In this article we will discuss about physical, cognitive, social and emotional development in children.
Physical Growth and Development in Children:
When does human life begin? In one sense, this is a philosophical or religious issue, outside the realm of science. From a purely biological point of view, though, your life as an individual began when one of the millions of sperm released by your father during sexual intercourse fertilized an ovum deep within your mother’s body. The product of this union was barely 1/175 of an inch in diameter—smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.
Yet packed within this tiny speck were the genetic blueprints that guided all your subsequent physical growth. Each of us possesses twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, one member of each pair from our mother and one from our father. One of these pairs determines biological sex, with females possessing two X chromosomes (XX) and males possessing one X and one Y (XY).
After fertilization, the ovum moves through the mother’s reproductive tract until it reaches the womb or uterus. This takes several days, and during this time the ovum divides frequently. Ten to fourteen days after fertilization, it becomes implanted in the wall of the uterus.
For the next six weeks it is known as an embryo and develops rapidly. (If, instead, the ovum becomes implanted into the oviduct—the tube connecting the ovary with the uterus—an ectopic pregnancy results. This can be very serious for the mother and can even cause death if the condition is undetected; the oviduct can burst as the developing embryo grows larger.) By the third week the embryo is about one-fifth of an inch (one-half centimeter) long, and the region of the head is clearly visible.
By the end of the eighth week the embryo is about one inch long, and a face as well as arms and legs are present. By this time, too, all major internal organs have begun to form; and some, such as the sex glands, are already active. The nervous system develops rapidly, and simple reflexes begin to appear during the eighth or ninth week after fertilization.
During the next seven months the developing child; now called a fetus, shows an increasingly human form. Different parts of the body grow at different rates during this period. At first, the head grows rapidly compared to the trunk and legs; later, the lower parts of the body grow more rapidly. The external genitals take shape, so the sex of the fetus is recognizable by the twelfth week. Fingernails and toenails form, hair follicles appear, and eyelids that open and close emerge.
By the end of the twelfth week the fetus is 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) long and weighs about ¾ ounce (21 grams). By the twentieth week it is almost 10 inches (25 cm) long and weighs 8 or 9 ounces (227-255 g). By the twenty-fourth week all the neurons that will be present in the brain have been produced. The eyes are formed and are sensitive to light by the end of the twenty-fourth to twenty-sixth week.
During the last three months of pregnancy, the fetus gains about eight ounces each week. By the seventh and eighth months, it appears to be virtually fully formed. However, if born prematurely, it may still experience difficulties in breathing. At birth, babies weigh more than 7 pounds (3.17 kilograms) on average and are about 20 inches (50.8 cm) long.
Physical growth is rapid during infancy. Assuming good nutrition, infants almost triple in weight (to about 20 pounds or 9 kilograms) and increase in body length by about one-third (to 28 or 29 inches, 71 to 74 cm) during the first year alone. Although infants are capable of eating immediately, they have limited capacity for what they can consume at one time their stomachs will not hold very much.
They compensate for this by eating small amounts frequently, about every 2.5 to 4 hours. Should parents try to put their babies on a feeding schedule, or let them eat whenever they are hungry? Most adopt a compromise in which they gradually try to establish some regularity in the baby’s feeding schedule, but learn to distinguish between crying that means “I’m hungry! Feed me!” and crying that suggests, “I’m hungry, but not so hungry that I can’t wait if you play with me.”
Most experts believe that this compromise approach is a reasonable one. However, they do warn against putting babies on a very rigid schedule, because this may lead to a situation in which babies eat when they are not experiencing the internal cues of hunger. The result? They don’t learn to respond to hunger cues; this can lead to obesity—a growing problem among children in many countries.
At birth, babies have little ability to regulate their own temperature; in fact, they can’t maintain a normal body temperature by themselves until they are about eight or nine weeks old. So it’s important to keep them warm but not too warm! I have often seen babies dressed in heavy sweaters or snow suits at a nearby shopping mall, even though the temperature inside the mall is high, and the babies were obviously experiencing discomfort. So the best course is for parents to take account of what they themselves are wearing and how they feel in a given environment.
