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Child development is often categorized according to a specific set of sequential stages. Humans are categorical thinkers, and so we tend to take complex, multifaceted things and break them apart, grouping them under different labels in an attempt to better make sense of the world. Needless to say, a number of leaders in the field of child psychology and human development have applied this categorical thinking to summarize children’s growth.

Problems with common theories

Let me state for the record that I don’t believe in promoting the idea of ‘child development stages,’ for a number of reasons. First, they are gross oversimplifications. Child development scientists have picked out specific traits to focus on and then organized them according to their own ideas of how they think it all fits together. But this process is more art than science. It’s a lot like drawing constellations in the stars: Sure, if you pick out certain stars and draw them with a particular image in mind, you can come up with the constellation Orion–an elaborate, arrow-wielding warrior in the sky. But you could also connect those same random dots in a variety of different ways to come up with an entirely different conclusion, or direct your attention toward different stars altogether and find that a different image jumps out at you. Attempts to organize the complexities of child development into specific stages with pre-ordained tasks is a lot like this process of creating constellations in the stars, and it tends to tell us more about the researchers who came up with a particular theory than it tells us about children.

Second, organizing child development according to stages tends to give the impression that certain things only occur during certain ages. This simply isn’t how child growth and development actually occurs. The truth of the matter is that children are constantly developing in all areas at all times. Scientists have observed that certain aspects see more robust growth at certain ages, and used these observations to come up with their theories about stages of child development. But this distorts the broader picture. It’s not as though social growth is non-existent until a certain age and then it suddenly emerges. Children are growing in all aspects of their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development from infancy onward, and the ‘stages’ outlined by child development experts simply represent the presence of +more+ of a particular trait at certain times than at others.

Finally, some of the theories promoted by the titans in the field of child psychology and early childhood education have been proven to be flat out wrong. Piaget, for all his brilliance, was so far off in some of his assumptions that traits he believed couldn’t develop until adolescence (such as empathy) are now known to be present to some degree in infancy. So a lot of what is taught regarding the stages of child development is flat-out wrong.

That said, colleges continue to teach these stages of child development, and they are frequently referred to throughout literature as well. So we wanted to help readers understand what these stages mean while providing a more well-rounded picture about their problems and limitations.

Erik Erickson’s 8 Stages of Human Development

Erik Erikson went beyond childhood to develop a theory about human development from birth to old age. Erikson was a bit more open and accommodating in his stages of development than Piaget was. Yet his theories still suffer from the same problems previously discussed. This is especially evident in the rather arbitrary and narrow terms he chose to define and describe each stage of development as contained inside the parenthesis on the right:

Stage 1: Infancy (Trust versus mistrust)

Erikson believed the primary task facing an infant was to develop trust in caregivers and the safety and security of their surroundings. Today we refer to this concept as “attachment.” Attachment is certainly the most important task, but it’s far from all that is going on at this age.

Stage 2: Toddlerhood, ages 1-3 (Autonomy versus doubt & shame)

Erikson defined this period by the conflict between a desire for autonomy and competence and the failure that leads to shame or self-doubt. Or in human terms, kids strive for a sense of control, challenging their caregivers while remaining in a helpless, dependent state. However, the idea that this dual state leads to a psychological complex involving shame and doubt is something there’s no evidence for.

Stage 3: Preschool, ages 4-5 (Initiative versus guilt)

During the preschool years children are learning to engage their surroundings and live up to the expectations of others. In other words, children become more socialized, learning to function as part of a broader human unit. Though once again, there’s little evidence of any guilt complex Erikson seems to suggest.

Stage 4: Preadolescence, ages 6-13 (Industriousness versus inferiority)

Children start to take more initiative for their own activities. They enter school, make friends, desire more autonomy and grow more competent. They experience pride in their accomplishments and shame when they don’t measure up. Again, there’s nothing inaccurate about this description, other than the non-existent psychological complex Erikson assigns to this stage.

Stage 5: Adolescence (Identity versus confusion)

The primary task of adolescence is for youth to form their own sense of self-identity. This period is defined by the preoccupation with this task and the confusion that comes from these struggles. Kids must fit in yet stay unique; break away while seeking attachment. Of all Erikson’s stage descriptions this one hits closest to the mark, and this time the psychological conflicts he describes are very real and fairly accurate.

Piaget’s Stages of Child Development

Piaget was a brilliant developmental psychologist, but many of his ideas annoy me. Piaget theories tend to “talk down” to children, treating them rather like incompetent amoebas trapped within their developmental limitations. He tends to paint children inside a box and focus on certain attributes to the exclusion of others. They are said to be altogether egocentric, lacking in empathy, and are defined by what they can’t do as opposed to what they can. Modern science is also showing kids possess many of the traits and capabilities Piaget thought them impossible to possess at such a young age.

