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Learning Across the Lifespan: Nature vs Nurture, Cognitive Development, and Parenting Styles

Task :

In the previous module, we recognized that people are diverse in the ways in which they react to their environment. They differ in respect to their motivation to act and in their emotional reactions to any given situation. Understanding that people are diverse is a key factor in facilitating learning and problem solving strategies in any group.

Maslow's hierarchy of motivation may provide us with a good working theory but does not account for a number of variables such as:

  • Cultural differences whereby western values are individual while eastern values are collective
  • Gender differences
  • Emotional considerations

We may be too complex to label in a simple fashion.

Module 6 focused on Motivation, Gender, Emotional Intelligence, Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences and Cultural Diversity. Bear in mind that, while human diversity includes a wide range of possible issues (including intellect/ability, sexual orientation and age), our focus was limited to the topics mentioned above.

This module examines learning across the lifespan. Consideration is given to factors that influence each growing and evolving individual.

Topics include:

Nature versus Nurture

  • Twin Studies
  • Effect of early deprivation (Harlow)
  • Heredity
  • Earliest Instincts
  • Universal Maturation Schedule
  • Readiness
  • Emotional Development
  • Attachment Theory
  • Effect of parenting styles
  • Self Esteem
  • Universal Cognitive Development
  • Development of Language
  • Stage Theories
  • Erikson
  • Piaget

By the end of this module, students will be able to:

  1. Provide an overview of the nature versus nurture controversy.
  2. Describe the relevance of developmental stage theories.
  3. Explain early influences on human development.
  4. Discuss the human capacity for moral judgements.

Please read the chapter in your text on Human Development across the lifespan.

Food for Thought

How much of our nature is inherited and how much is a product of our environment?

Are we truly diverse or do we all fall into the same patterns of behaviour?

Summary of Reading Topics

A question that is essential to psychological studies is, which plays the more significant role in human development, nature or nurture? Do the genes that we inherit from

parents and ancestors predetermine our intellect and our character or are we more strongly influenced by what happens to us along life's journey? What is the role of heredity and what is the role of our environment?

The nature theory is supported by the fact that we inherit physical traits from family members. It can also be demonstrated that we inherit certain personality traits. Some babies are happy right from day one, while others cry a great deal of the time. We've all heard exasperated mothers say, "You're just like your father!"

A number of studies show that identical twins raised under completely separate and different environmental circumstances show remarkable similarities in likes, dislikes and intellect. Since identical twins share genetic traits, this seems support a theory that heredity plays a substantial role in determining many characteristics.

With minor variations, normal babies develop motor skills according to a pattern or time frame that is universal. Parents generally check their child's progress against what other babies are doing and by what the doctor tells them is normal. This schedule is based on a genetic framework that is common to the human species. In this area, nature seems to be the dominant factor.


Although children develop at roughly the same rate, a child must demonstrate readiness before a milestone such as toilet training can be accomplished.

Emotional Development

Babies cry from day one and smile several months later. They seem to display a full range of emotions by about one year of age.


Babies form an emotional attachment to their primary care giver(s).Bonding occurs in the first few hours after birth. It is also essential that an emotional attachment develop during the first year. If this has occurred, around 8 -12 months, a child will display separation anxiety (crying) when the parent leaves the child with another care giver.

Secure Attachment entails a positive emotional bond. The child is upset when the parent leaves and seeks to be near the parent when he/she returns.

Insecure-Avoidant Attachment involves an anxious emotional bond. The child turns away from the mother when she returns.

Insecure-Ambivalent Attachment also involves an anxious emotional bond. Babies want to be near the mother when she returns but shows resistance tending to avoid direct contact.

Failure to form healthy and secure attachments can have lasting effects. Poor attachments can be formed via neglect or an inability by the mother to recognize the child's needs and signals.

Parenting Styles

Authoritarian parents enforce rigid rules and demand obedience. Children of these parents tend to obedient but lack curiosity and the desire to explore.

Overly permissive parents give children too much freedom. These children get their own way and tend to misbehave. They may lack self discipline later in life.

Authoritative parents are firm and provide consistent guidance along with affection. This style of parenting produces confident, self-controlled, independent and inquisitive children.

It is essential to feel good about oneself in order to have good mental health. A parental style based of physical punishment, the withholding of love and an overly critical approach to child rearing can negatively affect a child's self-esteem.

Children who feel loved and supported have higher self-esteem, are happier, more confident and are more successful.

Heredity Factors

Some cognitive development is hereditary.

The Development of Language

Babies initially communicate by crying. By seven months of age, babies begin to babble. The sounds that they make tend to resemble the sounds that the parents make. For example, if the parents speak Chinese, the sounds will be similar to that language. It is interesting to note that this skill is apparent in deaf babies who begin to use sign language if their parents demonstrate it.

Learning Outcomes for This Module

By one year, babies respond to simple words and soon connect objects with words. They call their parents "Mama" and Dada". By two years of age, they are likely to know about 200 words. Children first use single words.

