Child psychology deals with the personality and behavior of children, typically from conception to puberty. In the past child psychology has referred to both normal and abnormal behavior, to both theory and research, and also to the psychotherapy or counseling of disturbed children. Current usage, however, limits the term to a branch of the science of developmental psychology, specifying “child clinical” when referring to the professional practice of child psychology.
Childhood can be divided into substages: prenatal, infancy, toddlerhood, preschool, middle childhood, and later childhood. Some researchers, however, argue that development is best understood in the context of the total span of life and propose a “life span developmental psychology.” Additionally, current research has focused on the contexts that influence development, including the family, school, and peers (see Bronfenbrenner, 1989, 1993).
Child Psychology History
Four sorts of history can be considered. Ontogenetic history, the history of the organism from conception to death, is the basic material of human development. Phylogenetic history refers to the evolutionary development of the species. According to one theory—proposed by G. Stanley Hall in his treatise Adolescence (1904), but now largely discounted— the ontogenetic history of individuals represented a “recapitulation” or repeating of the species’s phylogenetic history.
A third sort of history refers to changes over time in the concept of childhood, corresponding to the sociocultural history of the family. Philippe Muller (1969) identified four periods in the cultural history of the family that corresponded to changing conceptions of the child.
A fourth kind of history in child psychology is the history of the field itself. Early Greek writers were concerned with stages of development, the socialization process, and the proper education of children. The origins of child psychology as a science, however, can be traced to the careful observations recorded in early “baby biographies,” such as those written by Tiedemann (1787), Darwin (1877), and Preyer (1888/1882). Despite their shortcomings as scientific data, these biographies paved the way for more careful observation, for attention to psychological processes, and finally for experiments dealing with child behavior.
More recent influences on child psychology have been the testing movement and the development of child guidance clinics and major university centers for research on child behavior. Current literature emphasizes developmentally appropriate guidance, that is, optimal ways to work with and parent children.
Child Psychology Theories
Early theories of child psychology were largely implicit, children being thought of as miniature adults. Not until the late nineteenth century and the emergence of a formal discipline of psychology did theories about child behavior become prominent. An early psychologist, G. Stanley Hall, proposed a biogenetic theory emphasizing biological growth and genetic predispositions.
Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, emphasized environmental and especially social factors in the development of child behavior and personality. One of the first to stress the influence of early experience on later behavior, Freud assigned a major role to the unconscious. He postulated a series of psychosexual stages defined by the characteristic way in which libido, or mental sexual energy, gets expressed.
Jean Piaget developed a major theory of cognitive development. For Piaget, the stages of development concern the increasingly complex way in which the individual can incorporate and process information and assimilate it into his or her own previously developed mental structures.
Learning theorists have tended to view children’s behavior as based on environmental rather than organismic factors and, like Freud, see the organism as passive rather than active in its own development. The emergence of social learning theory was in some respects a combination of psychoanalytic and learning theory concepts.
Child Psychology Research Methods
Since the days of the baby biographies, child psychology has progressed in methodology as well as theory. Using a longitudinal approach, investigators follow the same subjects over the years of interest and observe age changes. With the cross-sectional approach, the researcher tests subjects of different ages. A combination of the two procedures has been suggested (Schaie, 1970) as a more powerful approach.
Research methods have included questionnaires; ratings and rankings by teachers, peers, parents, and oneself; interviews; observation; projective tests; personality and intelligence tests; and direct experimentation. A good source for understanding the basic information on research methods in child psychology is Research Methods in Human Development (Brown, Cozby, Kee, & Worden, 1999).
Issues in Developmental Psychology
The contrasting views of the child as an active agent or a recipient remain a salient issue in child psychology. The relative influence of environmental factors, contrasted with genetic predispositions, is also an important dimension to child psychologists. Finally, child psychologists differ in the importance they place on stages in development: While some theorists perceive development as proceeding by discrete stages, other assume a more continuous unfolding of personality and behavior.
- Bronfenbrenner, U. (1989). Ecological systems theory. In R. Vasta (Ed.), Six theories of child development: Annals of child development (Vol. 6, pp. 187–249). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
- Bronfenbrenner, U. (1993). The ecology of cognitive development: Research models and fugitive findings. In R. H. Wozniak & K. W. Fischer (Eds.), Development in context: Acting and thinking in specific environments (pp. 3–44). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Brown, K. W., Cozby, P. C., Kee, D. W., & Worden, P. E. (1999). Research methods in human development (2nd ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.
- Darwin, C. A. (1877). A biographical sketch of an infant. Merid, 2, 285–294.
- Hall, G. S. (1904). Adolescence: Its psychology and its relations to physiology, anthropology, sociology, sex, crime, religion, and education (Vol. I). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Muller, P. (1969). The tasks of childhood. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Preyer, W. (1888). The mind of the child. New York: Appleton- Century. (Original work published 1882)
- Schaie, K. W. (1970). A reinterpretation of age-related changes in cognitive structure and functioning. In L. R. Goulet & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), Life-span developmental psychology: Research and theory. (pp. 485–507). New York: Academic Press.
- Tiedemann, D. (1787). Beobachtungen uber die Entwicklung der Seelenfahigkeiten bei Kindern. Altenburg: Bonde.