March 3, 2016
By Steven Schlozman, M.D.
Posted in: Infants & Toddlers, Pre-School, Young Adults
When child development experts talk about the study of development, they have in mind some fundamental theories of development that were codified by brilliant clinicians and scientists well before we had the technology to correlate them to brain development.
In this post, we’ll pay homage to these theorists. After all, every clinician who works with kids routinely and almost reflexively thinks of these scholars. The irony is that the theories are so pervasive and useful, that often the beginnings of these theories are lost in the story. Understanding how these theories came into being can therefore help to direct therapists and parents when they’re deciding how best to understand their children.
Roughly speaking, these theories can be categorized as emotional, cognitive and moral. Erik Erikson developed the most common theories of emotional development. Jean Piaget developed the most common theories of cognitive development. And, Lawrence Kohlberg developed the dominant theories of moral development.
Let’s look at Erikson first.
Erikson saw the world as a series of age-matched developmental crises, and he conceptualized these crises as binary and competing values. He didn’t think of the crises as bad things; rather, each crisis represented an opportunity to move forward.
Infancy, for example, is characterized by Trust (a positive value) versus Mistrust (a negative value). Adolescence is a battle between Identity Formation (good) versus Role Diffusion (bad). According to Erickson, if these binary crises are not successfully negotiated—if an infant, for instance, can’t trust the adults of the world to keep him warm and fed and held—then that infant will grow up with a fundamental lack of trust, and at some point, will have to actively address this issue. These ideas actually stem directly from the psychoanalytic notions that Sigmund Freud put on the map, namely that past experience influences future feelings and behaviors. Erickson studied children and adults, and he characterized each stage of development as follows:
Hope: Trust vs. Mistrust (2 years)
Will: Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt (2-4 years)
Purpose: Initiative vs. Guilt (Preschool, 4-5 years)
Competence: Industry vs. Inferiority (5-12 years)
Fidelity: Identity vs. Role Confusion (13-19 years)
Love: Intimacy vs. Isolation (20-40 years)
Care: Generativity vs. Stagnation (40-64 years)
Wisdom: Ego Integrity vs. Despair (65-death)
You can see from the bold print that Erickson associated certain personality characteristics with successful passage through these crises. He called these characteristics values. The infant who can trust, develops hope; the young adult who can be intimate, develops the capacity to love. In this sense, Erickson created a mechanism by which different individuals can be developmentally assessed. The adult who feels ashamed is automatically thrown back to the age where she first experienced shame; as shame occurs at around age 2 to 4, Erickson would argue that the ashamed adult will more likely act like a toddler. And, an adult behaving like a toddler gets into more trouble. This helps to provide a roadmap for the clinician.
This way of looking at development has its critics. Many have argued that Erickson’s theories are primarily Western, and as the world becomes more multi-cultural, one must be wary of the generalizations that Erickson’s work might engender. Not all cultures, for example, view adolescence as a time for identity formation.
Gil Noam, an internationally-known developmental psychologist at Harvard, has noted as well that Erickson seemed to skip an important stage between the values of competence and fidelity. Noam notes that young adolescents, or middle school kids, are less concerned with who they are as individuals, and more with what group defines them—hence, the emphasis on popularity in middle school. Noam calls this the “Psychology of Belonging,” and he has shown through numerous studies that young teens can be helped most by being made to feel that they belong.
Jean Piaget is the next theorist we’ll discuss.
Piaget was more interested in how kids change the way they think about the world; that’s why he is considered the father of cognitive development.
Piaget watched how kids figure things out. He noticed that when kids are teeny, they do lots of touching and tasting. From this, he decided that very young kids learn about their new world by doing simple experiments. What does that cat feel like? How does the side of the table taste? After that, he felt that children moved onto a more binary view of the world. He noticed that school-aged kids rarely abstract; in today’s world, for example, four fouls is an out every single time in first grade. He decided, therefore, that young school-aged kids are focused primarily on a black-and -white view of the world.
