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Eventually children are able to move beyond self-focused thinking. At about seven years of age, they reach the stage of concrete operations, when thought processes become more stable and consistent. Children at the concrete operations stage can understand the principle of invariance (certain matters of space and weight are in some sense unchangeable regardless of the shape). For example, children at the concrete operations stage understand that the water’s volume does not change, no matter the shape or size of the container it is poured into. Children at this stage are also avid collectors since they love to classify and arrange their priceless objects on the basis of color, size, shape, and every other aspect imaginable. This reflects an expanded reasoning ability.

At the formal operations stage, children understand causality and can perform scientific experiments. By using deductive reasoning, they formulate hypotheses, carry out experiments, and reach conclusions based on evidence. At this point in children’s lives, there is an increased concern for basic values and truths. Formal operations is the teleological trajectory for Piaget. The highest level of human cognitive flourishing is described as the attainment of formal operational thought.

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Object Relations Theory: The Child as an Object Needing Love Even though object relations theory is rooted in psychoanalytic theory, it is

useful in understanding the child’s development of self within the context of parent-child relationships. Object relations theory emphasizes the development of the self or personality within the context of an infant-caregiver relationship. This is actually the strength of object relations theory compared with classic Freudian approaches. An important assumption of Freud’s understanding of human nature is that drives are satiated by nonspecific objects. This means that any mother could fulfill the drives of any infant. Object relations theory contends that the early interactions of a child and its most intimate caregiver, usually the mother, shape



and form personality. That is, the specific mother-child relationship uniquely influences how the child develops.

In object relations theory, there is a shift from biological to interpersonal determinism and a corresponding change from an internal to a relational structural model. Melanie Klein (1932) is a transition figure (Greenberg and Mitchell 1983) in the development of object relations theory and practice. She replaced biological drives with psychological and relational drives. Her work brought about a major paradigmatic shift from biological determinism to a perspective that took into consideration the significance of interpersonal interaction.

The core element in Klein’s theory consists of the internalization by the child of its relationship with the primary caregiver(s). Klein’s theory has similarities with Freud’s drive theory, but she changes the essential nature of the drives. Klein posits the essential relatedness of human beings; children are essentially relational in nature (Ogden 1990). Children are born with drives that inherently have objects that can satisfy the drives (Greenberg and Mitchell 1983; Ogden 1990). Klein sees early relationships between mother and infant as primarily an internal event for the child, who cannot differentiate between the experience and the meaning of the experience (Ogden 1990). “Klein conceives of early infantile experience as nonsubjective (that is, devoid of a sense of ‘I-ness’)” (Ogden 1990, 27).

Once internalized, the internal object can bring the child comfort or pain. No matter how well the caregiver interacts with the infant, the infant most likely will internalize an object with some negativity. The internalized object then becomes an organizing principle for future interactions. If the child internalizes a good or safe object, he or she will feel secure and will be able to form positive relationships. If the child internalizes an anxious or hateful object, he or she will anticipate having negative experiences in other relationships.

Donald Winnicott’s (1971) version of object relations theory strongly emphasizes that the mother or the caregiver is almost solely responsible for influencing the development of the self. He refers to the “holding environment,” since a mother provides a physical and psychological space where the baby experiences a sense of well-being. In this secure holding environment, the infant begins to gain a sense of self and other (Grolnick 1990). The mother as an internal object provides a sense of security and safety. If the holding environment is adequate (good enough), the infant’s needs are satisfied. A crucial element of this holding environment is how mothers respond to and reflect the experiences of their infants. Parents attuned to the baby’s physical and emotional needs provide the foundation for trust and security. The good-enough mother can also find a



balance between empathetic gratification of the infant’s needs and satisfying her own needs. Parents attuned to the child’s needs mirror the child’s behavior and feelings. For example, a mother is mirroring her child when she produces the same sounds of delight the infant produces when he is lifted into his mother’s arms. Rather than ignoring or overwhelming the child, an appropriate response provides an authentication and validation of a child’s sense of self.

Transitional space (psychological space) emerges through the process of internalizing the presence of an emotionally attuned but nondemanding parent. The child who has internalized the parent as a good object has the capacity to be alone. Sometimes a transitional object (a special blanket or stuffed animal) can help the child internalize the mother. By symbolizing the calming presence of the caregiver, transitional objects allow toddlers to feel secure even when they are alone.

Transitional space allows for the expression of the true self. The true self is the authentic, spontaneous self, aware and comfortable with his or her uniqueness. The false self is a result of a lack of transitional space. The major contributors to the false self can be seen in the extremes: absent parents or impinging parents.

In summary, a good holding environment includes a present, mirroring, non- impinging mother; transitional space; and a fostering of the ability to be alone. Transitional space is created by the nondemanding, good-enough mother in a holding environment where she mirrors the child in a non-impinging way.

Social Learning Theory: The Child as Learner During the past half century, behaviorism has been shaped by the creative

research and writing of B. F. Skinner. Skinner (1953) developed what is known as operant conditioning, which is a modification of classical conditioning. Rather than using a stimulus to bring about a desired response, Skinner’s model emphasizes reinforcement—that is, a system of rewards for desired behavior and punishments for unacceptable actions. The basic principle here is that consequences shape and maintain behavior. Operant conditioning has proven useful in bringing about changes in behavior.

