Parenting and Child Development Theories

A brief overview of the learning theories from the last 150 years that have shaped the way psychologists believe people learn. Specific reference is given to Children. Theorists include:

  1. Freud (Psychoanalytic)
  2. Watson (Behaviourism)
  3. Piaget (Cognitive Development Theory)

This article also looks at basic parenting styles and chaining.

Freud: Psychoanalytic Theories

Freud is best known for his theories of the unconscious mind and the defense mechanism of repression and for creating the clinical practice of psychoanalysis for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient (technically referred to as an analysand) and a psychoanalyst. Freud is also renowned for his redefinition of sexual desire as the primary motivational energy of human life, as well as his therapeutic techniques, including the use of free association, his theory of transference in the therapeutic relationship, and the interpretation of dreams as sources of insight into unconscious desires.

Child development is driven by Unconscious Processes (Id, Ego, Superego)


  1. Birth: Traumatic beginning
  2. 0-1 Oral Stage
  3. 2-3 Anal Stage
  4. 3-4 Genital Stage
  5. 4-13 Latency Stage
  6. 14-21 Mature Genital Period

Parenting Implications of Freud’s Theory

  • Recognises Urges & Instinct
  • Recognises Normal Psychosexual Development
  • Opportunities for Instinctual Exploration but not Fixation
  • Nurturance and Protection in Early Years
  • Guidance for Problem Solving

WATSON: Behaviourism

Watson established the psychological school of behaviorism, after doing research on animal behavior. He also conducted the controversial Little Albert experiment. Later he went on from psychology to become a popular author on child-rearing.

With his behaviorism, Watson put the emphasis on external behavior of people and their reactions on given situations, rather than the internal, mental state of those people. In his opinion, the analysis of behaviors and reactions was the only objective method to get insight in the human actions.

PIAGET: Cognitive Development Theory

Piaget provided no concise description of the development process as a whole. Broadly speaking it consisted of a cycle (Assimilation and Accommodation):

  • The child performs an action which has an effect on or organizes objects, and the child is able to note the characteristics of the action and its effects.
  • Through repeated actions, perhaps with variations or in different contexts or on different kinds of objects, the child is able to differentiate and integrate its elements and effects. This is the process of reflecting abstraction (described in detail in Piaget 2001).
  • At the same time, the child is able to identify the properties of objects by the way different kinds of action affect them. This is the process of empirical abstraction.
  • By repeating this process across a wide range of objects and actions, the child establishes a new level of knowledge and insight. This is the process of forming a new cognitive stage. This dual process allows the child to construct new ways of dealing with objects and new knowledge about objects themselves.
  • However, once the child has constructed these new kinds of knowledge, he or she starts to use them to create still more complex objects and to carry out still more complex actions. As a result, the child starts to recognize still more complex patterns and to construct still more complex objects. Thus a new stage begins, which will only be completed when all the child’s activity and experience have been re-organized on this still higher level.

The four development stages are described in Piaget’s theory as:

  1. Sensorimotor stage: from birth to age 2. Children experience the world through movement and senses (use five senses to explore the world). During the sensorimotor stage children are extremely egocentric, meaning they cannot perceive the world from others viewpoints. The sensorimotor stage is divided into six substages: (1) simple reflexes; (2) first habits and primary circular reactions; (3) secondary circular reactions; (4) coordination of secondary circular reactions; (5) tertiary circular reactions, novelty, and curiosity; and (6) internalization of schemes.
  2. Preoperational stage: from ages 2 to 7 (magical thinking predominates. Acquisition of motor skills). Egocentrism begins strongly and then weakens. Children cannot conserve or use logical thinking.
  3. Concrete operational stage: from ages 7 to 12 (children begin to think logically but are very concrete in their thinking). Children can now conceive and think logically but only with practical aids. They are no longer egocentric.
  4. Formal operational stage: from age 12 onwards (development of abstract reasoning). Children develop abstract thought and can easily conserve and think logically in their mind.

Each system contains roles, norms and rules that can powerfully shape development. Need to understand the quantity and quality of each aspect of the child’s environment AND the child’s perspective of these sociocultural elements. These in turn shape, motivation, perception, actions and beliefs etc.