What is Development?

Assignment – Paper 1 – Developmental Psychology: Write an 8-page paper on the topic of development and its influences.

Paper 1
What is Development?

In this paper, the author explores why it is important to understand human development, what influences on development are known, and how knowledge of human development can benefit individuals and society in general.

The importance of understanding development

In the field of human development, researchers study how individuals are affected by various life experiences throughout their lives, how they adapt to change, overcome challenges, and hopefully continually grow as a person throughout their lifespan (Newman & Newman, 1999). As a father, a therapist, and someone who enjoys introspection to better understand myself and others, I find the topic of human development both fascinating and extremely important.  As a father, I want to provide the best possible environment for my child to develop into a person who feels safe in this world and, over time, learns the skills necessary to lead a fulfilling life.  As a therapist, I know how important it is to understand the different stages of development and the needs associated with them so that I can better empathize with my clients and hopefully support them in their healing process.  On the path to gradually understanding myself better and, as a result, understanding others better, I believe it is crucial to know about human development.

Environmental influence on development

One of the most critical factors influencing development, and this has been known for a long time, is the crucial role that the environment plays for humans.  For example, in trying to understand the influence of the environment on development, psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner emphasizes the importance of studying children in the context of multiple environments and ecological systems (Gardiner, Mutter, & Kosmitzki, 2010).  Therefore, Bronfenbrenner developed his ecological theory to explain how a child’s innate characteristics and environment interact and influence how they grow and develop (Gardiner et al., 2010).

Ecological systems theory states that human development unfolds as a web of systems that includes cultural, social, economic, and political elements in addition to psychological factors (Gardiner et al., 2010., Newman & Newman, 1999).  The realization of human potential is enhanced when there is balance within these systems and when the various systems interact with each other (Gardiner et al., 2010).  In addition, the process of continuous development across the lifespan is influenced by many different factors, including gender, ethnicity, cultural identity, health, socioeconomic status, education, sexual orientation, physical abilities and disabilities, and historical and social contexts (Newman & Newman, 1999).

Five basic assumptions about human development

Because there are many factors and variables to consider, understanding human development is a complex undertaking.  To help understand the subject, it is helpful to make the following five basic assumptions about human development (Newman & Newman, 1999).

  1. Growth occurs at different stages of a person’s life.
  2. Both continued stability and changes in development are important factors to consider.
  3. Understanding the dynamic interrelationships among a person’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive abilities requires a systematic approach that involves the whole person.
  4. Because humans are highly adaptive, their behavior must be understood in relation to the various contexts in which they find themselves.
  5. Each person influences and contributes to his or her own development.

In the psychosocial approach to understanding development, the five assumptions above are used to narrow the scope of research and facilitate understanding of how the biological, psychological, and social systems are interconnected and how the integration of these systems “leads to a complex, biopsychosocial dynamic portrait of human thought and behavior” (Newman & Newman, 1999, p. 6).  Each of these three major systems influences development in some way, and furthermore, any personal choices an individual makes within one system in turn influence the other systems.

Biological influence on development

Let us begin by examining what the biological system is and how it influences development. The biological system is essentially the brain, the body, and the central nervous system (Newman & Newman, 1999).  For example, early childhood development is strongly influenced by various biological factors such as genetics, brain chemistry, hormone levels, nutrition, and gender, as well as environmental factors such as toxins, diseases, medications, and accidents (Newman & Newman, 1999).  These factors can have both a positive and negative influence on development. For example, researchers have demonstrated that prenatal factors such as chronic maternal illness, maternal nutritional deficiencies, infections, and exposure to toxins, to name just one example, actually influence language development (Stromswold, 2008).  Another study showed that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were more likely to have perinatal factors, such as acute fetal illness, long duration of delivery, or prematurity, and postnatal factors, such as respiratory infections, compared to their siblings (Hadjkacem et al., 2016).

