The many different theories that aim to explain how humans develop throughout the lifespan can be classified in continuous and discontinuous theories. The first group support the idea that children have the same logic and structure as adults, being the only difference the complexity of those structures. Therefore, for these theorists, the way kids develop is through a gradual process, where they advance in certain skills and capacities. On contrasts, discontinuous theories suggest that children’s world and their thoughts, emotions and behaviour organization are different from the adults’, and they have to build those structures from scratch, by following a stages process.
Stage approaches fall within the discontinuous theories and they support the idea that children go through a series of universal stages that are characterised by the accomplishment of certain capacities. Some of the most influential theories in this category are Freud’s psychosexual and Erikson’s psychoanalytical stages, as a representation of psychoanalysis; and Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory.
General strengths and weaknesses
Each of those has its particular strengths and weaknesses, but one thing all these stages approaches have in common is their great contribution to the field of Development Psychology. They have raised new questions and promoted new research, helping to progress on the understanding of the development of children and during the lifespan.
For example, Psychoanalysis has inspired research on some factors such as attachment, aggression, sibling relationships, child-rearing practices, morality, gender roles, and adolescent identity. Also, Piaget’s ideas have encouraged many other researches to further study the issues he found, such as the A-not-B error; but also, he was the starting point of other philosophies and theories that found base on his ideas and research.
On the other hand, the main weakness with the stages approach, on contrast to continuous theories, is that they don’t account the variation among individuals. They assume that the stages are universal and that every person go through those stages in the indicated order and at the specified age. In other words, these theories might be seen as inflexible and they can’t explain individual differences.
If we analyse each of the theory individually, we would find further strengths and weaknesses.
Psychoanalytic approaches’ weaknesses
Some additional problems Freud’s theory faces are that some of his concepts, such as the ego or unconsciousness, are quite vague and impossible to test empirically. He didn’t use any scientific method to prove his theory and he based his ideas on what he saw in individuals, so it is not possible to generalise.
Erikson’s theory confronts similar weaknesses, and also the fact that the stages he proposes are based on his point of view and don’t take into account how individuals from different cultures differ one to another (e.g. it is during the stage ‘Generativity vs stagnation’ that adults would have kids, however, in some cultures it is common to have children during young adulthood).
Piaget’s strengths and weaknesses
Not only Piaget has inspired new research and philosophies, his ideas have helped to create new educational programs, where teachers teach according to the age of the child and the stage of development. Piaget also promoted learning by experiencing with the objects and the world and he contributed with some teaching strategies, such as supporting environment or helping children to discover the inconsistencies in their thinking.
However, influential as it is, his theory has had a lot of critiques. First, Piaget was criticised because of his research methods and the difficulty of replicating his studies. He worked by observing his own kids, and children from well-educated families, which means the samples weren’t very representative. In addition, he lacked a clear operationally defined variable.
Another important issue with Piaget’s theory is that he underestimated the competencies of children. Other researches found that the tasks Piaget used were too difficult for infants of that age, and if the tasks were simplified and adapted to their day-to-day experiences, kids would be able to complete them at earlier ages. This discovery suggests that the maturity of kids’ thinking may depend on their familiarity with the task and its complexity.
Further studies show that children can improve performance in Piagetian issues by training, and this questions the idea that discovery learning is better than adult teaching for development.
Finally, Piaget has also been criticized because of his lack of focus on social and culture factors, that also play a role in the children development. He mentions the social influence but he barely pays attention to it, leaving his theory uncomplete.
In conclusion, the stage approaches have contributed to the progress of the children’s development knowledge by bringing new ideas and concepts to the table, but the idea of universal stages might fail short in explaining individual differences.