At birth newborns possess several simple reflexes inherited responses to stimulation in certain areas of the body. If these reflexes are present, the baby’s nervous system is assumed to be intact and working normally; if they are not, this is often a sign that something is seriously wrong.
One such reflex, the Moro reflex, is triggered by a loud sound or a sudden dropping back of the infant’s head. It involves a series of actions in which the baby first throws out his or her arms, then fans his or her fingers and lets out a cry before bringing the arms back over his or her chest. Another is the palmar grasping reflex, which is elicited by pressing or stroking the palms of the newborn’s hands. The baby closes its hand and holds tight; in fact, infants can be lifted up from a flat surface by their grip.
This reflex might well be useful in helping a baby cling to its mother as the mother moves about. Babies also possess a rooting reflex, in which stroking the baby’s cheek causes the baby to turn toward the stimulation and move its lips and tongue, and a sucking reflex, involving a combination of pressure and suction. These and other reflexes are summarized in Table 8.1.
As anyone who has observed newborns well knows, infants have limited ability to move around at birth. This situation changes quickly, however, and within a few months they become quite mobile. Within about five to ten months, babies can sit and crawl; and most begin to walk by the time they are fourteen or fifteen months old.
Motor development proceeds from the head toward the limbs, so that at first babies can hold up their head, then lift their chest, then sit, and so on. It’s important to keep in mind that the ages shown are merely averages. Departures from them are of little importance unless they are quite extreme.
After the initial spurt of the first year, the rate of physical growth slows considerably; both boys and girls gain about 2 to 3 inches (5 to 10 cm) and 4 to 7 pounds (2 to 4 kg) per year. The rate accelerates during adolescence, when both sexes experience a growth spurt lasting about two years. These outward changes are accompanied by important inner ones, too.
For instance, the brain expands rapidly through the first eighteen months of life, reaching more than half of the adult brain weight by the end of this period; by the time children are only five years old, the brain is almost full-sized. During this period there is a rapid growth of dendrites and axons within the brain; and glial cells, which supply nutrients to neurons, remove waste materials, and produce the myelin sheath that speeds neural impulses increase rapidly in number.
Interestingly, motor development does not seem to be a function solely of maturation; cross-cultural studies indicate that it can be speeded or slowed by various child-rearing practices. For instance, in Uganda and Kenya, mothers start early to teach their babies to sit, and the babies learn to do so at an earlier age than children in several Western countries such as the United States.
Similarly, mothers in the West Indies massage their babies and exercise their motor skills frequently (e.g., they throw them up in the air, hold them upside down by the heels, and frequently hold them upright with their feet touching a solid surface, which encourages stepping motions).
These practices seem to speed motor development. In contrast, infants living in nomadic tribes in Paraguay are carried everywhere and prevented from exploring their environments; as a result, they show delayed motor development and don’t begin to walk until they are more than two years old.
Evidence indicates that they can be classically conditioned, but primarily with respect to stimuli that have survival value for babies. For example, infants only two hours old readily learn to associate gentle stroking on the forehead with a sweet solution, and after these two stimuli have been paired repeatedly, they will show sucking responses to the stroking (the conditioned stimulus). In contrast, human infants do not readily acquire conditioned fears until they are at least eight months old.
Turning to operant conditioning, there is evidence that newborns can readily show this basic kind of learning. For example, they readily learn to suck faster, to see visual designs, or to hear music and human voices. By the time infants are two months old, they can learn to turn their heads to the side on which their cheek is gently brushed to gain access to a bottle of sugar water.
Cognitive Development in Children:
Do children think, reason, and remember in the same manner as adults? Until well into the twentieth century, it was widely assumed that they do. In many societies, it was assumed that while adults are superior mentally, just as they are physically, the cognitive processes of children and adults are basically very similar.
These assumptions were vigorously challenged by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. On the basis of careful observations of his own and many other children, Piaget concluded that in several respects children do not think or reason like adults: Their thought processes are different not only in degree but in kind as well.
