How Do Children Grow?
The Prenatal Stage
Childhood is a time of rapid growth and development, and nowhere is childhood development more pronounced than during the first early days of conception until birth. Just as 19th-century American poet-essayist Samuel Taylor said, "The history of man for 9 months preceding his birth is probably far more interesting and contains more stunning events than all the years that follow." This is the prenatal stage of development.
Fertilization (or conception) happens when the sperm cell, coming from the father, penetrates the ovum or the egg cell of the mother, thereby producing a zygote (or a fertilized egg). This zygote then undergoes major changes for approximately 42 weeks, and eventually transforms into a human baby waiting to be born in this world. These changes that take place inside the womb happen in different periods:
- The Germinal Period lasts for 1-2 weeks. The zygote undergoes 100-150 cell divisions as it attaches itself to the uterine wall.
- The Embryonic Period, which lasts for 3-8 weeks, is the time when the zygote transforms into an embryo. The neural tube forms, the eyes appear, and the heart cells begin to differentiate at 3 weeks. At 4 weeks, arm and leg buds emerge, the ears appear, and the embryo is about 0.2 inch long, while the head and neck are approximately half of the body's length. The heart starts to beat, arms and legs differentiate, the face begins to form, and the intestinal tract appears at 5-7 weeks. At 8 weeks, the embryo is approximately 1.6 in (4 cm) long.
- The Fetal Period, which lasts for 9-42 weeks, or up to about 9 months, is when the embryo finally becomes a fetus. It is the period when all the details of the body parts are perfected, and the fetus begins to move. Suckling reflex is observed at 20 weeks, when the fetus is about 7 in (18 cm) long. At 26 weeks, eyes and eyelids are completely formed, and a fine layer of hair covers the entire body. There is evidence of grasping reflex, and breathing starts, albeit irregular. Further changes and differentiations occur, until the fetus is about ready to be born.
Monthly prenatal check-ups are recommended for all pregnant women. This is because the doctor (the obstetrician) needs to monitor the health of the mother and the baby, and to prevent birth defects and other abnormalities, as most occur during this stage. The obstetrician typically recommends healthy lifestyle and diet to ensure that the baby is safe and well-nourished under the mother's care. However, not all mothers are willing to submit to the doctor's recommendations.
Teratogens, from the Greek word "tera", which means "monster", are agents that cause birth defects. Taking heroin during pregnancy oftentimes results to premature birth, low birth weight, some physical defects, breathing problems, and even death, depending upon the degree of consumption. Heavy drinking of alcohol during pregnancy results to a disorder called Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Babies born with this problem have a small head (microcephaly); possess defective limbs, face and heart; and have below-average intelligence. Psychological research studies also show that pre-term infants, or those born below 38 weeks of age, demonstrate some learning disorders, which are further strengthened with poverty. Low birth weight, however, can be easily remedied. Tiffany Field (1998, 2001), director of Touch Research Institute at Miami, Florida, found that massaging infants for 15 minutes, 3 times a day, results to 47% more weight gain than standard medical procedure. Even babies of cocaine-using and depressed mothers become more active and alert.
Childhood development starts prenatally. Parents who would want to have and deliver healthy babies should always keep in mind that whatever changes that take place during this stage are critical for the child's survival and have life-long effects.
Childhood Physical Development
Infancy is the time from birth up to 1 ½ to 2 years of age. At birth, all infants possess and demonstrate reflexes that are critical for their survival and for meeting their physical needs. Some reflexes disappear by 6-7 months, such as grasping, suckling, stepping and startle (or the Moro reflex); while other reflexes persist throughout life, such as holding one's breath and contracting the throat when submerged in water, coughing, blinking and yawning. Newborns demonstrate the grasping reflex when anything touches their palms; the suckling reflex when anything touches their lips or their mouth; the stepping reflex when their feet touch any hard surface; and the startle reflex, wherein the newborn quickly opens his/her arms as if wanting to embrace, in response to loud sounds and sudden movements.
