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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Friday, May 20, 2011

Myths and Misunderstandings, Ages and Stages, and "Parenting Within Reason"

A month or so ago I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Colin Thornton of Parenting Within Reason. He was interested in issues discussed in my book Child Development: Myths & Misunderstandings (Sage, 2009), and we got into some points from the book, some other points that have come up on this blog, and some brand-new things as well. You can hear the podcast at (I warn you though-- it’s a whole hour long.)

Colin asked some excellent questions and made me glad I’ve spent a long time thinking about this stuff. Even so, there were some where I was tempted just to say “hommina hommina hommina.”

One question was an important one that I confess I would never have thought to talk about. Colin asked me about stages of development-- were there really stages, and is it essential to go through all of them? This is one of those questions where a simple Yes or No is not much help, so I tried to touch on a lot of issues (probably many more than Colin had in mind when he asked).

To begin with, “stage” is a metaphor. The use of metaphors for description in psychology is very common, because many of the events we need to talk about are not easy to observe directly. They may be mental events like attitudes, which we can only infer. Or they may be events that take a long time to unfold, as is usually the case in child development. “Stage” is a metaphor because it compares events in a child’s life to passages over spatial distance rather than focusing on them as changes over time. A stage is literally “a place to stand”, but that implies the possibility of standing in other places at other times. A stage coach was a vehicle that covered a set amount of distance and either dropped off passengers to catch another coach, or changed tired horses for fresh ones. Each stage or distance covered was thus not only farther away from the original one, but in other ways different from the ones before it.

Similarly, the metaphorical stages of development also have each their specific distance (time) from the starting point, and they have both quantitative and qualitative differences from the previous stages. “Quantitative” differences are obvious enough-- at later stages, many things (like walking or talking) may be done faster or more often than at earlier stages. “Qualitative” differences are not just more or less, but new and different ways of doing things. A baby who crawls moves in a different way than a toddler who walks, and the toddler’s stiff-legged, wide-based walk is in turn a different kind of movement than the 8-year-old’s free rope-jumping, dancing, or hopscotch-playing. Each stage of development is not only more advanced toward maturity than the stages before it, but is qualitatively different both from the previous and the succeeding stages.

So, Colin Thornton asked me, do people have to go through all the stages? What if a baby doesn’t show much evidence of a particular stage, but instead goes right on to the next one? Is that child going to miss something developmentally? How about crawling, particularly-- a stage that many parents have worried about over the years? No, the fact is that if a child has not developed to the point where the actions of the “next” stage are possible, he or she can’t do those things. Whatever the child does, that by definition shows his or her level of development. And children don’t all spend the same amount of time on each stage. It’s as if some have very fresh horses to pull their stage coach through one part of development, and tired ones for another stage. Some crawl for months and months before standing to walk holding on, others crawl for a day or two, and still others just sit around until they’re ready to stand, or scoot on their bottoms to get where they want to go. In the long run, it makes little or no difference to the child’s general development. (And there’s certainly no reason to try to insist that a child crawl; like trying to teach a pig to sing, it doesn’t work, and it annoys the pupil.)

There are a couple of other points I’d like to make with respect to stages of development, and these are things that Colin and I never got to. One is that although there’s no reason to be concerned about a “skipped” stage, there may be reason for concern if a child has been able to do some movement or task consistently and then “drops back" to an earlier stage. An example would be a child who has been walking holding on and now goes back to crawling exclusively (not just for convenience). It’s important to find out whether there’s a physical problem causing this apparent regression.

Second, one factor in whether a child seems to move beyond a particular stage has to do with what the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky many years ago called the Zone of Proximal Development. This term describes a phenomenon common throughout development: a child can perform an act when a parent or familiar caregiver is watching from nearby, but not when alone. The social and emotional support of a smiling, encouraging adult seems to help the child (or even a teenager) organize a new and difficult behavior which may not be possible when alone. We don’t “teach” a child to walk, but our encouragement may actually make it possible for actions to be accomplished at the beginning of a new stage. (Look away, or go and answer the phone, and the baby gets disorganized and falls down.)

There’s more about development on the podcast, and I promise you that although I sometimes thought “hommina” I never actually said it. I’m embarrassed to urge you to buy the book, but if you’re interested in what I say on this blog you might like it (see Amazon for a sample).

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