Piaget’s theory of cognitive development contains many valuable insights and has guided a great deal of research. Thus, we’ll consider it in detail here. Although some of Piaget’s conclusions have been questioned in recent years, his theory is still considered to be a uniquely valuable one by many developmental psychologists. For this reason, we’ll consider it carefully here.
All theories in psychology are subject to careful scientific testing, but grand theories such as Piaget’s require especially careful assessment, because they are so sweeping in nature. What do the results of research on Piaget’s theory reveal? Briefly, that it is highly insightful in many ways but that, like virtually every theory, it should be revised in the light of new evidence.
In particular, developmental psychologists have suggested revisions in Piaget’s theory with respect to three important issues:
(1) The cognitive abilities of infants and preschoolers (these turn out to be considerably greater than Piaget believed);
(2) The discreteness of stages of cognitive development; and
(3) The importance of social interactions between children and caregivers in the children’s cognitive development.
With respect to the first of these issues, growing evidence indicates that Piaget seriously underestimated the cognitive abilities of infants and young children in many respects. Why did this happen? Apparently, because some of the research methods Piaget used, although ingenious, made it difficult for infants and preschool children to demonstrate cognitive abilities they actually possessed. Let’s take a brief look at two of these abilities—object permanence and egocentrism.
Piaget concluded that infants below the age of eight or nine months did not realize that objects have an existence that continues even when they are removed from sight. However, it now appears that these findings may have stemmed from the fact that children this young don’t understand the concept “under.”
Thus, when an object is placed under a cover, they are stumped, because they don’t realize that one object can be underneath another. So if objects are placed behind a screen, rather than under a cover, infants as young as four or five months of age do act as if they know it is still there.
And infants seem to understand far more about physical objects than this; they even seem to have a basic understanding of how physical objects will behave under various conditions. Insight into babies’ impressive skills in this respect is provided by tasks involving what Baillargeon (1987) terms impossible events. For instance, in one ingenious study using such tasks, infants 6.5 months old watched while a gloved hand pushed an object along a platform.
In the possible event condition, the hand stopped while the object was still on the platform. In the impossible event condition, it pushed the object until it was off the edge of the platform. Would the children look longer at the impossible event than the possible event? They did indeed, thus indicating that they understood that physical objects can’t stay suspended in empty space! In other conditions, the gloved hand grasped the object and held it while pushing it along the platform.
When the object was pushed beyond the edge of the platform but was still held by the gloved hand, the children did not seem surprised, and did not look at this any longer than at the event in which the object stopped before reaching the edge. This and other studies suggest that infants as young as 3.5 months old understand much about the physical nature of objects much more, in fact, than Piaget believed.
Now let’s consider egocentrism—young children’s inability to understand that others may perceive the world differently than they do. To study egocentrism, Piaget showed children a model of a mountain with various features (e.g., a path, a small stream) visible only from certain sides. He had children walk about the mountain, looking at it from all angles.
Then he placed a doll at various positions around the mountain and asked children to describe what the doll saw or to choose the photo that showed what the doll could see. He found that children could not perform this task accurately until they were six or seven years old. However, once again, it appears that the task Piaget used may have led him astray. When, instead, this task involves more distinctive and familiar objects for instance, people and trees, even children as young as three or four can respond accurately.
Indeed, even infants fourteen to eighteen months old show some awareness of the fact that others may not see what they see; for instance, they will look back and forth between objects and adults as they point to objects they want the adults to notice. Piaget also underestimated young children’s understanding of conservation, both of number and of physical attributes such as size; their ability to classify objects and their understanding of what it means to be alive.
So, in sum, it is reasonable to conclude that although he certainly called attention to important aspects of young children’s thought, Piaget significantly underestimated children’s abilities in several of these respects.
Piaget proposed that cognitive development passes through discrete stages and that these are discontinuous children must complete one stage before entering another. Most research findings, however, indicate that cognitive changes occur in a more gradual manner. Rarely does an ability entirely absent at one age appear suddenly at another. Further, these changes are often domain specific—children may be advanced with respect to some kinds of thinking, but far less advanced with respect to others.
