My Theory of Child Development

Having taught kids and now having my own, and having studied various theories of child development and educational psychology when training to be a teacher, in the end I think it all boils down to pretty much one thing.

Kids want to be grown up.

That's it. Every one of the thousands or millions of words written about child development and child psychology come down to this. It sounds ridiculously simple-minded, but it can be explained to the highest level of sophistication and complexity if you'd like. But I won't be doing that here, or at least not now.

I'd probably modify that one rule and say kids are already 'grown up' when they're born. They're a bit like bamboo, where all of the articulated bits are there in the first shoot and then expand very quickly as the plant grows, like some sort of botanical Viagra experiment. But also not like that - growth and development is less about adding bits than it is about expanding things that are already there, even if only implied. A little homunculus, as they used to say. Where the homunculus lot got it wrong was in thinking that each little sperm and egg was a pre-formed human , all there in miniature - just add water and watch it grow etc. That's obviously absurd. People, like many plants in seed form, are pre-figured if you like, in the seed or sperm or ovum, but as a sort of collection of potentials, in 'virtual' form, which doesn't mean what it's usually taken to mean in the IT age. Something virtual is there but not active, it needs to undergo a sequence of unfolding, like in the beautiful science of embryology.

Anyway, that's for another time. As kids grow and develop, you can see them as like rubber bands. Both 'physically' and 'mentally'. They grow and develop in spurts, and then rebound back to a sort of comfort zone until the next spurt. So often physically they'll put on a bit of weight just before they put on another couple of inches in height, at which point the weight disappears into that new length. And it's exactly the same psychologically and emotionally. They alternate between a stretching of boundaries and a clinginess, to home and parents. People are often amazed when talking to teenagers that they can at the same time seem to be engaged in warfare with their parents and home, and deeply attached to parents and home (without always betraying the latter in public).

So I see it as them venturing out into new territory, stretching that rubber band until it gets to a certain limit, at which point they get pulled back to the centre of home and family (or whatever their particular 'home' may be). But the band grows a bit each time this cycle goes around, which is what we then see as growth and development.

You can understand everything from the mildest argument at home to violent gang behaviour using this schema. Raising children well seems to me to be about knowing that the rubber band is there, and channelling where you can those stretches of growth and development in appropriate ways. And then of course making 'home', that place they return to after each stretch, a place they want to return to where they'll be safe and able to build up for the next stretch.

Kids who 'go off the rails' have always seemed to me to be just trying to snap that band, stopping that healthy to-and-fro cycle altogether. Sometimes because 'home' isn't a place that is nice to be, so they just keep stretching to avoid that rebound. Which is why 'ferals' of whatever age seem to have been stuck at a 'stage' of development many years under their biological age. Their behaviours seem obnoxious and unfathomable because they're the behaviours of a much younger person, in an older person's body, seeing the world through the lens of those younger eyes while having to try and live at a different stage of life at the same time, with different responsibilities. Feeding their babies Coke out of a bottle etc.

Once the band snaps and that healthy stretch-and-release cycle stops, somebody enters an experiential rut. It's not easy to get that cycle going again. It's like a planet breaking free of the poles of gravitational pull that create its elliptical orbit - it's next stop smash and burn.

Home time.


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