Why It Matters: Developmental Theories

Why describe the major developmental theories in lifespan development?

Children working in a factory.
Figure 1. Child labor in Indiana glassworks. (Hine, 1908) Society’s view of childhood has changed through the ages. Many children in the early 1900’s worked full time in mines.

Childhood as a concept first emerged around the 17th century. In 1960, Philippe Ariès wrote a book called L’Enfant et la Vie Familiale sous l’Ancien Régime (1960), which was translated into English as Centuries of Childhood (1962). The book was significant both in that it recognized childhood as a social construction rather than as a biological given and in so doing, it founded the history of childhood as a serious field of study.

Ariès argued that childhood was not understood as a separate stage of life until the 15th century, and children were seen as little adults who shared the same traditions, games, and clothes. He said that parenting during the Middle Ages was largely detached, and there were not nuclear family bonds of love and concern. His account of childhood has since been widely criticized, but even today, Ariès remains the standard reference to the topic. He is most famous for his statement that “in medieval society, the idea of childhood did not exist”.

Attitudes towards children have evolved over time along with economic change and social advancement. Before the 17th century, children were generally considered weaker, more insignificant versions of adults. They were were assumed to be subject to the same needs and desires as adults, and to have the same vices and virtues as adults. Therefore they dressed the same, were not warranted more privileges, and they worked the same hours and received the same punishments for misdeeds. If they stole, they were hanged. If they worked hard and did well, they could achieve prosperity. Children were considered adults as soon as they could live alone.

At the time, this was society’s view of lifespan development. The only difference between children and adults was size. We now reject this medieval view, but how do we go about formulating contemporary theories? Our own personal theories about development are based on experiences, folklore, stories in the media, or built haphazardly on unverified observation. However, theories presented in this course are more formal. They are based on prior findings and observations by psychologists and other researchers, and provide a framework through which we can draw conclusions and make predictions about human behavior. These theories are subject to rigorous testing though research. In this module, we’ll discuss the major theoretical perspectives and theories that pertain to lifespan development. Each perspective emphasizes a different aspect of development and is just one means of studying the ever-evolving discipline of lifespan development. First we’ll examine the major characteristics of the psychodynamic, behavioral, and cognitive perspectives and then turn to the humanistic, contextual, and evolutionary approaches.[1]

  1. Thomas, R. M. (2001). Recent theories of human development Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781452233673


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