Child psychology is the study of children's mental processes, with a particular focus on cognitive and language development and socialization. Child psychology aims to help parents, teachers and care workers ensure an environment favorable to children's emotional, cognitive and social development. Efforts to understand children are meant to maximize their development. Child psychology makes the distinction between cognitive, emotional and social aspects of behavior and development. However, this distinction is purely theoretical as the different aspects of behavior interact with each other. There are reciprocal and interactive relationships between cognition, emotion and behavior.
Attitudes toward children have changed over time. In the Middle Ages, children were regarded as miniature adults. According to historian Philippe Aries, children only acquired a special status as late as the 17th century. It was philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) who first suggested that the mind of the newly born child was like a blank slate. According to his theory, experiences during childhood were crucial for shaping adults' characteristics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 to 1778) argued that children were born good and innocent; it was how they were nurtured that corrupted them. During this period the term "the noble savage," was coined to convey the idea of the innate goodness of man, which might be spoiled by civilization.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the understanding of child psychology became more scientific. Sigmund Freud (1856 to 1939), known as the father of psychoanalysis, identified the following psychosexual stages in a person's development: oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. His theory claimed that human behavior is motivated by two drives - libido and thanatos. Freud divided the psyche into id, ego and superego, saying that people are born with their id, while the ego develops during the first three years. The superego, on the other hand, develops by the end of the phallic period.
Erik Erikson (1902 to 1994) was one of the major psychologists influenced by Freud's work. Unlike his teacher's psychosexual theory, Erikson elaborated on the impact of social experiences on development. According to his research, one of the major aspects of growth is the development of the ego identity. Erikson identified eight stages of development during a lifespan. Between birth and the age of 20, a person goes through five of the eight stages, according to Erikson.
Meanwhile, Hungarian-born psychiatrist Margaret Mahler (1897 to 1985) became famous for her Separation-Individuation theory of child development. She advocated for the idea that the newborn perceives itself as one with the mother and the environment, only gradually discovering its own identity. In particular, Mahler divided the early bonding stages from birth to 18 months into autistic phase, symbiotic stage, separation-individuation, differentiation and rapprochement. The 20th-century school of behaviorism saw behavior as controlled by consequences. Behaviorists were calling for a stronger emphasis on observable and quantifiable behavior so that psychology could qualify as a scientific discipline. Eminent behaviorists, including John B. Watson (1878 to 1958) and B.F. Skinner (1904 to 1990), insisted that children learn through the processes of association and reinforcement.
In reaction to behaviorism, cognitivism studied how mental processes had an effect on growth and development. Swiss-born psychologist Jean Piaget (1896 to 1980) expressed the view that children were not just passive recipients of information, but also scientists who actively constructed knowledge and understanding of the world. According to his scientific model, cognitive development goes through the stage of assimilation, or the integration of new information into previously existing schema; as well as accommodation, or the process of change and alteration of existing schema following the acquisition of new information. In the 20th century, psychologists recognize the influence of inheritance as well as the environment on a child's development. Debates also focus on the relative importance of early experiences and events which come later in life. Psychoanalytical theorists put to the fore childhood events and even claim that a child's personality may be fully shaped by the age of five years.
Child psychology includes cross-sectional research, which involves the comparison of different groups, as well as longitudinal research, which studies the development of the same group of people over time. Its data collection methods include naturalistic observation, case studies, questionnaires and experimentation.