Infancy is also a time of rapid motor development. According to Arnold Gesell (1934), infants demonstrate motor milestones at about the same time as all infants do because childhood motor development follows a genetic plan. Recent psychologists, however, recognize the role of motivation in how infants try to coordinate both their motor and perceptual skills; i.e., whenever infants try to reach for a toy, he/she is motivated to use both his/her muscles and visual perception accordingly.
Brain development, also, is not yet complete upon birth. Myelination, the process of encasing axons with fat cells, starts prenatally. Myelination of the visual cortex is complete during the first 6 months, while that of the auditory cortex finishes at around 4-5 years old. Other parts of the cerebral cortex develop even up to adolescence. Synaptic connection, or the process whereby dendrites branch out or spread, peaks in the visual cortex at 0.5-1 year old, in the frontal lobe at 3-6 years old, and in the auditory and prefrontal cortices at 4 years old. Stimulation is also essential, as pruning, or the process whereby weak synaptic connections are removed, occurs as we grow older.
|Age in Months||Motor Activity|
|1/2 month||Prone, lift head|
|2 months||Prone, chest up, use arms for support; roll over|
|3 months||Support some weight with legs|
|4 1/2 months||Sit without support|
|5 months||Stand with support|
|6 months||Pull self to stand|
|7 months||Walk using furniture for support|
|10 months||Stand alone easily|
|11 months||Walk alone easily|
Childhood Cognitive Development
During the early days when developmental psychologists were beginning to take interest on childhood cognitive development, only two perspectives were available - the behavioral perspective and the IQ-testing approach. However, Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, offered a different perspective on childhood cognitive development. According to Jean Piaget, children actively construct their cognitive world by giving meaning to the different kinds of information presented to them, and organizing them by means of schemas. This is why, as Piaget said, that instead of actually remembering anything, we reconstruct the past based on the schemas we hold.
There are two processes in which we use schemas: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is when we incorporate new information to any existing knowledge or schema; while accommodation is when we adjust our schemas according to any new information. For example, a child holds a schema for cause-and-effect. She then tried to switch the lights on and off. With this, the child assimilated this information of on-and-off in her cause-and-effect schema. The next day, she found the electric fan turned off, applied her schema, and then tried to turn it on. But she didn't know how to control her strength well, so she went past the #1 mark, straight up to fan strength #3. Instantly, she returned the switch to the opposite direction and realized some new things - she has accommodated "fan strength" to the cause-and-effect schema.
Aside from the concept of schema and the processes of assimilation and accommodation, Jean Piaget also came up with a theory called the Qualitative Stages of Cognitive Development. According to him, children undergo cognitive stages in which they process information differently from one level to another. In this sense, it doesn't matter how much information you know (quantity), but how well you process information (quality). The different stages of cognitive development are:
- Sensorimotor Stage (birth - 2 years old). The infant learns how to coordinate sensory experience with motor actions; for example, turning towards the origin of a sound, and reaching for a toy. At 8 months, the infant learns the concept of object permanence. Before, out of sight literally means "out of mind". With object permanence, the infant learns to look for a toy even after being hidden from view.
- Pre-operational Stage (2-7 years old). Thinking is characterized as symbolic and intuitive. Children begin to understand that the paper drawn and cut as an elephant is the same with a real elephant. They begin to symbolize what they see, hear and feel. The problem, however, is that children at this stage do not know how they know something; they just know it. Furthermore, thinking is egocentric; they are not able to see other people's perspectives.
- Concrete Operational Stage (7-11 years old). At this stage, children's thinking is both symbolic and operational. This means that they are able to represent objects by means of symbols, and then manipulate them back and forth. This is the reason why mathematical operations are oftentimes introduced at this stage. Children at this stage have already grasped the concept of conservation (or attribute permanence). For instance, a child at the pre-operational stage cannot understand that a clay shaped into a star and then molded into a rectangle have the same amount of clay. At the concrete operational stage, the child learns to coordinate different dimensions instead of a single focus. Consequently, the child develops classification skills. Three (3) cognitive tasks are commonly used to assess whether a child has already reached this stage - the beaker and clay test, identifying members in a family tree, and the 3-mountain task (developed by Piaget and Barber Inhelder in 1969), whereby the child chooses the correct perspective of the doll that travels around the 3 mountains.
- The last stage is the Formal Operational Stage, and is discussed in Adolescent Cognitive Development.