But then he noticed that as that first grader moves through elementary school, her views of the world change; at first, four fouls is an out every single time. By second grade, four fouls is an out because those are the rules that are used to keep the game fun. By third grade, four fouls is an out, but that rule doesn’t have to be; in fact, by third grade, lots of energy is used in discussing the possible variations in the rules.
By sixth grade, kids start to eschew the rules altogether. To heck with the rules, they say—We make the rules.
And just like that, Piaget noticed that with the onset of adolescence emerged the capacity to abstract. Think of the shift, in just six years, from “the rules are the rules because they’re the rules,” to “we make the rules.”
Piaget categorized the way kids make sense of the world like this:
Preoperational (ages 2-7) – Lots of gray matter, much less white matter
Concrete Operational (ages 7-11) – White matter starts to connect in linear patterns
Formal Operations (ages 11+) – Gray matter decreases as white matter flowers
Of course, Piaget couldn’t have made the notations you read above about the changes in gray and white matter; you can read about those changes here. But, it turns out the Piaget’s theories correlate exactly with the neurobiology that he didn’t yet have the tools to understand when he was writing in the early part of the 20th century.
All of this helped to set the stage for Lawrence Kohlberg (he came after Erickson and Piaget, but actually worked directly with Erickson). Kohlberg decided that if kids move along their development both emotionally and cognitively, then they must also move forward morally.
If you think about it, this was pretty radical—do human beings pass through clearly-defined stages of brain development that correlate with how they make moral decisions? This was Kohlberg’s question.
A review of all of Kohlberg’s work is beyond the scope of this post. We can summarize it, though, and the best way to do that is to describe the story Kohlberg told all of the people he studied. The story is fictional, but not outlandish; it sets up a clear moral dilemma, and Kohlberg paid attention to how different people of different ages made sense of the story. He called this “The Heinz Story,” and although there are many versions, the story roughly went like this:
A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her: it was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging 10 times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium, and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but could only get together about $1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying, and asked him to either sell it cheaper, or let him pay later. But, the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug, and I’m going to make money from it.” So, Heinz got desperate, and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?
Kohlberg, Lawrence (1981). Essays on Moral Development, Vol. I: The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row
Kohlberg wasn’t as interested in what most people said they would do; after all, he soon discovered, most people argued for stealing the medicine. Kohlberg was instead interested in why people thought that it was OK to steal the medicine. From asking thousands of people of all ages what Heinz ought to do, Kohlberg discerned what he felt were predictable stages of moral development. Not everyone, he cautioned, would reach all of these stages despite their age, and it was perhaps this conclusion that created the most controversy.
Generally speaking, Kohlberg felt that moral development was characterized first by a more or less amoral stage: you want what you want regardless of right or wrong. In fact, little kids don’t even understand the concept of right versus wrong. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to get angry at a 2-year-old for cheating—they don’t, and can’t, understand the concept of cheating. However, after around age 3, kids start to appreciate right and wrong, but they do so as a function of external punishments. As kids age, Kohlberg noted, they move through different views of the concepts of right and wrong. They might start with a fear of punishment, but then they move to a desire for approval. Slowly, they make their way from external drivers of what to do to internal notions of what constitutes the right thing to do.
Kohlberg called the final stages of moral development “post conventional.” By that he meant that people at these stages were deciding what to do as a function of their own internal compasses, and not as a function of how they ought to behave because of the conventions of their society.
You can see a listing of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development here.
Here’s why Erikson and Piaget and Kohlberg matter: clinicians consciously, and parents intuitively, use all of these notions in understanding kids. Teens, for example, should be working on developing a sense of who they are, and they do so by thinking abstractly about the many options afforded them. And, by engaging in these processes, they decide that the right thing to do stems from their view of how the world views them.
If kids veer from these loosely-predictable stages, we have to ask ourselves why. Is the child depressed? Is there trouble at school? Is there trouble at home? This is where clinicians and parents collaborate best when a child is in need.
Steven Schlozman, M.D.
Steven Schlozman, M.D. is associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is als...
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A comparison of piaget freud and erikson
The field of psychology may have grown to be respected as a science.
