Applied History of Psychology/Conceptualization of childhood

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Models of Human Development[edit]

Theories of child development have evolved over time to reflect "cultural values, philosophical thinking about children, and scientific progress" (Berk, 2000, p. 11). To fully understand modern theories of child development it is important to consider some of the early ideas that people held about children.

In Medieval times, from the sixth through to the fifteenth century, children were thought of as miniature versions of adults. Age was viewed as unimportant and a review of family and civil records from that time reveals that the age of persons was rarely mentioned. Although children were likened to smaller versions of adults (this is especially evident in the art of the time), there was some recognition of the need to protect children from adults who might mistreat them and early writings revealed that there were special instructions specifically outlined for the care of children. However, there were no theoretical conceptualizations about the "uniqueness" of childhood or separate developmental periods as we have today (Berk, 2000).

The sixteenth century reflected a "revised image of childhood [that] sprang from the religious movement that gave birth to Protestantism" (Berk, 2000, p. 11). It was believed that children were born evil and that they had to be taught how to become civilized (Shahar, 1990). As a result, a harsh and punitive parenting style was strongly endorsed. However, it is unclear whether or not this type of parenting was endorsed by most families at that time. Moran and Vinovskis (1986) suggest that most Puritan families, emigrating from England to the United States at that time, were reluctant to use such harsh and punitive discipline. Rather they tried to find a way to balance “discipline with indulgence, severity with permissiveness” (Moran & Vinovskis, 1986, p. 29). Parents endorsed reason and tried to teach their children how to decipher right from wrong.

In the seventeenth century, the Enlightenment brought new conceptualizations of childhood that “emphasized ideals of human dignity and respect. Conceptions of childhood appeared that were more humane than those of centuries past” (Berk, 2000, p. 11). British philosopher, John Locke, believed that children were essentially born as “blank slates” (tabula rasa) and that their character developed through the interaction and experience they had with the world. Children were viewed as having a passive role in their development and the type of person that they became was attributable to those persons and/or sensory experiences that “wrote on their slate.” Locke promoted kind and compassionate treatment of children and believed that it was parents’ responsibility to serve as “rational tutors” for children, molding children through positive instruction and example (Berk, 2000).

During the eighteenth century the idea that children were “blank slates” to be written on by others was discarded and replaced with the idea that children were “noble savages, naturally endowed with a sense of right and wrong and with an innate plan for orderly, healthy growth” (Berk, 2000, p. 12). French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau adopted a child-centered approach to development which emphasized adult responsiveness to the needs of children at four different stages of development including: infancy, childhood, late childhood, and adolescence.

Rousseau’s approach to child development was the first to introduce the concepts of stages of development and maturation (two concepts that are still found in modern theories of child development), as childhood was defined as something unique from adulthood that progressed in a discontinuous and stepwise process (Berk, 2000).

Currently, a much more humanist view of children is discussed in the fields of pre- and perinatal psychology and other areas of psychology. The idea that even pre-born children can feel pain, react to the emotional experiences of their mother, and learn is recognized.