Jean Piaget's Cognitive Development Theory, however, is not free of criticisms. Renee Baillargeon (1997) found that some 4-month old infants already demonstrate object permanence. Mandler (1998) found that some 1 ½-year old children are already at the pre-operational stage. Information-processing psychologists say that the theory ignores individual differences, putting children into chunks of stages. Lastly, the theory neglects the influence of culture and education. Lev Vygotsky, another developmental psychologist, crafted the concept of cognitive apprentice, in which culture, as a collaborative learning mechanism, develops the cultural and cognitive competencies of the younger generation.
Childhood Socioemotional Development
Erik Erikson believes that humans are continually faced with different tasks and crises unique at each stage. How the individual solves or responds to each task can either lead to social and emotional competence or incompetence. These tasks are said to be cumulative, which means that an individual cannot successfully solve another task when the previous task was not properly dealt with. Erik Erikson's Psychosocial Stages are:
- Trust versus Mistrust (birth - 1 ½ year old). The infant learns to trust the world, and feel secured with responsive and sensitive care-giving. Without trust, the child develops fear and lack of confidence.
- Autonomy versus Shame/Doubt (1 ½ - 3 years old). The child develops free-will, and asserts independence with less-restraining and more-encouraging care-giving.
- Initiative versus Guilt (3 - 5 years old). The child learns to become responsible as he accomplishes his set goals. Without accomplishment, the child develops fear and anxiety when dealing with future problems.
- Industry versus Inferiority (6 - 10 years old). The child learns to become productive as he masters his intellectual abilities during the elementary school years.
Just like any other theories in Psychology, Erik Erikson's psychosocial stages have met critics. The problem with Erik Erikson's theory is that the data that served as its foundation rely solely on case studies. Furthermore, the theory neglects other developmental tasks in order to capture only a single task. No matter the criticism, Erik Erikson's psychosocial stages are still being used by many developmental psychologists as a guide to assess the socioemotional development of children, with limitations and careful scrutiny, of course.
Aside from Erik Erikson's psychosocial stages, developmental psychologists are underscoring the importance of other Critical Factors related to Childhood Socioemotional Development. These factors include attachment, temperament, parenting styles, divorce, the wider social world, morality and gender.
Attachment is the emotional bond between the infant and the caregiver. Although Sigmund Freud emphasized the importance of feeding and oral satisfaction, Harry Harlow (1958) found that monkeys tend to spend more time with a "clothed mother" even if they were fed with a "wired mother". This means that warmth facilitates attachment more than feeding. Konrad Lorenz (1965), a European zoologist, and one of the founders of ethology (the study of the function and evolution of behavior), found that there is a critical period for attachment. Goslings are imprinted to attach to whatever or whoever they interpret as their mother during the first 36 hours. Human infants, however, have longer and more flexible imprinting period than other animals. Once attached, human infants, according to developmental psychologist John Bowlby (1969), develop various tactics to keep the caregiver near, such as crying, clinging, smiling, cooing, crawling and walking/following the caregiver. These tactics intensify at around 6-7 months. Attachment can also either be secure or insecure. According to Mary Ainsworth (1979), secure attachment is characterized with trust, autonomy and initiative; while insecure attachment, demonstrated by avoiding, fearful and aggressive children, develops from insensitive care-giving. It is quite easy to categorize children as having either secure or insecure attachment with their caregivers, but it is important to note that children are resilient, and that other factors are also critical for their socioemotional development.
Temperament is the behavioral style and the characteristic way in which children respond. Most of the time, parents tend to think that all babies are the same, until their second child comes, and strategies that used to work are not as effective as before. Psychiatrists Alexander Chess and Stella Thomas (1977) categorized children under 3 types or clusters of temperaments, according to 3 different dimensions - emotionality (or the tendency to be distressed), sociability (preference for company over solitude), and activity level (or the tempo or rigor of movement). The easy child is generally in a positive mood, can quickly establish routines, and is adaptive to new experiences. He is less emotional, more sociable and very active. The difficult child is generally in a negative mood, follows irregular routines, and is slow to accept new experiences. He is highly emotional, less sociable and only slightly active. The slow-to-warm-up child displays low intensity mood, although somewhat negative, and is slow to adapting to new experiences. He is less emotional, less sociable and less active than his peers.
