Developmental theory has changed greatly over time. The theories of societies at various times in history have emphasized different aspects of development. The Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, focused on the moral development of the child; they believed that Original Sin was inherent in children and that children had to be sternly disciplined in order to make them morally acceptable. In contrast to this view was the developmental theory of the eighteenth century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who held that children were born good and were then morally corrupted by society. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was interested in psychosexual development and in mental illness; his work therefore focused on these areas. John B. Watson (1878-1958), B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), and Albert Bandura (born 1925) worked during a period when the major impetus in psychology was the study of learning; not surprisingly, this was the focus of their work.
As developmental theorists worked intently within given areas, they often arrived at extreme positions, philosophically and scientifically. For example, some theorists focused upon the biology of behavior; impressed by the importance of "nature" (genetic or other inherited sources) in development, they may have neglected "nurture" (learning and other resources received from parents, the world, and society). Others focused upon societal and social learning effects and decided that nurture was the root of behavior; nature has often been relegated to subsidiary theoretical roles in physiological and anatomical development. Similar conflicts have arisen concerning developmental continuity or discontinuity, the relative activity or passivity of children in contributing to their own development, and a host of other issues in the field.
These extreme positions would at first appear to be damaging to the understanding of development; however, psychologists are now in a position to evaluate the extensive bodies of research conducted by adherents of the various theoretical positions. It has become evident that the truth, in general, lies somewhere in between. Some developmental functions proceed in a relatively stepwise fashion, as Jean Piaget (1896-1980) or Freud would hold; others are much smoother and more continuous. Some development results largely from the child's rearing and learning; other behaviors appear to be largely biological. Some developmental phenomena are emergent processes (any process of behavior or development that was not necessarily inherent in or predictable from its original constituents) of the way in which the developing individual is organized, resulting from both nature and nurture in intricate, interactive patterns that are only beginning to be understood. These findings, and the therapeutic and educational applications that derive from them, are only comprehensible when viewed against the existing corpus of developmental theory. This corpus, in turn, owes its existence to the gradual construction and modification of developmental theories of the past.
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