Piaget viewed cognitive development as stemming primarily from children’s active efforts to make sense out of the world around them, plus the process of maturation. In contrast, sociocultural theory, another major theory of cognitive development, proposed by Lev Vygotsky (1987) placed much greater emphasis on the roles of social factors and language, especially among school-aged children.
Vygotsky suggested that cognitive growth occurs in an interpersonal, social context in which children are moved beyond their level of actual development (what they are capable of doing unassisted) and toward their level of potential development (what they are capable of achieving with assistance from older and wiser!- tutors). Vygotsky termed the difference between these two levels the zone of proximal development.
What kind of assistance does social interaction with adults provide? Often, this takes the form of reciprocal teaching, in which the teacher and the child take turns engaging in an activity. This allows the adult (or other tutor) to serve as a model for the child. In addition, during their interactions with children, adults provide scaffolding mental structures the children can use as they master new tasks and new ways of thinking.
A growing body of evidence suggests that the kind of social interactions between children and older tutors Vygotsky emphasized do indeed enhance cognitive development, helping children to acquire specific skills such as reading ability, and new insights and improvements in inferential thinking. Children can also learn from other children for instance, classmates in this manner. And being socially skilled (being able to get along well with peers and others) seems to be an important plus in this process. The more socially skilled children are, the more advanced they are in their understanding of how other people think.
In sum, there is now general agreement among developmental psychologists that in certain respects Piaget’s theory is in need of revision. Despite its shortcomings, however, there is no doubt that this theory has profoundly altered our ideas about how children think and reason. In this sense, certainly, Piaget’s work has made a lasting contribution to psychology.
Beyond Piaget: Children’s Theory of Mind and Research on the Information-Processing Perspective:
Piaget is truly a giant in the history of psychology; in an important sense, his theory and insights set the agenda for research by developmental psychologists for decades. In recent years, however, researchers have investigated topics and perspectives that were not included in Piaget’s work, but which appear to be important for understanding cognitive development.
One of these areas of study involves children’s theory of mind their growing understanding of their own mental states and those of others. A second involves the application of an information-processing perspective to various aspects of cognitive development. We’ll now consider both topics.
As adults, we possess a sophisticated understanding of thoughts and the process of thinking. We realize that our own thoughts may change over time and that we may have false beliefs or reach false conclusions. Similarly, we realize that other people may have goals or desires that differ from our own and that they may sometimes try to conceal these from us; further, we realize that given the same information, others may reason to conclusions that differ from our own.
In other words, we understand quite a bit about how we and other people think. But what about children? When—and how—do they acquire such understanding? This has been a major focus of recent research on cognitive development, and this work has yielded some surprising findings.
Let’s begin with what might seem to be a fairly simple aspect of such thinking—children’s ability to recognize that others can hold beliefs different from their own, and that these beliefs can be false. Do children understand this basic fact? Not, it appears, until they are about four years old.
This fact has been established by the following kind of research: Children are shown drawings of a story in which a boy named Maxi puts some candy in a box. Then, while Maxi is out of the room, his mother moves it to another box. Maxi then returns and wants to find his candy. When asked, “Where will Maxi look for the candy?” three-year-olds indicate that he will look in the box where his mother put it.
In other words, they don’t seem to realize that Maxi will have the mistaken belief that the candy is where he left it. They know where it is, so they assume he will too. By the time children are four, however, they realize that Maxi will look in the wrong box.
Here’s another illustration of how children’s theory of mind becomes more sophisticated over time. Infants as young as two or three months of age can tell whether an adult is looking at them or away. But at what age will they follow another’s gaze to determine what that other person is looking at, and so, perhaps, the other’s desires or intentions? Recent studies suggest that under some conditions, even two-year-olds can accomplish this task.
We should quickly add, however, that although young children are surprisingly accomplished in this respect, they do lack important insights into the nature of thought. For instance, they have difficulty recognizing when another person is thinking; they know thinking is different from talking or seeing, but don’t fully understand that it is a private mental event.