Diana Baumrind (1971, 1991) identified Four Styles of Parenting. Authoritarian Parenting is restrictive, punitive, limiting and controlling. Parents of this style value hard work, and they allow little verbal exchange with their children. Consequently, children of authoritarian parents have low initiative and are socially incompetent. They have poor communication skills, and they often compare themselves negatively with their peers. Authoritative Parenting is warm, nurturant and only partially controlling. Parents of this style encourage independence, and allow extensive verbal give-and-take with their children. Consequently, children of authoritative parents are self-reliant, socially competent and socially responsible. Neglectful Parenting is characterized with lack of involvement on the activities of the children. Parents of this style rarely talk to their children and they spend more time doing things other than taking care of them. Children brought in this style perceive themselves as less important than their parents' other priorities. They are unable to handle their independence well, have poor self-control, and are socially incompetent. Indulgent Parenting is characterized with lack of limitation. Children brought under this style have poor self-control, lack respect for other people, and are socially incompetent. Although parenting styles imply a kind of child indoctrination, it is important to note that parenting styles also result from reciprocal socialization - Children's temperament also affect the way parents respond to them.
Divorce is a common stressor for most children. 25% of children from divorced families have adjustment problems (characterized with aggression and/or depression), compared to 10% of those in non-divorced families. Diminishing factors include harmony between the divorced parents, authoritative parenting, good schools and easy temperament. (Side information: Compared to other industrialized nations, the USA has the highest divorce rate, followed by Sweden, Canada, Germany, UK, Australia, France and Japan.)
Perhaps the family is the primary social world of children. However, as they are exposed more and more outside the home, they become aware of the wider social world. They begin to learn that some ethnic minorities experience bias, prejudice and discrimination; that many people are stroked with poverty, while few are astonishingly rich and live in luxury; and that different cultures practice different styles of child-rearing. For example, grandmothers and siblings have important care-giving roles in the African Hausea culture; agricultural societies encourage older siblings to be responsible to their younger siblings while their parents are out in the field to work; and in the Israeli Kibbutzim culture, groups are tasked to take care of their youth. Learning about other people's cultures and practices widens their view of the social world beyond the limits of their homes.
Morality is the totality of our thoughts and feelings on the principles and values that we hold or believe in. Morality becomes important when children start to experience life outside the home. Famous developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg formed the Theory of Moral Development after investigating how people of various ages respond to his 11 samples of moral dilemmas. He believes that morality occurs in various levels and stages, and that these levels and stages are sequential and age-related. He also said that children belong to the pre-conventional level, wherein rewards and punishments are the primary concerns.
As children grow older, they become aware of the differences between males and females, and they begin to learn to adopt male- and female-"appropriate" behaviors.
Positive Psychology and Childhood Development
Positive Psychology aims to realign negative trends on psychological research, including research on childhood development. Once, there was a widespread belief circling among parents that playing Mozart compositions to their children increases their IQ levels, that 1-minute bedtime stories enhance their children's language skills, or that what parents do don't really matter at all. Although there are some evidences that support these, such practices foster a kind of Quick-Parenting Approach. Positive Psychology reasserts that nothing beats a parenting strategy wherein parents pour out maximum time and effort to raise their children. For instance, Emotion-Coaching Parents, who monitor, teach and provide guidance to their children for dealing effectively with their emotions, produce children who can easily tune down their negative emotions, who have the ability to focus, have larger attention span, and fewer behavioral problems, versus children of emotion-dismissing parents.
Positive Psychology also offers Strategies for Raising a Moral Child:
- Be warm and supportive, versus punitive.
- Use reasoning when disciplining your child. Tell him/her why his/her behavior needs to be disciplined.
- Think of every mistake that your child commits as an opportunity for you to teach him/her about your perspectives and feelings.
- Involve your child in family decision-making. Even if the child will not contribute much, at least ask him/her of his/her opinions or let him/her follow through your conversations.
- Be a model. Teach your child what is moral behavior and moral thinking by showing them yourself.