Objectivity and the scientific method are both part of the psychologist's mode
of operation. However, even the greatest of psychologists can only theorize
about what makes human beings act the way they do. Absolutes are not part
of psychology . Everything is relative and open to speculation. Theorists give
us their views or ideas about life.
In the field of psychology, there have been many different areas of
interest. Human development is one of the most popular areas of interest for
those who study psychology. Freud, Erikson and Piaget are all great theorists
with different ideas concerning human development. Each theorist developed
ideas and stages for human development. Their theories on human
development had human beings passing through different stages. Each theory
differed on what these stages were. These theories also differed with their
respect towards paradigmatic assumptions, learning and development, and
relationship towards educational practice.
Freud is known as the father of psychology. Although some of his
work has been dismissed, most of it still holds weight in the world of
psychology. Freud believed that human development was fueled by inner
forces. He believed the most powerful of all inner forces was our sexual
being. Freud linked everything with sex. This includes any bodily pleasure
whatsoever. Thus, when Freud discusses the sexual needs of children, they
are not the same kind of sexual needs that an adult would experience.
Children experienced sexual gratification in different ways. Sucking their
thumbs or retaining their excrement could be seen as sexual gratification for
small children. Freud also specified certain areas of our body as erogenous
zones. Those areas included the mouth and genitals. This all fit in to Freud's
obsession with sex. An obsession that could be linked to the era that Freud
lived in. It was a very conservative period in history. Sexual feelings were
Freud's theory on human development could be labeled the
psychosexual stages of development. Freud believed human beings passed
through different stages in their life based on which part of their body gave
them sexual gratification. Freud's psychosexual stages of development are
five in total.
The Oral stage takes place from birth to about one year. During this
stage, a child is orally oriented. The mouth is the child's erogenous zone.
Everything a child touches is put in his mouth. Freud believes children do
this because it gives them pleasure. When a child sucks his thumb, it does so
because it gives it gives him gratification. According to Freud, the
gratification is sexual.
The second stage in Freud's psychosexual development theory takes
place between the ages of two and three years of age. The erogenous zone
shifts location, thus moving from one stage to another. The second erogenous
zone in Freud's stages of human development is the anal region. Freud
believes children experience sexual gratification during bowel movements
and when they withhold bowel movements. Some children may even
experience pleasure handling, looking at, or thinking about their own feces.
Once the Anal stage of development has been completed, the next
stage of development for Freud is the Phallic Stage. This usually occurs at
about three years of age. The shift in erogenous zones moves from the anal
region to the genital organs. This stage is also known as the Oedipal Stage of
psychosexual development. This name comes from the legendary king,
Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother. During this stage
children take interest in their sexual organs. Soon they notice differences and
similarities between themselves and their parents. Each sex wants to be with
the parent of the other sex, for girls this is referred to as the elektra complex.
Once the children realize they can not be with their mother or father, they
identify with the parent of the same sex.
The next stage is called the stage of Latency. This stage is
characterized by a lack of change or absence of erogenous zones. After the
realization that the child can not be with a parent sexually, the child shifts its
attention to same-sexed relationships. Boys will shift their sexual urges and
drives to something acceptable, such as sports. This is a time of relative calm.
The last stage of Freud's psychosexual development is the Genital
Stage. The erogenous zone returns in a very powerful way in the genital
organs. This stage takes place from puberty into adulthood. This stage is
marked by true sexual desire and sexual relationships.
Erikson took Freud's ideas and enhanced them. He added stages for the
adult years. He also shifted his attention to identity rather than sexuality.
Erikson developed the psychosocial stages of development. He is known for
his eight stages of life.
Erikson's first stage is during infancy. It deals with trust versus
mistrust. The child develops an outlook on life and whether the world can be
trusted or not. The child develops trust if the parents give the child something
it can rely on. The child develops a sense of optimism or pessimism during
this stage. according to Erikson.
The next stage in Erikson's psychosocial development is during early
childhood and is known as autonomy versus shame and doubt. The child
becomes autonomous and realizes he can say yes or no. This stage will
determine whether or not a child develops a sense of self-certainty.