Similarly, young children know when they know something, but they are often unclear about the source of this knowledge. Did they obtain it themselves? Did someone tell them? Did they draw an inference? This may be one reason why young children are often unreliable witnesses even to traumatic events they have personally experienced.
They know that they have knowledge of various events but are unsure how they acquired it whether through direct experience or from the comments and suggestions of an adult. So, although young children have a surprisingly complex theory of mind, it is incomplete in several important respects.
Another way in which recent research on cognitive development has moved beyond the framework described by Piaget involves application of an information-processing perspective. This perspective seeks insights into cognitive development in terms of children’s growing abilities with respect to basic aspects of cognition such as attention, memory, and metacognition (thinking about thinking and being able to control and use one’s own cognitive abilities strategically).
For instance, as they grow older, children acquire increasingly effective strategies for retaining information in working (short-term) memory. Five and six year-olds are much less likely than adults to use rehearsal the tactic of repeating information to oneself to try to memorize it. By the time children are eight years old, however, they can do this much more effectively. Similarly, older children are better able than younger ones to use elaboration, a strategy in which new information is linked to existing knowledge.
In a similar manner, children acquire increasingly effective strategies for focusing their attention; strategies for using scripts and other mental frameworks (schemas); and greater understanding of metacognition; for instance, how to regulate and control problem-solving processes and memory. Research conducted from an information-processing perspective has helped link the process of cognitive development more closely to basic research on cognition, so it too has proved very useful.
Social and Emotional Development in Children:
Cognitive development is a crucial aspect of human growth, but it does not occur in a social vacuum. As infants and children are acquiring the capacities to think and reason, they are also gaining the basic experiences, skills, and emotions that permit them to form close relationships and to interact effectively with others in many settings. Here we’ll examine several aspects of such social and emotional development.
Do infants love their parents? They can’t say so directly, but by the time they are six or seven months old, most appear to have a strong emotional bond with the persons who care for them.
This strong affectional tie between infants and their caregivers is known as attachment and is, an important sense, the first form of love we experience toward others. What are the origins of this initial form of love? How can it be measured? These are among the questions developmental psychologists have sought to answer in their research on attachment.
That infants form strong attachments to the persons who care for them is obvious to anyone who has ever watched what happens when babies are separated from their caregivers.
Actually, infants’ reactions to such separations play a central role in one way psychologists measure attachment. This is known as the strange situation test: a procedure in which a caregiver leaves a child alone with a stranger for a few minutes and then returns. This test is based on a theory proposed by Bowlby (1969), suggesting that attachment involves a balance between infants’ tendencies to seek to be near to their caregivers and their willingness to explore new environments.
The quality of attachment, Bowlby contended, is revealed by the degree to which the infant behaves as if the caregiver, when present, serves as a secure base of operations provides comfort and reassurance; and by the effectiveness of infant caregiver interactions when the caregiver returns after a separation. Do babies cry when their mother leaves the room? How do they react when she returns? Do they appear more confident in her presence despite the presence of the stranger?
Research using the strange situation test has found that infants differ in the quality or style of their attachment to their caregivers (remember: all people who care for infants are not mothers). In fact, most show one of four distinct patterns of attachment. Most infants show secure attachment. They freely explore new environments, touching base with their caregiver periodically to assure themselves that she is present and will respond if needed.
They may or may not cry on separation from this person, but if they do, it is because of her absence; and when she returns, they actively seek contact with her and stop crying very quickly. Another, smaller group of infants show insecure/avoidant attachment. They don’t cry when their caregiver leaves, and they react to the stranger in much the same way as to their caregiver. When the caregiver returns they typically avoid her or are slow to greet her.
A third group of infants show a pattern known as insecure/ambivalent attachment. Before separation, these infants seek contact with their caregiver. After she leaves and then returns, however, they first seek her but then resist or reject her offers of comfort, hence the term ambivalent. A fourth pattern, containing elements of both avoidant and ambivalent patterns, has sometimes been suggested; it is known as disorganized attachment (or disoriented attachment).
