URBS 4/581—Selected Topics:  Growing Up in Cities

Theories of Development—No one is born completely formed.  Just as the human body goes through major changes in the progress toward adulthood, so does the human personality.  What are the stages and dimensions of psychological development toward adulthood?

a.       Overview:  In our culture, childhood (in retrospect) is imagined to have been a time of innocence, both for the individual (all children are born good, and fall from grace later) and for society (society and life were so much simpler “back in the day”).  The English critic, Raymond Williams, wrote a book about this (Country and City).  At his father’s funeral, he overhead people saying how much simpler things were back when his father was a boy.  So Williams went back to the literature of his father’s youth, and found the authors writing about how things were so much simpler back in their fathers’ time.  He traced an unbroken line of reminiscence of “simpler times” going all the way back to Piers Plowman (and he speculated that he could have traced it all the way back to Adam and Eve, had the literature still been extant).  


But the scholarly literature is much more nuanced.  Each stage of development has its own agenda, its own typical challenges and failures and triumphs; life never is, nor ever was, “simple.” 


b.      Key theorists

                                                               i.      Sigmund Freud (1856-1939):  Freud’s is primarily a theory of emotional development.  In  his theory, the child is born with a mass of instinctual energy (which he called the “id”—Latin for “it”).  The work of society is to tame—break, if you will—this animal instinct and civilize it, for it is by civilizing that we become human (in the psychological sense).  The uncivilized Wild Boy of Averyon, while genetically human, was not a human person. 

This process of civilizing works through guilt (externally imposed rules) and shame (internalizing those rules).  The realization that there are rules that one must follow—in other words, learning—Freud calls the “superego” (not in the sense of “superior ego,” but in the sense of “that which stands above the ego”). 

The result of the taming of the raw animal spirit by the discipline of civilizing rules (i.e., the conflict between the id and the superego) is the “ego” (Latin for “I”).  The ego is the conscious self—batted about between the id (raw emotion and desires) and the superego (sense of responsibility and guilt) and trying to make sense of it all.

This process follows a natural and normal (albeit painful and chaotic) process. 

·        In the beginning, the child simply acts to satisfy needs and wants—when hungry, the baby cries until fed; when full, the baby fills the diaper.  Freud calls this the “oral” stage, since the major activity at this time focuses on the mouth (eating, crying, etc.)  The child at the breast does not differentiate between the mother and the self—it is all one thing.

·        In time, the mother (for Freud, it is always the mother who first socializes the child, since it is the mother who nurses the child) teaches the child s/he needs  to learn self-control—to wait to get fed, to control bowels and bladder, etc. Freud calls this the “anal” stage, since learning to control the bowels is the difficult, but ultimately gratifying, task of this stage.  In this stage, the “good” mother of the oral stage becomes a “bad” mother who frustrates the child’s desires to persevere in oral-stage satisfactions.

·        Having developed a superego (having learned control), and therefore having developed an ego (a sense of the “I”—and the “not-I”), the it dawns on the child that there are other people in the world than oneself—not only is there a mother who is sometimes good and sometimes evil, but there is a father who is trying to get between the child and the mother. This jealousy of others Freud calls the “Oedipal” stage (after the Greek story of Oedipus, the King of Thebes, who killed his father and married his mother), after the primordial experience of jealousy that every boy child experiences (initially, Freud did not pay much attention to the female side of this equation, although Freud and his students later dubbed it the “Electra” complex, after the Greek story of the young women who revenged her father’s death by killing her mother).

·        Having learned to control the physical body and to control his emotions, the boy passes into a stage that Freud called “latency” (because there are no major crises).  This is a stage of consolidating the gains of the previous stages, and deepening one’s knowledge.  This is the stage of “childhood,” and continues until the stage of puberty, when the child explores and develops an adult form of sexual behavior and expression.

I have, of course, oversimplified.  But this gives the broad outlines, which will make it easier to make sense of the reading from Freud’s lectures.

                                                             ii.      Erik Erikson (1902-1994):  Erikson started out as a student of Freud, but broke with him fairly early on. Erikson was more interested in the social side of human development (in fact, some would argue that the interpretation I gave above of Freud sounds suspiciously like Erikson).  He described 8 stages in the development of “man” (nonsexist language had not become common yet when Erikson was writing), going from birth through old age and death.  Each of the stages is marked by a specific “task” which has to be mastered—or, failing that, will carry forward a basic personality weakness into each of the following stages until the missed task is finally (if ever) completed.  As a result, Erikson’s stages carry both a “positive” and a “negative” face.  It is also significant that Erikson sees the process of development continuing throughout adulthood (although each stage takes longer to complete), rather than stopping with the resolution of puberty (as in Freud).


Erikson’s description of the eight stages (in the assigned reading) is written in fairly clear language, and you do not need me restate it.


                                                            iii.      Jean Piaget (1896-1980):  Piaget was a Swiss psychologist (he started out as a naturalist) who was interested in the stages of cognitive development.  He began almost all of his work by observing his own children as they developed (he was trained as a naturalist, remember).  He used those observations to develop hypotheses, which he subjected to “thought experiments” (“experience pour voir,” as he called them in French—“experiments to see”) and then turned into classic experimental designs with random samples of children.  With Freud and Erikson, it was possible to move from one stage into another without necessarily having solved the challenges posed by the prior stage.  In Piaget’s system, the only way it is possible to move to the next  stage is by successfully solving the challenge of the present stage—each successive stage builds  on the learning from the previous stage; it is not possible to skip stages, nor (under normal circumstances) to revert to a prior stage once a later stage is mastered.