Social learning theory emphasizes learning by observation rather than through direct reinforcement (Bandura 1977). Children learn how to behave by observing the consequences of the behavior of other people. For example, children learn not to hit other children on the playground primarily by observing that children who do hit others experience negative consequences, such as getting hurt themselves or being reprimanded by a teacher.

Social learning theory also observes that children learn from the modeling of parents and important others in their lives. As role models, parents influence their



children in both positive and negative ways. Comparison of direct learning (reinforcement) and indirect learning (observation and imitation of modeled behavior) reveals that modeling is more effective. The application is obvious: effective parents are those who model the behaviors they want their children to implement.

The idea that learning comes through the child’s observation and interpretation of behavior implies a self-consciousness and self-determination within the child. Change, then, can be activated both by environmental stimuli and by the child, a discovery that has enhanced learning theory.

In Albert Bandura’s concept of reciprocal determinism, three factors reciprocally influence one another: behavior, the person (i.e., one’s cognitive makeup), and the environment. Children not only change their environment but are being changed by it. Children do not simply react to their parents but act upon them and influence how they parent. The colicky baby elicits a different parenting response than the easy baby does, just as the way the parent deals with the baby affects the baby’s response. Although social learning theory doesn’t stress innate or biological factors, it views children as actively involved in the construction of their environment and thus in their own developmental process.

Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory: Parenting as Scaffolding In the 1930s, in forming a sociocultural theory of child development, the

Russian theorist Lev Vygotsky concentrated on the relational influences on children as they live in a sociocultural context. Vygotsky paved the way for understanding how culture affects development and how language serves as the primary vehicle for the transmission of cultural information. Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development is especially helpful in understanding how a child masters a task. The zone contains the range of tasks that a child cannot yet accomplish without the active assistance of parents and others (Vygotsky 1986). The expansion of the child’s skill comes through interpersonal relationships since children’s immediate potential cannot be magically realized on their own. The child learns new skills each step of the way in the context of relationship support until he or she masters a specific task.

The child is a collaborator, learning new skills through interactions with more cognitively advanced people. Parents must create what Vygotsky refers to as appropriate scaffolding. Those who provide an adequate scaffold (not too much or too little support and control) provide an optimal learning environment. The scaffold extends just slightly beyond the child’s abilities but never so far beyond as to create unreasonable expectations that end in failure. The concept of scaffolding is similar to the empowerment principle, according to which



guidance, assistance, and support are given so the child reaches his or her full potential and mastery. When parents do too much or “take over,” the child is disempowered and feels inadequate and dependent. When the child accomplishes a task on his or her own, the parent wisely removes the scaffolding. The child is now competent and confident and has no need to be dependent on the parents.

Children require a high level of interpersonal commitment as they develop. It follows that abused or neglected children often develop negative representations of the self. They have not had sufficient support or scaffolding to reach full maturity. In fact, they need to develop protective strategies for self-survival. Abuse frequently results in the child internalizing the social influences of shame, violence, or emotional abuse that lead to negativity toward others, such as bullying, delinquency, or violence.

Social Ecology: Child Development in the Village The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” is verified in a social

ecological theory of child development. Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) suggests that child development is best understood within four increasingly encompassing ecological systems. At the smallest, most specific level is the microsystem, the parent-child relationship. Beyond the microsystem is the mesosystem, consisting of social environments such as a child’s kindergarten, Sunday school class, neighborhood playgroup, and so on. Each of these settings in and of itself is a microsystem, but the collection of all these microsystems and the relationships between them constitute the mesosystem for the toddler.

Children are also influenced by what occurs in the social environment beyond the settings in which they directly participate. This constitutes their exosystem. When both parents are employed outside the home, the child is affected because of parental involvement in these work environments. The child’s exosystem consists of all those environments, even when he or she is not a direct participant, because, even from a distance, they affect the parents or the siblings.

Encompassing all three of these systems is the macrosystem, best understood as the wider cultural level. Macrosystemic influences are such things as popular culture, the mass media, the government, and moral and religious beliefs and practices in a culture.

According to Bronfenbrenner, “The ecology of human development involves the scientific study of the progressive, mutual accommodation between an active, growing human being and the changing properties of the immediate settings in which the growing person lives, as this process is affected by relations between these settings, and by the larger contexts in which the settings are embedded” (1979, 21).



A social ecological understanding of child development complements the child development approaches that have a more limited focus. Parenting is best understood as part of a web of social relationships that affect the development of a child. As children mature, they become increasingly involved in a variety of settings as they learn to adapt to new environments, roles, and relationships in the process of developmental growth.

A Critique of Child Development Theories in Light of Biblical Assumptions Although it is beyond the scope of this chapter to present a complete synthesis of the child development theories discussed, it will be helpful to briefly critique them on the basis of how well they comport with biblical teachings on being human. We shall build our critique around three biblical doctrines: (1) humans are in a state of constant internal tension: though created in God’s image, they have fallen into sin; (2) humans are active agents who have the capacity to make choices; and (3) humans are created for community.

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