However, it is not clear that such a pattern exists and is distinct from the others. Interestingly, the relative frequency of the three major patterns of attachment (secure, insecure/avoidant, and insecure/ambivalent) differs across cultures. These differences probably reflect contrasting approaches to child rearing in these cultures.
For instance, the rate of insecure/avoidant attachment is relatively high in Germany, perhaps reflecting the fact that German parents often emphasize independence. In any case, it seems clear that studying such differences in attachment patterns across cultures may provide important clues concerning the effects of various child-rearing practices on infant attachment.
The existence of these distinct patterns of attachment raises an intriguing and important question: What factors influence attachment and the particular form it takes? One factor that was long assumed to play a central role is maternal sensitivity a caregiver’s alertness to infant signals, appropriate and prompt responses to these, flexibility of attention and behavior, appropriate level of control over the infant, and so on.
It was long assumed that caregivers who showed a high degree of sensitivity would be more likely to produce secure attachment in their infants than caregivers who did not, and some research findings offered support for this view. However, more recent evidence suggests that maternal sensitivity may actually play a somewhat smaller role in determining infants’ attachment, and that other factors, such as infant temperament, may actually be more important.
Do differences in patterns of attachment have effects that persist beyond infancy? A growing body of evidence indicates that they do. During childhood, youngsters who are securely attached to their caregivers are more sociable, better at solving certain kinds of problems, more tolerant of frustration, and more flexible and persistent in many situations than children who are insecurely attached. Further, securely attached children seem to experience fewer behavioral problems during later childhood.
Perhaps even more surprising, some findings suggest that differences in attachment style in infancy may have strong effects on the kinds of relationships individuals form when they are adults. People who were avoidant attached to their caregivers as infants seem to worry constantly about losing their romantic partners; they didn’t trust their caregivers as infants, and they don’t trust spouses or lovers when they are adults.
Similarly, persons who showed ambivalent attachment in infancy seem to be ambivalent about romantic relationships, too: They want them, but they also fear them, because they perceive their partners as distant and unloving. In contrast, persons who were securely attached to their caregivers as infants seek closeness in their adult relationships and are comfortable with having to depend on their partners. In a sense, then, it seems that the pattern of our relationships with others is set—at least to a degree—by the nature of the very first relationship we form, attachment to our caregiver.
Before concluding, it’s important to consider an additional factor that seems to play a key role in attachment. This is close physical contact between infants and their caregivers.
Such contact known as contact comfort, involves the hugging, cuddling, and caresses infants receive from their caregivers, and it seems to be an essential ingredient in attachment. The research that first established this fact is a classic in the history of psychology; it was conducted by Harry Harlow and his coworkers.
When Harlow began his research, infant attachment was the farthest thing from his mind. He was interested in testing the effects of brain damage on learning. Since he could not perform such experiments with humans, he chose to work with rhesus monkeys. To prevent the baby monkeys from catching various diseases, Harlow raised them alone, away from their mothers.
This led to a surprising observation. Many of the infants seemed to become quite attached to small scraps of cloth present in their cages. They would hold tightly to these “security blankets” and protest loudly when they were removed for cleaning. This led Harlow to wonder whether the babies actually needed contact with soft materials.
To find out, he built two artificial “mothers.” One consisted of bare wire, while the other possessed a soft terry-cloth cover. Conditions were then arranged so that the monkey babies could obtain milk only from the wire mother.
According to principles of conditioning, they should soon have developed a strong bond to this cold wire mother; after all, she was the source of all their nourishment. To Harlow’s surprise, this did not happen. The infants spent almost all their time clinging tightly to the soft cloth-covered mother and left her to visit the wire mother only when driven by pangs of hunger.
Additional and even more dramatic evidence that the infants formed strong bonds to the soft mothers was obtained in further research, in which monkey babies were exposed to various forms of rejection by their artificial mothers. Some of the mothers blew them away with strong jets of air; others contained metal spikes that suddenly appeared from inside the cloth covering and pushed the infants away. None of these actions had any lasting effects on the babies’ attachment. They merely waited until the periods of rejection were over and then clung to their cloth mother as tightly as before.