Erikson's next stage takes place during the ages of three to six years.
This stage is marked by initiative versus guilt. This stage is important in
developing the child's sense of enterprise. The child develops initiative when
trying out new things and is not scared of failing.
The fourth stage of Erikson's developmental theory takes place at about
six years of age and lasts till puberty. This stage deals with industry versus
inferiority. The child learns skills of the culture and must deal with feelings
Adolescence brings about the next stage for Erikson. This stage is
known for identity versus identity confusion. During this stage, Erikson
believes adolescents must develop a sense of self and who they are. They
develop a sense of identity.
The sixth stage for Erikson is known for intimacy versus isolation.
This stage takes place during young adulthood. The person seeks
commitments from others. If he is unsuccessful, he may take on isolation.
Erikson believes this stage is important in learning love.
The seventh stage for Erikson takes place during adulthood. It is
marked by generativity versus stagnation. During this stage, the adult is
concerned with guiding the next generation. This stage according to Erikson
gives the adult a sense of caring.
Erikson's last and eighth stage takes place at a mature age. Old age is
marked by integrity versus despair. During this time, the person may achieve
a sense of acceptance of their own life, which in turn allows for the
acceptance of death. When one passes through this last stage, Erikson
believes that a person has achieved wisdom.
Piaget also believed in developmental theory. Her stages were
cognitive stages. These stages were based on what the child can do.
According to Piaget a child passes through four stages in its life. Piaget was
interested in the child's abilities and senses, not sexual desires like Freud was.
Piaget believes the first stage of development should be a cognitive
one. Her first stage is known as the sensorimotor stage. It takes place from
birth to about two years of age. During this time a child learns motor
meaning, object permanence, and Th. beginning of symbolic representation,
also known as language. The child will change from someone who responds
only through reflexes to one who can organize his activities in relation to his
environment. It does this through sensory and motor activity.
The next stage in Piaget's cognitive development theory is the
preoperational stage. This takes place from about two to seven years of age.
During this stage the child's language develops. He develops a
representational system and uses symbols such as words to represent people,
places, and events.
From about the ages of seven to thirteen, Piaget believes children enter
the concrete operational stage. They can solve problems logically. They can
understand rules and form concepts. Some children become moralistic.
The last stage Piaget believes is the formal operational stage. This
stage takes place from about twelve years of age through adulthood. Once
someone has reached this stage, one should be able to think abstractly,
manipulate abstract concepts, use hypothetical reasoning, and use creative
language. Someone should be able to think about the possibilities.
These three theories on human development each have their own good
points and bad points. One problem all theories must deal with are
paradigmatic assumptions. These are ideas that the theorist has taken for
granted as facts. An example is Freud's notion that women suffer from a lack
of self esteem or self worth all their lives because of penis envy. Freud's
assumption could have been a product of the times he lived in. It was a time
when women were treated as second class citizens. Today, the idea of penis
envy has lost its worth. Freud's assumption that sex is the driving force
behind everything could also be a product of his times. Sexual feelings were
often repressed. The problem with paradigmatic assumptions is that each
person grows up in a different culture and some theories don't apply to
everyone. The problem with psychology remains that it is not an exact
science. It is difficult to develop good paradigmatic asumptions because of
that. Erikson assumes a child must learn these virtues or skills in this order.
But, what if a child does not? Someone may never has a meaningful
relationship, but they may develop wisdom. This would undercut Erikson's
assumptions that everyone must pass through these stages in this order.
Piaget also has some assumptions in her theory. A man who never learns to
add, may be able to think hypothetically. These mistakes only show that
psychology still has its flaws.
Each of these theories has some value because they are not totally
wrong. These theories have withstood criticism and are some of the best.
Each theory is similar in its time table and sequence of life events. Where
they differ is in their focus. Freud focuses on sex, Erikson focuses on the self
and social orientation, and Piaget focuses on the child's ability and senses.
Each theory is also useful when applied to its relationship to
educational practice. Each theory guides a teacher in trying to understan
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