The early years of a psychology degree involve extensive studies in developmental psychology. On the pathway to becoming psychologists, we are drilled in various theories of development that attempt to explain the emotional, social and cognitive development of children.
When I became a parent, the stages of development took on a whole new meaning. The dry descriptive terms found in those developmental textbooks hardly matched the antics of my children. Below I’ve translated Piaget’s theory of cognitive development into a guide of what parents can expect.
0-2 years The Sensorimotor Stage: Piaget says “Your child understands the world through senses and actions. Develops an understanding of object permanence and stranger anxiety.
What this actually means: Your baby puts everything in their mouth and generally prefers small bits they find on the carpet for their experiential learning to any parent approved toy. You will toy with the idea of cleaning the floors daily and then realise you will have to do this with a baby on your hip or that you just don’t want to. You develop a new belief that some exposure to dirt and germs is helpful for a child’s immune system.
Learning about object permanence means the end of crying when a ball disappears behind a couch because “it is gone forever”. It will mean endless games of peekaboos as your baby finds fun in this new concept.
Stranger anxiety may look like making coffee for visitors with a child wrapped around your leg because they won’t be held by anyone else. Or being anxious about returning to work because you know each day will start with a baby protesting separation. You might find yourself regularly giving yourself a pep talk every time you leave your toddler in someone else’s care “they will get upset, but no permanent damage is being done and they’re always happily playing when I collect them right?”
2-7 years The Preoperational Stage: Piaget says your child “understands the world through language and mental images. Lacking in logical reasoning children enjoy pretend play and are egocentric. It is an intense period of language development”.
What this actually means. Reading the same book about 200 times and pointing and labelling words for your child. Extra points are awarded for animal noises. You may find yourself googling “what sound does a giraffe make?”
The wonderful combination of egocentrism “the world revolves around me” and the lack of logical reasoning “I just want it my way” may result in tough standoffs and tantrums through which you will whisper to yourself “be the adult”.
In the absence of logic and fully taking advantage of your child’s love of pretend play, you may call on fanciful mythical; creatures like fairies to get your kids to engage in any kind of routine “the fairies always brush their teeth. I bet the sparkle fairy is brushing her teeth right now.” Bribery may become second nature to you even though you swore you’d never do it. You’ll call it encouraging and positive reinforcement but deep in your heart you will know its bribery. You may let your child wear a superhero costume for all occasions because no amount of talking it through will get them to understand that superhero costumes are for play and you really do need to buy some milk sometime this week.
A love of pretend play may means endless tea parties and eating mudpies. Or teacher games where you the parent, must be bossed around by your child, the teacher. Do not make the rookie mistake of thinking you will get to be the teacher in the game at any point. You may notice thoughts like “it’s so unfair, I never get to be the teacher” or “this kid of mine is super bossy” as your child revels in taking on the power role in the play.
7-11 years The Concrete Operational Stage: Piaget says “Your child understands the world through logical thinking and categories. Develops an understanding of conservation and mathematical transformations.”
What this actually means Family life now takes some kind of reasonable structure without regular tantrums. Logical thinking may take the form of your child adhering to rules so tightly that you can no longer bend them “but I thought you said” may become a regular sentence starter. Your child may begin to read labels of products and proclaim they are unsafe because “it says here….”.
As your kids understand the conservation principle, there will be less protests of “he got more than me” if you pour drinks into two different shaped glasses. Maybe.
Your child may now make deals with you and negotiate the terms of bribery (I mean positive reinforcement). “Do you need any jobs done mom? I was thinking maybe I could earn $5 for cleaning my room because $2.50 isn’t fair, mom”.
11 + years The Formal Operations Stage: Piaget says your child “Understands the world through hypothetical and scientific reasoning.”
What this actually means Your child is now officially a smarty pants. You will get asked all sorts of curious questions such as “If a snake smells through its tongue, why does it have nostrils?” and “Why do people keep making so much rubbish when they know it’s bad for the environment?” Note this does not mean they accept birthday present rationing or will want to wear recycled clothing to reduce waste. It’s generally more of a broader ethical question regarding everybody else’s consumption.
Children in this age will begin to challenge your wisdom. You no longer officially know everything and they may even tell you that. You may find that your child can explain a concept to you better than you can. I have caught myself asking my kid to explain a technology concept to me.
The lived experience of moving through the cognitive developmental stages with your child can be entertaining, frustrating and even downright tedious. Whatever it is, it’s so much richer than a few dot points on a developmental stage chart.
Nadene van der Linden is a clinical psychologist in private practice. Nadene writes regularly for Parent Co and PsychCentral. Join the Unshakeable Calm facebook group today for science-based tips to help women live calm and confident lives. Find her on her website and on Instagram.