On the basis of these and related findings, Harlow concluded that a monkey baby’s attachment to its mother rests, at least in part, on her ability to satisfy its need for contact comfort, direct contact with soft objects. Satisfying other physical needs, such as that for food, is not enough.
Do such effects occur among human babies as well? Some studies seem to suggest that they may. For example, two and three-year-old children placed in a strange room play for longer periods of time without becoming distressed when they have a security blanket present than when it is absent. In fact, they play almost as long as they do when their mother is in the room.
These findings suggest that for blanket- attached children, the presence of this object provides the same kind of comfort and reassurance as that provided by their mothers. So human infants, too, may have a need for contact comfort; and the gentle hugs, caresses, and cuddling they obtain from their mothers and other caregivers may play a role in the formation of attachment.
School and Friendships:– Key Factors in Social Development:
Once they pass their fifth or sixth birthday, children in many different countries spend more of their time in school than anywhere else. As a result, their experiences in this setting play an important role in their social and emotional development. In school, children do not merely acquire information that contributes to their cognitive growth; they also have the opportunity to acquire, and practice, many social skills.
They learn to share, to cooperate, and to work together in groups to solve problems. And, perhaps most important of all, they acquire growing experience in forming and maintaining friendships relationships involving strong affective (emotional) ties between two persons.
How do friendships differ from other relationships children have with their peers?
A recent review of many studies dealing with this topic indicates that children’s friendships are marked by the following characteristics:
i. Friends have stronger affective ties to each other than they have to other peers.
ii. Friends cooperate with and help each other more than they do other peers.
iii. Friends may have conflicts with each other, but are more concerned with resolving such disputes than is true with respect to other peers.
iv. Friends see themselves as equals, and engage in less intense competition and fewer attempts at domination than is true for other peers.
v. Friends are more similar to each other than to other peers, and also express more mutual liking, closeness, and loyalty.
What role do friendships play in social and emotional development? Apparently, an important one. Friendships give children an opportunity to learn and practice social skills, skills needed for effective interpersonal relationships; and growing evidence suggests that such skills play an important role in children’s developing theory of mind.
In other words, the better their social skills, the more friendships children form; and friendships, in turn, facilitate children’s growing understanding of the fact that others may have thoughts quite different from their own. Friendships also contribute to emotional development, by giving children opportunities to experience intense emotional bonds with persons other than their caregivers and to express these feelings in their behavior.
When you were in school, did you ever encounter a bully someone who liked to push other children around either physically or verbally? If you were ever the victim of such a person, or even if you only witnessed bullies doing their thing, you probably realize that being a bully’s victim can have devastating effects.
In fact, research findings indicate that being victimized by bullies produces anxiety, depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem in children. And here is where friendship enters the picture. Recent findings indicate that children who have close friends are less likely to be victimized in this way.
In fact, having a friend may prevent bullies from picking even on children who show behaviors that would otherwise make them prime candidates for being bullied internalizing behaviors such as being worried and fearful, working alone, or appearing sad or close to tears. How does having a close friend help such children avoid being victimized by bullies? Apparently, close friends play a protective role telling the teacher when bullies swing into action, or even fighting back to protect their friends.
One thing children do with their friends obviously; is play with them; and this, unfortunately, sometimes leads to injuries. Can anything be done to reduce the frequency of play-related accidents?
In sum, through a wide range of experiences in school and especially through the formation of friendships, children expand their social and emotional skills and acquire the skills needed for forming close and lasting relationships with others. How important are such friendships? One psychologist, Judith Harris, has suggested that friends play a more important role in children’s social development than parents! This suggestion has stirred a heated controversy among developmental psychologists, so we’ll pause here to take a closer look at it.