At around two years of age, children put short word phrases together. Two year olds become increasingly more independent. This can be difficult for parents.

Noam Chomsky claimed that humans have a biological predisposition or a hereditary readiness to develop language. He noted that children around the world develop language at roughly the same age and in an amazingly similar fashion. Chomsky argued that the Behaviourist model could not explain this.

Parents use a dialogue called, "parentese" when speaking with babies. This consists of simple wording, short sentences and a higher pitch when talking to children at or after the stage when they begin to babble. They also encourage offspring to repeat words. Children themselves ask parents the names of objects and most parents are happy to teach their children new words. Many parents read to their young children or teach them the alphabet in order to implement language skills.

Stage theories

Is it possible to use the universal motor developmental of babies to form a similar developmental theory on cognitive development of children?

Our primary education system is based on a view that children develop specific skills during stages in their development. Based on this theory, children are taught what it is assumed they are ready to learn.

The first to note that individuals develop in stages was Freud. His stage theory is no longer used but the idea had merit.

Developmental psychologists such as Jean Piaget (1963) developed road maps to help parents and educators understand how children develop.

Cognitive Development (cont'd)

Piaget noted that Cognitive Development involves a constant effort to make sense of the environment using assimilation (interpretation) and accommodation (changing one's cognitive structure). This process takes place in stages noted below.

  1. Would Erikson's developmental stages be considered universal?
  2. Would other cultures develop the same way? What about First Nations?
  3. Are these stages equally valid for both males and females?
  4. Some cultures practice rigidity in scheduling math, religious studies and so on for their children. There are societies where respect is demanded and questioning of adults forbidden during childhood. Should we assume that all of these children are plagued with guilt?
  5. Are young adults absorbed with intimacy issues or are they engaged in learning activities for future careers?
  6. Should we assume that failure to focus on the next generation during middle adulthood leads to self-absorption?
  7. How could Erikson's theory explain the current thirst among adults for education, art, music, accomplishments and philanthropic endeavours? How would Erikson explain someone like Mother Theresa?

Erikson and other developmental theorists tend to over simplify the human experience. We are a far more complex species than this model demonstrates. The influence of parents, teachers, friends and acquaintances cannot be ignored; nor can cultural factors, religious affiliations, relationships or even placement in the family order.

Some theorists argue that developmental charting fails to recognize the influence of learning. For example, the child of a musician may know more about music than a child who is not widely exposed to music. According to learning theorists, children gain knowledge as they are exposed to it rather than in stepped leaps.

Required Readings

Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory

Lev Vygotsky (1911-1934) was a Russian scholar who noted that development is influenced by a child's exposure to more capable persons. Across the life span, one's exposure to "tutors" enables learning. Adults such as parents provide "scaffolding" or support as they help children learn and solve problems.

Cognitive development may actually be a combination of exposure and learning readiness that occurs in stages.

Humans develop an ability to recognize and make moral judgements. Freud called our conscience, the Superego. Our values and belief systems develop during childhood and seem to solidify at some point during adolescence.

Moral development is defined as "the development of values, beliefs and thinking abilities that act as a guide regarding what is acceptable behaviour".

Lawrence Kohlberg noted that we learn moral values via thinking and reasoning, both cognitive in nature. He posed this dilemma (1969) to children of all ages and charted the results:

"A woman was near death from cancer, and there was only one drug that might save her. It was discovered by a druggist who was charging ten times what it cost to make the drug. The sick woman's husband could only pay $1000, but the druggist wanted $2000. He asked the druggist to sell it cheaper or to let him pay later. The druggist said no. So the husband became desperate and broke into the store to steal the drug for his wife. Should he have done that? Was it wrong or right?"

Each child was asked what action the husband should have taken. Kohlberg classified the reasons given (based on reasoning used) for each choice. He identified three levels of moral development.

  • Based on consequences: punishment or reward
  • Example: The man should not steal the drug because he could get caught and go to jail (punishment).
  • Based either on a desire to please others or a need to follow authority or accepted rues and/or values.
  • Example: He should not break the law to get the drug.
  • Self-directed and based on one's own moral principles
  • Example: He should steal the drug and then inform authorities and deal with the consequences.

Developing an internal moral compass is an important part of growing up.

Does everyone reach the level of postconventional moral reasoning?

What position does our legal system take in this regard?

1. We have taken a brief look at some of the complex issues involved in our development from inception to adulthood. These issues involve what we inherit as well as what we learn.

2. We saw that development is largely universal in nature with milestones that enable us to chart norms. Charts are useful but can be flawed by an inability to generalize across genders, cultures and decades.

3. We know that environmental factors, particularly in the formative years, can have a major impact upon the development of a self-confident and emotionally sound adult.

4. We need to acknowledge that both nature and nurture have a hand in development.

5. This module also examined our expectation that individuals develop capacity for moral judgement. Judgment can be based, however, on consequences, authority / rules or on our own sense of values.

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