The study of psychology is divided into several major branches, including biopsychology, abnormal psychology, social psychology, and cognitive psychology, among others. One of the largest and most expansive fields of psychology is developmental psychology, which concerns itself with the development of the individual across the entire life span.
Parenting is one universal phenomenon that tracks both parent and child across the entire lifespan, intimately linked at each step. Any parent knows that there’s no one perfect way to be a parent, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t make the effort.
Here are four fundamental principles of developmental psychology that all parents can profit from in their attempt to raise their kids well:
1. Child Development Begins in the Womb
One tragic misconception many people have while pregnant is that their actions do not have consequences, and they will not have to “wise up” and begin the task of becoming a responsible parent until the child is born. For many people this fantasy quickly dies during some pregnancy milestone such as the first doctor’s appointment or the first ultrasound. For others, especially those held in the throes of serious substance abuse addictions, there is no such turnaround.
Nonetheless, developmental psychology has made it abundantly clear that the actions of parents during pregnancy – both mother and father – can have a dramatic impact on the child’s subsequent development all the way up to adulthood. A mountain of scientific evidence has accumulated that the antenatal and prenatal periods of developmental are the most economically efficient periods for parents to direct time and energy for improving later life outcomes.
2. Kids Need Different Things at Different Ages
One unexpected thing every parent runs into is how abruptly a child makes life transitions. One day a child will have certain interests or pastimes that define their world, and the next they will reject those very things outright. Developmental psychology is replete with theories of how these stages of child development unfold. The most well-known and influential of these is Erik Erikson’s 8-stage model of development, five of which occur before an individual reaches adulthood.
For parents, two things are required: to remember the typical pace of child development, and also to forget it. A working psychological and physical knowledge of how children should develop over time informs parenting efforts and allows parents to anticipate upcoming changes. But an over-emphasis on the usual course of development leaves little room for individual differences and flexibility. As any paediatrician will say, even the physical markers that denote children’s growth occur in wide ranges. Similarly, parents must learn to accept the changes in a child’s development adaptably.
3. Life Events Affect Each Child Differently
Not only does one child change over time, but with multiple children all changing together the situation becomes even more complex. Any event that contains some traumatic element for a child – whether it be a death in the family, a messy divorce, a natural disaster or financial crisis – happens at only one discrete moment in time. But for those parents who have multiple children, that one discrete moment in time was placed inside a unique developmental context for each child. A parent getting laid off work can be the greatest thing in the world, to a 4-year old, an embarrassing loss in social status to a 13-year old, and a nightmarish increase in family time for the 18-year old.
The moral here is for parents not to be too hard on themselves: when trying to plan out events such as moving to a new house or changing to a new school, it’s impossible to fully predict and anticipate how the decision will impact each child. Breaking down the effects of life events on multiple kids simultaneously is an inconceivably complex relational calculus, so parents shouldn’t expect to always find the smoothest course. The very fact that they are so aware of each child’s individual needs should be comfort enough.
4. Every Action has an Equal and Opposite Reaction
Every parent has experienced the great frustration of having one’s parenting intentions completely inverted by their kids. And developmental psychologists – especially child analysts – have extensively studied the way a parent’s wishes can exert powerful psychodynamic forces underneath the conscious surface that manifest obliquely later in life.
The important lesson to be gained is to focus more on intentions than outcomes. If parents are deeply honest with themselves, they generally come to realize that much of their parenting style is a reaction against their own childhood – whether purposefully replicating positive practices, or unavoidably recapitulating mistakes. This awareness allows parents to realize that for better or worse, we are all a product of a cyclical parenting dynamic, with patterns often emerging across generations. Regardless of plans, strategies, successes, failures, and eventual outcomes, so long as parents can go to sleep at night knowing that they have done their best and that their child received unconditional love, they should rest easy.
In the words of English writer-philosopher G. K. Chesterton, “Education is implication. It is not the things you say which children respect; when you say things, they very commonly laugh and do the opposite. It is the things you assume that really sink into them. It is the things you forget even to teach that they learn.”
The best-laid parenting plans often go completely awry. But with these four simple principles, parents can develop alongside their children, growing to be the confident, well-adjusted adults that they hope their children will one day become.
Marcus regularly blogs at psysci, a psychology, science blog that examines the latest research and explains how findings can impact and improve people’s lives.