In 1998, Judith Rich Harris published a book titled The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. The major thesis was captured by the statement on its cover: “Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More.” In other words, Harris contended, contrary to the prevailing view, that parents have little if any impact on their children’s development; rather, it is peers, friends, teachers, and others outside the home that exert the major effects. As you can imagine, Harris’s book stirred heated debate.
On one side of the controversy, some psychologists applauded her efforts to shift the weight of responsibility for children’s behavior away from their parents. Some parents, after all, raise their children with all the love and affection they can provide, only to see them turn out to be unpleasant, unethical, or even dangerous people. If, as was widely believed in the past, parents are the major influence on their children, then a burden of guilt for such outcomes falls on the shoulders of parents.
As evidence for her conclusions, Harris points too many studies indicating that identical twins reared in the same homes are no more similar to each other in personality and in other respects than are identical twins reared in different homes by different parents. Similarly, she notes that siblings (brothers and sisters) raised by the same parents are no more similar than are brothers and sisters raised in different homes and even no more similar to one another than to unrelated persons.
On the contrary, she suggests that any similarities between children of the same parents are due not to the parents’ influence but to genetic factors. Harris cites growing evidence that many traits such as impulsivity, aggressiveness, thrill-seeking tendencies, neuroticism, intelligence, friendliness, and shyness are due in part to genetic factors.
So even if children do resemble their parents in some respects, it is because of their inherited tendencies, not because of the parents’ efforts at child rearing. In fact, Harris notes, because of these built-in differences, parents can’t really use the same techniques with all of their children.
Rather, they adjust their parenting style to each child and are, in fact, “different parents” for each child. What really counts, Harris suggests, is peers and friends. These influence children throughout their development and produce effects that persist into adulthood; in contrast, parent’s influence, if it exists, occurs only within the home and dissipates as children grow up and lead increasingly independent lives.
Is Harris correct in these provocative assertions? Some findings seem to offer support for her view for instance, research evidence that whether children are raised by their parents or in day-care centers makes relatively little difference to their cognitive development, behavior problems, or self-esteem. If parents really mattered, wouldn’t their presence make a larger difference?
On the other side of the coin, however, is a very large body of findings suggesting that parents do indeed matter tremendously. First, recent findings from a large-scale research program (the NICHD Study of Early Child Care) suggest that whether children receive care from their mothers or from other persons in child-care centers does make a difference: Careful observation of interactions between mothers and their children during the first three years of life indicate that mothers who care for their infants themselves show greater sensitivity to their youngsters while their youngsters, in turn, show more positive engagement with their mothers, than is true for children who receive non-maternal child care.
The effects are small, but given that they were observed in a sample of more than twelve hundred children, they do seem to be real; and to the extent they are, they suggest that contrary to what Harris suggests, parents do indeed matter.
Similarly, studies of shyness indicate that although this trait is indeed influenced by genetic factors, parents play a key role in determining whether and to what extent children actually become shy. Shy children whose parents encourage them to try new things become less shy, while those whose parents do not make this effort often become painfully shy and withdrawn.
Similarly, when parents change their parenting style, children’s behavior often changes too. For instance, when parents learn and then practice skills such as being sensitive to their children’s emotions and actively work to help them solve emotional problems, the children often become more socially competent.
Finally, consider the excellent adjustment and achievement of children from many immigrant families in the United States. Despite the fact that they have moved to a new country and must learn a new language and a whole new style of life, such children tend to do extremely well; indeed, they often show fewer behavioral problems, higher self-esteem, and better school achievement than many native-born youngsters.
What accounts for these surprisingly positive results? Many experts attribute them to the impact of parents who emphasize the value of education, stress family members’ obligations to one another (“Don’t do anything to shame the family!”), and instill values promoting hard work and achievement. Do parents have any effect on such children? It seems absurd to suggest that they do not.
So where does all this leave us? With the following conclusions- By calling attention to the fact that parental influence is not all important, and by emphasizing the crucial role of peers and friends, Harris has indeed made an important contribution. But her contention that parents play no significant role in their children’s development that parents don’t matter, is too extreme and rests on foundations far too weak to be accepted by most psychologists or, I hope, by you.