·        In Piaget’s system, children start in the “sensorimotor” stage.  The whole world is all magic.  Things happen.  Objects appear.  They disappear (Go figure).  At this stage, the baby is not “thinking” at all—it is experiencing everything, storing it up.  In time, all that stored experience starts to fall into patterns; the baby starts to develop expectations—the beginning of thinking (“operations,” in Piaget’s terms).  There are no expectations separate from the experience—but the body begins to develop patterns and responds to them.  A baby cries when a stranger looms over the crib, or a crawling child refuses to crawl off a step (even if the space is covered with a clear glass and it is perfectly safe).  At this stage, the child babbles or speaks one- or two-word sentences, but does not really have speech yet.

·        The next stage is called “pre-operational” (typically, ages 3-7).  The child now behaves “for a reason,” but that reason is often “because.”  Fantasy and reality are often conflated.  Rocks and clouds and animals are given human motivations and emotions (when a child in this stage says that it is raining because the sky is sad, it is not a cute metaphor—the child means it).  There is real thought, real effort to put explanations to the events in the world, but the explanations are often magical in nature.  In a sense, it is the early sensorimotor stage all over again, only this time with thoughts and words and not just raw sensation.

·        The next stage is called “concrete operations” (typically, ages 8-11).  Now cause and effect begins to make sense, but the young child can still get easily tangled up in the abstraction of words and thoughts.  As long as the child can manipulate the environment, the child can reason through a causal chain.  But make the child sit still and try to explain it just by looking and thinking, and it all gets confused (often, the child will revert to pre-operational patterns).  This is the stage of rules—you do it “because those are the rules.”

·        The final stage is “abstract operations,” which typically take from 12-15 to completely accomplish.  In this stage, the child is freed from manipulating the concrete world  and is able to do it “virtually,” through thought.  The young person begins to entertain “conditions contrary to fact  (“Suppose the moon  were  made of green cheese—what sort of spacecraft would you need to land on it?”  “Suppose the queen (in chess) could only move 4  spaces  in any direction, and  pawns could only move in an L like a knight.  How would you play the game then?”)


A fascinating extension of Piaget’s ideas can be found in Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, which postulates a similar progression in moral thinking (from pain/pleasure to superstition to “following the rules” to self-directed moral guidance).


c.       Brim & Kagan, Constancy and Change (1980)

                                                               i.      Orville Brim & Jerome Kagan, a sociologist and a psychologist, challenged the Western notion of “development” as continual progress “upward.”  They argue that there is no necessary reason to believe that the traditional idea that the experience of the early years necessarily constrain the characteristics of adolescence and adulthood.  The Chinese, for instance, “believe that the structure of the present exerts a profound influence on current phenomena.  Since future contexts cannot be predicted easily, the informativeness of the past is limited; hence there is less interest in origins.” (p. 5)  Further, each cohort ages uniquely, since the events of the world have their effect on the various cohorts at different times in their development.  Kagan argues elsewhere (American Psychologist, 1979) that “variety” is more important than any specific interaction or the frequency of interaction.  He argues that “…no regimen of early care is best for all psychological qualities; one must specify the characteristic and its evaluation by the larger culture” (p. 889).  In that same issue of American Psychologist, Willard Hartup describes the range of social systems within which children develop (family, peer group, school, others) and considers the interdependency between the family and the other systems.  In other words, it may not be that there is no such thing as cause-effect relationships, but it may be that there are a great number of causes at work and only some of them work together to produce the observed result.  At a later stage, a different set of forces (in play, perhaps, previously, but not apparent in their effects) may come to the fore. 

                                                             ii.      In any event, Brim & Kagan trace a number of elements in the intellectual history of the idea of the possibility of human change:

a.       Supernatural force/natural cause

b.      Transmogrification/transfiguration

c.       Desire to change/need to maintain identity

d.      Individual need for change/societal tolerance of change


d.      Urie Bronfenbrenner, Contexts of Child Rearing, American Psychologist., 1979

                                                               i.      “We know much more about children than about the environments in which they live or the processes through which these environments affect the course of development.  As a result, our ability to address public policy concerns regarding contexts of childrearing is correspondingly limited.”  P. 844

                                                             ii.      “primacy of interpersonal process on the evolution of behavior” p. 845

                                                            iii.      “The pervasive use of a dyadic parent-child model leaves out of consideration the possibility that forces external to the two-person system could influence its effectiveness and outcomes.”  P. 846


e.       Asset Development:  In the 1990s, the focus shifted to monitoring multiple factors which might affect a child’s development, whether operating in isolation or in consort.  Peter Benson, founder of the Search Institute in Minneapolis, and Michael Resnick, at the University of Minnesota, have stressed the importance of a variety of “developmental assets.”  The Search Institute has identified 40 developmental assets (4 “External Assets”—support, empowerment, boundaries, and time use—and 4 “Internal Assets”—educational commitment, values, social competencies, and positive identity) that characterize the community within which the child is growing.  Resnick (1997) argues that the main threat to adolescents’ health are the risk behaviors that they choose.  These choices, in turn, are shaped by the social context of the children.  He found, for example, that connections (with parents/family and with the school) correlate highly with healthy behavior (except for history of pregnancy), and access to guns at home correlated highly with suicide and violence.




Winn, M.  (1981)  “Where did childhood innocence go?”  Minneapolis Tribune, 2/1/81

Lenhart, M.  (1981)  “Childhood isn’t what it used to be,  Christian Science Monitor, 1/21/81

Freud, S.  (1924)  “Development of the libido and sexual organizations,” A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis.  NY:  Washington Square Press.

Erikson, EH (1963)  The eight ages of man,” Childhood and Society, 2nd ed.  NY:  WW Norton.

Piaget, J & B Inhelder  (1969)  “Factors in mental development,” The Psychology of the Child.  NY: Basic Books.




© 2004 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 2 May 2005