Psychological influence on development

The psychological system consists of various cognitive processes related to perception, memory, reasoning, language ability, emotional awareness, emotion regulation, time experience, problem-solving, and information processing (Newman & Newman, 1999).  Although psychological maturation is controlled to some extent by genetic information, it is primarily influenced by several other life factors, such as the quality of parenting, relationships with friends, and any other activities that promote growth and learning.  For instance, a study of the effects of music and movement programs designed to improve the relationship between mothers and their two-to-six-month-old infants showed improved postnatal attachment between mother and infant (Vlismas, Malloch & Burnham, 2013).  More specifically, mothers reported that their feelings of happiness and attachment with their infants improved.  The mother’s positive emotional state, as well as the increased attention she gave to the infant, led to an increase in dyadic reciprocity (Vlismas et al., 2013).  This can be viewed as an upward spiral in which the mother smiles more at the infant, which leads to the infant smiling back, which leads to even more positive emotions and a stronger bond between mother and infant (Vlismas et al., 2013).

Societal influence on development

The third system that completes the “triad of development” according to the psychosocial approach is the societal system, which includes all the various social factors that influence the development of the individual.  This could be changes related to new technological discoveries, moving to a new culture, societal expectations regarding a certain age, or even collective crises put pressure on the development of the individual. Furthermore, the September 11 terrorist attacks or the 2008 economic collapse had lasting effects on people’s sense of physical and economic security (Newman & Newman, 1999).  Future research on the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic is likely to uncover both positive and negative effects on individual and collective development.  For example, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes how young children from birth to age five are affected both directly and indirectly by the Covid 19 pandemic (CDC, 2021).  Social distancing, closed daycare centers, disruption of various daily routines, missing various important life events, and not feeling safe or economically secure are factors at this developmental stage that can have long-term consequences for children’s development (CDC, 2021).

Eight essential areas for a child’s development

According to parenting expert Harley Rotbart, M.D., years of research have shown that there are eight main areas that need to be met in order for children to develop into thriving and happy adults (What every child needs, n.d.).  These eight areas are security, which gives the child a sense of safety; stability, which comes from belonging to a family and community; consistency, which helps the child anticipate and understand his or her environment; emotional support, which helps create a sense of trust in life; respect for self and others; and high self-esteem in the child; love, which can be seen as the invisible bond that holds everything together, both between people and within a person; education, from good school education to family support to integrate all the different life lessons we experience; positive role models that a child reflects in his or her behavior and from his or her parents; structure that helps the child remain a child and not have to be responsible for rules, restrictions, and limits (What every child needs, n. d.).  Future research is likely to determine in detail how the Covid 19 pandemic has affected the development and these eight domains in particular.

Epigenetics in relation to the nature versus nurture debate

This brings us to the old debate about nature and nurture.  What has the greatest influence on a child’s development and future behavior?  Genetic inheritance or the influence of various environmental factors, such as all the behavioral and societal changes associated with a pandemic?  According to the saying “Nurture works on what nature endows”, genetics sets the boundaries for a person’s abilities, while the environment determines where within those boundaries someone lies.  This means that someone who is very short is unlikely to succeed as a basketball player.

Another interesting aspect of the nature-nurture debate is epigenetics.  Epigenetics is a relatively new field of scientific research that explains how environmental influences can alter the expression of genes (Crews et al., 2014).  In short, while inherited genes provide information that controls development, life experiences alter the epigenetic marks that control gene expression (Crews et al., 2014).  This means that life experiences can influence if and how genes release the information they carry.  This explains, for example, why genetically identical twins can show differences in behavior, abilities, health, and performance.  So, in summary, the nature versus nurture debate does not really seem to be a debate – because it’s almost always both.

In the context of development, epigenetic processes are studied in evolutionary developmental psychology.  In this field, researchers examine the various social and cognitive abilities shared by all humans and how these abilities are affected by environmental and social conditions through epigenetic processes, i.e., the interaction between genes and environment (Geary & Bjorklund, 2000).  It appears that the most sensitive period of development concerning exposure to various stressors is embryonic life and early infancy (Meaney, 2001).  Nonetheless, stress has a critical impact on development throughout the lifespan.  Research shows that stress in adolescence has adverse effects on memory and learning ability, neural modeling, i.e., various processes related to maturation of the nervous system, and increased risk for emotional disturbance and substance abuse later in life (Jankford et al., 2011; McCormick & Mathews, 2010; McCormick et al., 2010; McEwen, 2010; Romeo et al., 2009; Romeo, 2010; Wei et al., 2011).

