We’ve all heard about the long-standing debate of nature versus nurture. Perhaps you even know which side of the fence you tend to lean on regarding your own beliefs.

But did you know that there are other things that impact a person’s development aside from biology and the environment?

Theories: Is any one theory right and another entirely wrong? 

No— each theory gives a glimpse at a full picture. Imagine each theory like one piece to a puzzle.

People grow and change in many different aspects and ways throughout their lifetimes. There are several factors that influence development, which include socioemotional, cognitive, and biological processes. In addition to the many factors that contribute to human development, there are also several theories of development. These theories of development are psychoanalytical, cognitive, behavioral and social, ecological, and eclectic theoretical orientation.

So what on earth does this have to do with parenting?!

First, let’s summarize the theory categories themselves to gain an understanding of how we can use psychology to be better parents.

Psychoanalytical theories

These theories focus on the unconscious and emotion. Freud and Erikson have contributed to these types of philosophies. Psychoanalytic theories demonstrate that behavior is a surface-level facet that is influenced by under-the-surface facets, which are the truly important elements of development.

Psychoanalytical approach to parenting

Every behavior your child exhibits is because of something that’s under the surface— their feelings and needs. In traditional parenting, parents punish and reward behavior in hopes that their kids will do less or more of those behaviors. Do you see where these parenting techniques are only dealing with the symptoms rather than treating the core of the issues?

We must look under the surface. Interpret our children’s behaviors and even words as merely symptoms. When we discover what is underneath, we can lean in with empathy and help them get their needs met in a positive way.

Cognitive theories

These theories focus on conscious thoughts. Piaget has a cognitive theory of development that states that people of different ages have different levels of understanding.

A cognitive approach to parenting

When we look at our children at their current level of understanding, we can adjust our expectations of them to align with what they’re cognitively capable of. A two-year-old child cannot be held responsible for keeping himself out of a street filled with busy traffic. So we shouldn’t be expecting him to stay out of the road, rewarding him when he heeds that command, punishing him when he doesn’t. Instead, we put boundaries in place so that he has no ability to access the road in the first place, and we monitor him to ensure he’s staying within that boundary. It is our job as parents to ensure our children stay safe.

What adjustments can you make to the expectations you have for your children?

Behavioral and Social Cognitive Theories

The theories of behaviorism look at surface-level elements which can be observed and measured. Skinner and Bandura have been contributors to this type of cognitive development theory. Skinner’s theory states that if the behavior is rewarded, it will likely recur. And if punishment is present, behaviors will be less likely to occur again. Albert Bandura has a social cognitive theory that suggests that the important elements of development are environment, behavior, and cognition.

Behavioral and social-cognitive theories in parenting

Although Skinner did prove that rewards and punishments are effective in the short term, psychologists agree that these methods do not lead to an internal desire to choose certain behaviors and avoid other behaviors. What this means is that punishment and rewards actually hurt our kids in the long run because they take away their ability to make the right choice merely because it is the right choice.

Ecological theory

Environment plays the largest role in development according to ecological theories of development.

Ecological theory as it applies to parenting

What our kids experience and what they see us modeling is the number one influence in their own behavior, especially long-term. This is because the environment we are surrounded by during our childhood years will program us internally, subconsciously to behave and communicate the way those around us did.

The common phrase, “Do what I say and not as I do,” should be outlawed when discussing parenting. We can only expect our children to succeed in something if we as parents are first modeling success in that same area. Even then we need to have grace and allow our children to make mistakes. No one can get everything correct 100% of the time— why do we expect that of our kids’ behavior?

An eclectic theoretical orientation

This concept suggests that lifespan development is not so simple as to be summed up by one theory. Psychology textbooks use an approach that selects from each theory of development.

Eclectic theoretical orientation and parenting

As you can see, not one theory gives the full picture. It is important that we research each of them and determine which aspects apply to the subject at hand.

Nature vs. nurturing environment

Heredity and environment can be correlated, which can make it challenging to determine whether a trait is present because of the environment, or whether the environment has been influenced by the presence of the trait. The epigenetic view indicates that there is a constantly evolving and changing connection between heredity and the environment where the two are always influencing one another. I tend to agree with this view regarding the nature-nurture debate. Both nature and nurture are important to development. Just as textbooks view cognitive development theories from a lens of “not one, a single idea is all-encompassing,” I believe the same is true with heredity and environment. Taking just one view and applying it to every situation would be ineffective. A deeper level of looking into each situation to determine which aspects of heredity have influenced the development and analyzing the environment to see the influences is a good approach.

And when it comes to parenting, knowing the psychology and brain science behind our kids’ levels of understanding and behaviors is crucial. 

If you are interested in further evidence to support that environment and behavior modeling are influential in how our children develop, watch a short summary of the Bobo experiment conducted by Albert Bandura many decades ago.


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