Phase 1: The sensorimotor stage (Ages 0-2)

In the earliest stage of life, children are highly sensory oriented, exploring the world through touch, taste, sight, smell and sound. Infants and toddlers explore the world by reaching out to grab at things and put it to their mouth to taste or gnaw on. Infants are born with a strong suckling instinct, and apply this skill not just to bottles and breasts but to rattles, fingers, hair, and just about anything else they can get their mouth on. The primary developmental task for this age is seen as gaining mastery and control of their motor functions.

Piaget was certainly right in saying that sensory exploration is a powerful mode of learning at this age, and that learning to develop muscle coordination is an important task. But he tended to focus on these attributes to the exclusion of others. Babies aren’t just like empty sensory machines; the equivalent of human jellyfish blindly exploring the world around them. There is also cognitive, social and emotional learning taking place.

Phase 2: The preoperational stage (ages 2 to 6)

Language emerges during this stage, and grows by leaps and bounds. Children begin thinking about the world using their imagination, and their thinking grows more sophisticated. Yet according to Piaget they remain rather handicapped in terms of abstract thought and critical thinking skills. Piaget believed kids this age lacked the ability to think in abstract concepts. For instance, they might identify a particular toy as their favorite but can’t tell you what +types+ of toys they like most.

Kids this age are said to have an inability to judge size, weight, or volume. For example, one classic experiment by Piaget involves showing children two clear containers: A tall skinny one and a shorter, wider one. You then take two identical clear cups of water, each filled to the exact same level. Show kids the two equal cups of water, and pour each one into each of the containers and then ask them which container holds more water. Younger kids tend to make the mistake of assuming the taller container holds more water, because to their mind’s eye, taller = more. Around the age of 6 or 7 kids stop making this mistake and recognize that both containers hold the same amount.

Yet not all younger children make this mistake, and not all older ones get it right. Moreover, preschoolers can readily grasp this concept once you teach it to them. So once again it’s an interesting experiment that reveals the inner workings of young minds, but Piaget’s mistake was to try to extrapolate findings such as this into bold and overbroad declarations about the limitations of a child’s mind at this age. Children show the ability to engage in abstract thought and critical thinking in many other ways, so such broad generalizations tend to mislead more than they educate.

Phase 3: Concrete operational stage (ages 7-11)

At this stage children are able to think and reason in more complex terms. They start to focus more on how and why things happen and begin to understand more about causal connections.

They are able to attach more than one symbolic idea to a particular object or event. “If, for example,” says John Macionis, “you say to a child of five, ‘Today is Wednesday,’ she might respond, ‘No, it’s my birthday!’ indicating that she can use just one symbol at a time. But an older child at the concrete operational stage would be able to respond, ‘Yes, and it’s also my birthday.'” (Macionis, 2009, p. 75)

But again, I’ve known 3-year-olds who could easily understand that today could be both Wednesday and their birthday at the same time. So while these observations may be generally true, they tend to underestimate the cognitive abilities of younger children.

Phase 4: The Formal Operational Stage (Ages 12 & up)

The formal operational stage is when Piaget believed a child’s brain finally reached its full potential and functioned similar to the brain of an adult. They are now given the ability to think and reason in abstract terms. “For example, if you ask a child of seven, ‘What would you like to be when you grow up?’ you will get a concrete response such as ‘a teacher.’ But most teenagers can consider the question more abstractly and might respond, ‘I would like a job that helps others.'” (Macionis, 2009, p. 75)

Children this age are able to understand metaphors and think critically. Piaget believed that thinking on the basis of thought alone as opposed to experience only began to occur at around 11 or 12 years of age. It’s one of his more puzzling assertions, considering young children routinely fantasize, story tell, and wonder about things for which they have no direct experience with.

Piaget was a brilliant researcher, and he gave us things like constructionism and other great insights into how the child’s mind thinks and develops. But he fell into the trap of trying to turn these insights into absolutes, while rigidly pinning them to particular age groups. In doing so, I believe he seriously underestimated children’s capabilities. For example, the ability to empathize and relate to what another is feeling, which Piaget suggested didn’t arise until age 11 or 12, has now been shown to be present in infants as young as 6 months. Modern neuroscience has also shown the idea of these clear cut stages to be dubious, showing, for example, that the adolescent brain actually becomes more disorganized and regresses a bit before growing into maturity. So a fifth grader may have a more mature mind than a 14-year-old.

Our own stages of development chart

If you’re looking for a more all-encompassing, less rigid overview of growth and development and the typical sequential stages it takes, refer to our ages and stages of child development page.

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