Gender and cross-cultural influence on development

As parents, it is obvious that children try to imitate and mimic our behavior.  Therefore, as parents, we play an important role in the gender socialization of our children.  According to social learning theory, children develop their gender identity by observing and imitating gender-based behavior of others (Newman & Newman, 1999).  When they imitate the behavior of people of the same gender, they are rewarded, and conversely, when they imitate the behavior of another gender, they are punished (Newman & Newman, 1999).  This means that if our daughter takes care of her dolls in the same way as her mother cares for her, she is more likely to continue to do so if she is rewarded, and less likely to do so if positive feedback is absent or if she is punished for it.

According to gender schema theory, children learn male and female roles from the culture in which they live (Cherry, 2020).  This is very interesting to us because we are Swedish-Americans who spend the summer in Sweden and the rest of the year in the United States.  As Nordic countries lead in social integration and gender equality, we experience some cultural differences between Sweden and the United States (Soergel, 2020).  Some researchers believe that this egalitarianism dates back to the Viking era when women played a strong role in the social hierarchy (Soergel, 2020).  One of the main differences we experience between the two countries is that in Sweden it is much more common for fathers to spend time with their babies. This is because in 1974 Sweden replaced specific maternity leave with parental leave, which specifically means that each parent has the right to 240 days of paid parental leave (Swedish Institute, 2021).  On average, the father takes about 150 of these days, while the mother uses the rest (Swedish Institute, 2021).  One of the ways I experience this is that all of my male friends in Sweden have a good understanding of how challenging and exhausting it can be to be home alone with a baby, and they develop a deeper relationship with their baby early on.

Crisis as a chance to turn challenges into opportunities

In terms of caring for our daughter during the first three crucial years of her development, my wife and I were very fortunate.  The Covid 19 pandemic forced us to make fundamental changes in our lives.  Thanks to all of these forced changes, we were not only able to work from home, but we were able to work less and still make the same money.  We were less stressed, which had a positive effect on how we interacted with our daughter, and we feel that it was easier to meet her needs in more or less all of the eight areas mentioned by Dr. Rotbart. From a purely selfish perspective, the social impact of the Covid 19 pandemic has helped us make changes that we feel have improved the quality of our parenting and hopefully provided a good foundation for our daughter’s continued development.

Just as individuals often grow after a life crisis or traumatic event, a positive psychological change referred to as post-traumatic growth (PTG), society as a whole can experience a similar type of growth after a collective crisis, such as a terrorist attack or the Covid 19 pandemic (Doosje, van der Veen, & Klaver, 2018).  For example, after the 2011 attacks in Norway that killed 77 people, primarily children, research has shown that “the structures of trust and civic engagement seem to have been reinforced in Norwegian society” (Wolleboek et al., 2012, p. 32). After the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid, Spain, all the pain and suffering also led to something positive, such as greater social integration, higher perceived post-traumatic growth, and higher levels of solidarity and hope in society at large (Rimé et al., 2010).

At the conclusion of this discussion on development, John F. Kennedy gave a speech in 1959 relevant to human growth. He said, “When written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one represents danger and one represents opportunity” (Kennedy, 2021). Although it later turned out that this is not a correct interpretation of these Chinese characters, President Kennedy’s wisdom is of great importance for human development and how we can grow as a society by adapting to the current global crisis of climate change, pandemics, and various health problems.  Although we humans are very good at solving problems, we are often not so good at anticipating a crisis or proactively making the necessary changes before a crisis occurs.  Therefore, any developmental phase can be viewed as a minor or major crisis in which an individual or society is forced to evolve to meet new challenges.  Whether we are prepared for a crisis or not, each crisis provides a unique opportunity for growth.  I personally believe that the better we understand human development, the easier it is to raise healthy, compassionate, and intelligent children, and thus, a caring, resourceful, and resilient society in the long run.


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