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The Psychology of Children
On the need to focus on childhood events along with the developmental theories for a comprehensive psychology of children
Child psychology is associated with the social and personal development of children and a child goes through several stages before stepping into the adult world. The psychology of children has been studied from various perspectives including issues of nature and nurture and whether the child is a product of genes and heredity or a product of society and environment as also different developmental stages of sensory discrimination and perception, emotional expression and learning through language and cognitive development, development of intelligence and the socialization process. The study of child sexuality and sexual and moral development are also very important especially from a psychoanalytic viewpoint.
Children are vulnerable and affected easily by all events in the immediate environment. Events which are only trivial or unimportant to adults, may leave deep scars or memories in a child’s mind. A child’s mind is extremely impressionable and changeable and before the child reaches adolescence, certain very insignificant events can have great personal significance in a child’s life. So ‘childhood memories’ and ‘childhood events’ are primary factors in determining adult personality pattern. Some major factors which can affect a child’s later development and have potential long term effects are:
1. Loss or gain of a friend or friends
2. Memorable physical/bodily sensations
3. Separation in the family or divorce of parents
4. Domestic abuse or violence
5. Sexual molestation or abuse
6. Learning experiences either at play or during study
7. Personal experiences/events that evoked strong emotions of fear, joy, sorrow etc.
8. Accidents or illnesses experienced or observed
9. Death of family members, neighbors or close ones
10. Change of residence or relocation
11. Emotional relationships with friends, teachers or family members
12. Personal success or failure in school
13. Influence of films, stories, books or news events
14. War, terrorism, conflicts, bomb attacks etc.
15. Natural calamities like earthquakes, flood, famine etc.
The factors here are very general and every child goes through certain very specific events that affect him or her individually although there are certain very general theories in psychology that have been established through research studies and these theories have highlighted links between success or failure in later life and childhood events. Some of the major theorists of child development are John Bowlby, Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg and Lev Vygotsky. Whereas Bowlby emphasized on childhood relationships, Piaget focused on cognitive development of the child through various stages and Freud wrote extensively on sexual development of children. Kohlberg studied moral development of children whereas Vygotsky analyzed the socialization process of children through social contextualism. All these theories on different aspects of child development only prove the immense complexity and the varied number of factors that tend to play a role in the psychological development of children. There are many dimensions to the psychology of children from social, emotional to cognitive, sexual and moral. Here I will provide a brief account of all these different theories and finally provide a comprehensive analysis on how these theories could be used along with the general factors listed above in the study of the psychology of children.
John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, developed the ‘attachment theory’ in which he emphasized the importance of a mother or primary caregiver in a child’s life. He showed in his study that any infant should develop and maintain a warm and intimate relationship with the mother or mother substitute and all maternal deprivation can lead to serious mental health problems in the child later in life. Bowlby’s theory is very true and a mother should develop a strong physical and emotional intimacy with the child by being physically close to the child at least until the child is 2 years old. Doctors around the world have recommended breast feeding and an important part of this is the physical closeness between the child and the mother which is extremely necessary once the child is out of the mother’s womb. When the child is released from the mother’s womb, the first emotion is fear and the mother’s continued physical closeness instills confidence and a sense of security in the child. Orphaned children or children who are separated from their mothers at birth require a substitute or they can grow up as mentally ill or maladjusted individuals.
Freud on the other hand provided a complete psychosexual theory and emphasized on what many of us don’t like to believe – the sexual pleasure of children. Freud overturned the concept of childhood innocence and suggested that we are born with our unrepressed basic instincts which are slowly tempered with social adaptation. Freud believed that the inherent pleasure seeking desires that we are born with focus on certain erogenous zones of the body and accordingly there are different stages of psychosexual development from oral and anal to phallic, latent and genital stages. In psychosexual development, the child’s pleasure seeking behavior changes from the mouth as in sucking and biting to the anus through toilet training and then finally to the genitals. Thus the child according to psychoanalysis derives complete sexual pleasure by sucking, biting, playing with genitals and releasing waste by defecation. I do not necessarily endorse Freud’s views on the sexual pleasure of children and the pleasure derived from bodily sensations could be explained in other ways as I will discuss in another article.
Jean Piaget, a French-Swiss philosopher established the theory of cognitive development in children and laid out four developmental stages – the sensorimotor period, the pre-operational stage, the concrete operational stage and the formal operational stage. The first stage is when the child develops spatial abilities and comes to terms with the world through the senses during the first two years of life. The second stage is about developing and using concepts when children understand meaning of things and this continues until the age of 7. From 7-11 years the child reaches higher cognitive development through concrete operational stage and can sort and classify objects and can use logic to solve problems. The formal operational stage that begins around 12 years of age helps children to understand abstract thoughts, hidden meanings etc. Kohlberg provided a theory of moral development of children through six stages of pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional levels. These are related to concerns for punishment and self interest, as also inner need for conformity and striving for social order, as maintaining universal ethical principles. So moral development seems to move from a belief of ‘what is right and what is wrong’ and whether there is punishment for the wrong to what is universally ethical and acceptable social behavior. Another prominent psychologist Vygotsky highlighted the importance of socialization and interpersonal communication and child development according to this theory is seen as an internalization of social and cultural knowledge.
Of course, all these theories will have to be added up and a complete or comprehensive theory that would provide an insight into the child’s mind and behavior will have components from all these theories. In addition childhood experiences and events which have been highlighted in psychoanalytic theories are also extremely important and not just from a sexual point of view. All the general factors that I have mentioned in the beginning of the essay should be considered as factors that underlie social, sexual, moral, emotional, physical and cognitive development of children. As learning experiences lead to cognitive development, personal emotional experiences lead to later emotional development and maturity. Sexual molestation, abuse or other types of bodily sensations in childhood affect later sexual development and divorce or separation in the family can affect moral development. Thus an individual who has been molested as a child may either develop a fear of sexual activity or may show complete lack of sexual restraint as an adult.
A child who has lived without a father may either become extremely irresponsible or can develop into an adult with a very strong sense of parental responsibility. Experiencing trauma in childhood through death or accidents of family members or living in times of war, natural calamities have deep impact on children and can leave a perennial sense of insecurity or a need for attachment in the children which continues through adulthood and even old age or on the other hand these events can make a child isolated, schizophrenic or simply detached in later life. For healthy life of children it is important to not just depend on psychological theories to understand how a child grows up and perceives the world, but it is also important to focus on events or experiences of the child and use these along with the theories for complete psychological understanding of children.
In contemporary child psychology the focus on events is mainly psychoanalytic and the impact of adverse events is considered especially significant. However it is important that all events, positive and negative are considered and this should then be used to complement psychological theories. To understand the child, it is important to understand the child’s world and memories so an ‘event-based’ psychology of children should be balanced with a ‘theory-based’ psychology of children.
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