Babies begin to take in sensory experiences from the world around them from the moment of birth, and the environment will continue to exert a powerful influence on behavior throughout life. Genetics can have a powerful influence on development, but experiences are equally important. For example, while the genetic code contains the information on how a child's brain may be pre-wired, it is learning and experience that will literally shape how that child's brain grows and develops.
Some of the classic theories of psychology focus on the importance of experience and how it shapes behavior and personality. Three of the major theories that describe and explain how children learn include:
- Classical conditioning: This type of learning involves making an association between a stimulus and a response. Even if you have only a passing knowledge of psychology, chances are that you have probably heard of Pavlov's dogs. In a classic experiment, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered that repeatedly pairing the sound of a bell with the presentation of food caused dogs to associate the tone itself with food. Once the association was formed, the sound of the bell alone could make the dogs begin to salivate in anticipation of a meal. Children learn in much the same way, developing associations between things in their environment and potential consequences. For example, an infant might quickly begin to associate the sight of a baby bottle with being fed.
- Operant conditioning: When you reward a behavior, chances are that same behavior is likely to occur again in the future. When a behavior is punished, it becomes less likely that it will occur again in the future. These principles underlie the concept of operant conditioning, a set of learning techniques that utilizes reinforcement and punishment to either increase or decrease a response. For example, when a child is rewarded for cleaning her room, she becomes more likely to repeat the same behavior later on.
- Observational learning: As you might expect, kids can learn a great deal simply from watching their parents, peers and siblings. Even the behaviors they observe on television, video games and the Internet can impact their own thoughts and actions. Because observational learning is so powerful, it is important to ensure that kids are observing the right kind of behaviors. By modeling good behaviors and appropriate responses, parents can be sure that their kids are learning how to act responsibly.
Other Types of Experience
In addition to the kinds of learning that occur on a day-to-day basis, there are a number of other experiences that can play a major role in shaping a child's development. The experiences that parents and other caregivers provide during the earliest years of a child's life can be some of the most crucial. While some children might receive enriched childhood experiences from parents who are responsive, caring and attentive, other children might receive less attention and their parents might be distracted by worrying about money, work or relationship issues.
As you might imagine, such varying experiences can have a dramatic impact on how these children develop. Children raised in an enriched environment might be more secure, confident and capable of dealing with later challenges, while those raised in less enriched settings might feel insecure, self-doubting and unable to cope with life's difficulties.
School makes up an enormous part of a child's life. Teachers and classmates play a major role in making up a child's experiences, and academics and learning also leave their mark on development. Remember that genetics and the environment are always interacting in a dynamic way. A child's genetic background will influence his ability to learn, but good educational experiences can enhance these abilities. While learning disabilities may make school a struggle, quality interventions allows kids to overcome difficulties and achieve their full potential.
While a child's early social experiences may be centered on family members, this soon expands to other kids at the playground, in the neighborhood and at school. Because children spend so much time interacting with peers in school, it may come as no surprise that other children have a major influence on a child's psychology and development. Children are very influenced by their peers, and these social experiences help shape a child's values and personality. Kids can forge friendships that are wonderful and supportive, while some kids can be cruel at times. Bullying in particular can have an enormously detrimental effect on a child's experience of growing up. As kids get older, fitting in with friends becomes more and more important.
As you have seen so far, there are many different influences that can play a role in how a child grows and the person they eventually become. The culture that a child lives in adds yet another element to this already complex mix. For example, while Western cultures tend to focus more on individualism, Eastern cultures are known for having a greater collectivist focus, meaning that the culture stresses the needs of the community as a whole over the needs of each individual. Such cultural differences can lead to dramatic variations in how children are raised. Parents from Western cultures might stress the importance of their child developing a strong sense of self-esteem and independence, while parents from Eastern cultures might focus more on how their child can contribute to the family unit and to society as a whole.
No matter what the child's surrounding culture might be, the parental strategies used are designed to produce children who can meet the goals and expectations of the culture in which they live. Let's look at two hypothetical examples of how culture can influence development. Child 1 is born in an agricultural community in a poor country where resources are scarce, while Child 2 is born to an urban couple in an affluent nation. Clearly, the first child is going to grow up with different expectations than the child raised in an upper-class, urban environment.
The child from the rural setting might be expected to learn how to help on the family farm and eventually contribute to the management of the family's source of food and income. During the early years, this child's parents might focus on basic protection and survival needs such as providing warmth and food. As the child grows older, teaching practical skills and helping the child gain hands-on experience might become more important. Because of the cultural emphasis on ensuring the child's survival, the goal of childhood in this situation is to survive to adulthood in order to become a provider for the family.
For the child raised in the urban environment in the affluent country, early life might be considerably different. Because this child's parents worry less about basic needs, their focus will be more on lifestyle. During the early years, ensuring that the child has the best toys and participates in the best play group might be of the utmost concern. As the child grows older, the parents might shift their focus to making sure their child is enrolled in the most respected schools and attains the best possible grades. In this case, the child's culture suggests that the ultimate goal of childhood is to go to college and one day get a prestigious job.
Final Thoughts on How Experience Shapes Child Development
While culture can play a major role in how a child is raised, it is still important to remember that it is the interaction of influences that dictates how a child develops. Genetics, environmental influences, parenting styles, friends, teachers, schools and the culture at large are just some of the major factors that combine in unique ways to determine a child's growth and learning.
Berk, L. E. (2009). Child Development. 8th ed. United States of America: Pearson Education, Inc.
Hockenbury, D., & Hockenbury, S. E. (2007). Discovering Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Kail, R. E. (2006), Children and Their Development (4 ed.), Prentice Hall.
Levine, R. A. (1988). Human parental care: Universal goals, cultural strategies, individual behavior. In R. A. Levine, P. M. Miller, & M. M. West (Eds.). Parental behavior in diverse societies. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.