Is Children’s Development a Universal Staged Process or a Social and Cultural Process?
There are three main approaches to child development, the scientific, the social constructionist and the applied approach. Each of these approaches look at children’s development from a different stand point. I will go on to explore each approach in turn and how they can help us answer the above question.
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The scientific approach to child development seeks to explain the facts about child development. It does this by devising theories which are then tested through observations and experiments. A classic example of this is Jean Piaget (1896-1890) who was one of the most influential theorists in child development.
Piaget built up a theory about how children’s thinking developed; this is usually referred to as his theory on Cognitive development. He proposed that children do not gradually increase their thinking capacity but that they go through a series of stages or transformations in their thinking. Piaget (1932) proposed that there are 4 main stages in a children’s development; sensor-motor (approximately 0-2yrs), pre-operational (approximately 2-6 yrs), concrete operational (approximately 6-12 yrs) and formal operational (12 yrs and over).
His approach can be seen today in how the curriculum is sequenced in schools and in the rise of children’s centres across the UK. Piaget used many similar experiments to support his theory. Examples are, children were asked to compare balls of plasticine after one had been rolled into a sausage; another was for children to compare rows of counters where one row had been stretched into a longer line. In each case the younger children appeared to reason that the amount of counters or plasticine had also changed. (Light and Oates, 1990, PP. 101-106).
He was trying to show that children aren’t less cognitively developed than adults but they actually think differently. In many of Piaget’s experiments he tried to show how & at what stage do children see things from another’s point of view. One very famous experiment was a construction of a model of 3 mountains. The largest gray and snow capped, the middle sized brown with a red cross on it and the smallest was green with a house on top. Children were then asked to sit on one side of the model with a doll at the opposite side. They were asked to arrange three pieces of cardboard shaped like the mountains.
They they were asked to chose the doll’s view from 10 pictures and finally what the doll would see from other view points. Children younger than about 7 were unable to see things from another view point. Piaget’s claims were bold and his theories and experiments have been criticized by developmental theorists. Developmental theorists now recognise that a child’s development is far more complex than the 4 stages Piaget supported. Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) used Piaget’s stage of development as a starting point to suppose a theory about children’s moral development.
He used moral dilemmas to study how children develop the capacity to make moral judgments. Kholberg (Kholberg 1967) proposed that there are 6 stages or levels to a child’s moral development, these are grouped into 3 levels with 2 stages in each; preconventional, conventional and principled. It is extremely rare to progress back in stages and each stage must be completed to move onto the next as each stage is more complex than the last. In Kholberg’s experiments children were given moral dilemmas about right and wrong to discover at what stage a child reaches different levels of cognitive capacity.
Kholberg and his team started testing 75 boys in the US and went back and tested them at intervals as they grew into adulthood. However, this was not a cross section of US children as no girls were tested. The data from these scientific studies can be used to assess when a child knows right from wrong. These and similar techniques are used today to carry out assessments for courts deciding whether a child can be held criminally responsible. The social constructionist view of child development looks at the ways that childhood is experienced in different situations and circumstances.
Different cultures, religions and social economic conditions have different expectations and beliefs around childhood. These have also been different throughout history. For example in Victorian Britain, children were expected to work in the home, field, streets or in factories. However in modern Britain we expect our children to spend much of their childhood learning at school. Another example is, Maya’s (U212 Video 1, band 1) experiences of childhood in the poor area Chittagong being different to the twins Yasir and Yamin’s experiences in middle class Chittagong.
Each have different expectations of their roles within society according to their social boundaries, gender, family and beliefs. Central to the social constructionist approach is the concept of competing discourses of childhood. A discourse is a particular way of thinking or a particular view point that is influenced by our gender, language, history, beliefs, experiences and social boundaries. There are numerous discourses but a romantic discourse sees children as inherently good; a child would only do terrible things if damaged in some way.
Contrary to this is the puritanical discourse which sees the child as inherently evil, doing evil things because they are wicked and need punishing. Using the social constructionist view allows us to recognise that a child who is a killer can be seen through these two very different discourses either needing therapy or needing punishment. Social constructionists are not about applying facts and time frames to child development, neither is it just about there being different ‘realities’ created by the way people think and make sense of children.
It goes far deeper by exploring what these different ‘realities mean in terms of our moral consequences, what we expect, what we believe our outcomes can be and more importantly what our outcomes can’t be, what is hidden from our view and what we are prevented from doing by our constructed society. Rex Stainton Rogers (1992) says of a socially constructed world: ‘But what about childhood?… For example. The children of Longwitten have come to understand that they ‘have to go to school’, that the human made ‘thing’ down the road is a school, that certain activities belong in he classroom, and others in the playground, and so on. The social world works because we share common understandings. ’ Stanton Rogers says (1992) that it is taken for granted that children will go to school and that this appears normal and the right thing to do in our socially constructed world, and that sometimes we fail to question or imagine anything else outside of this. The third approach is the applied approach. This focuses on practical issues of childhood such as how should we parent out children, what support and services might we need in order to protect them.
The applied approach relies on both the scientic and social constructionist approaches when applying theory and research to social policy, the law and professional practise. I have already looked at the romantic and puritan discourses. The romantic discourse believes that children are naturally good, therefore children who commit crime should be rehabilitated which Stuart Asquith (1996) describes as the Welfare model and the puritan discourse the ‘Justice’ model. The welfare model looks at children who do wrong as doing so because they have been mistreated / deprived or having been disadvantaged in some way.
These children need nurturing and need our care to overcome these disadvantages. The Justice model looks as children as being responsible when they reach an age where they can be held partially accountable for their crimes. These children need to be treated as criminals and punished accordingly. Asquith’s applied approach draws on both the scientific aspects of children’s moral development and the social constructionist view on how culture and society affect us as humans.. In looking at all three approaches it is clear that they are all complex and interplay greatly with each other.
The scientific approach concentrates on identifying universal stages of children’s development. These are a series of stages which all children pass through from immaturity to maturity. The danger is that these can result in a picture of a universal child which is mainly based on a western culture. There is scientific research to determine when a child can be morally responsible for a crime and scientific research has produced lots of data on what reformatory regimes appear to work for young offenders. But we must remember that the child is not a passive participant in this research.
The outcomes will depend on both the researchers and child’s social constructions of their worlds. In contrast the social constructionists’ view is that immaturity and maturity are complex constructs that we have made for ourselves depending on a whole range of outside influences, these will be different for each one of us. Children do not develop autonomously from culture and society and take many different routes to maturity depending on many things including gender, culture, religion, and their social and economic circumstances in which they find themselves.