, wherein the child progresses through five psychosexual stages, the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages, in which the source of sexual energy originates from the erogenous zone attached to each stage. Freud proposed that if the child experienced anxiety, thwarting his or her sexual appetite during any psychosexual stage, said anxiety would persist into adulthood as a neurosis.


The Oral Stage

Birth to 1 year

The new ego directs the baby’s sucking activities towards the breast or bottle. If oral needs are not met appropriately, the child may develop such habits as thumb sucking, fingernail biting, and pencil chewing in childhood, and overeating and smoking later in life.

The id dominates in this stage, as the ego and superego haven’t developed, and therefore the infant has so personality – every action is based upon the pleasure principle.

Nonetheless, the infantile ego is forming during the oral stage; two factors contribute to its formation: (1) in developing a body image, he or she is discrete from the external world, e.g. the child understands pain when it is applied to his or her body, thus identifying the physical boundaries between body and environment; (2) experiencing delayed gratification leads to understanding that specific behaviors satisfy some needs, e.g. crying gratifies certain needs.

Weaning is the key experience in the infant’s oral stage of psychosexual development, his or her first feeling of loss consequent to losing the physical intimacy of feeding at mother’s breast.

Yet, weaning increases the infant’s self-awareness that he or she does not control the environment, and thus learns of delayed gratification, which leads to the formation of the capacities for independence (awareness of the limits of the self) and trust (behaviors leading to gratification).

Yet, thwarting of the oral-stage — too much or too little gratification of desire — might lead to an oral-stage fixation, characterised by passivity, gullibility, immaturity, unrealistic optimism, which is manifested in a manipulative personality consequent to ego malformation.

In the case of too much gratification, the child does not learn that he or she does not control the environment, and that gratification is not always immediate, thereby forming an immature personality.

In the case of too little gratification, the infant might become passive upon learning that gratification is not forthcoming, despite having produced the gratifying behaviour.

The Anal Stage

1 to 3 years

Toddlers and pre-schoolers enjoy holding and releasing urine and faeces. Toilet training becomes a major issue between parent and child.

If parents insist that children be trained before they are ready, or if they make too few demands, conflicts about anal control may appear in the form of extreme orderliness and cleanliness (this is where the phrase ‘being anal’ originates), or messiness and disorder.

The Phallic Stage

3 to 6 years

As preschoolers take pleasure in genital stimulation, Freud’s Oediupus complex for boys, and Electra complex for girls arises. In a ‘nut’ shell this means children feel an unconscious sexual desire for the other-sex parent and hostility toward the same-sex parent.

To avoid punishment and loss of parental love, they suppress these impulses and instead adopt the same-sex parent’s characteristics and values, in the hope of one day attracting an opposite-sex partner with similar attributes as the parent of their desire.

As a result, the superego is formed, and children feel guilty whenever they violate its standards.

The Latency Stage

6 to 11 years

Sexual instincts become dormant, hence the name latent, which means hidden. During this stage the superego develops further and the child acquires new social values from adults and same-sex peers outside the family. Freud believed that sexual impulses are repressed during this stage and instead are focused in a more socially productive or acceptable way, such as through school, friends and hobbies.

The Genital Stage


With puberty, the sexual impulses of the phallic stage reappear. If development has been successful during earlier stages, it leads to marriage, a mature sexuality, and the birth and rearing of children. This stage extends through adulthood.

According to Freud, the relations established between id, ego, and superego during the preschool years determine the individual’s basic personality. During each stage of psychosexual development, parents walk a fine line between permitting too much or too little gratification of their child’s basic needs (no, not sexual needs you pervert!) If parents strike an appropriate balance, then children grow into well-adjusted adults with the capacity for mature sexual behaviour and investment in family life. Freud’s theory was the first to stress the influence of the early parent-child relationship on development, but his perspective was eventually shot down and criticised by some.

The reasons being: it overemphasised the influence of sexual feelings in development; it was based on the problems of sexually repressed adults of the nineteenth century Victorian society, and was less applicable in modern society; finally, Freud had not studied children directly. However, despite these criticisms, psychologists to this day still consider Freud’s psychosexual theories in their practice with patients, and few challenge his concept of the id, ego and superego, lastly, none can deny his influence on the development of psychology and psychotherapy as we know it today. Seeing as I could rattle on about Freud forever, I’ll end this post here.

Till next time!