Arnold Gesell’s Lasting Contributions to Modern Developmental Parenting Styles
“The child’s personality is a product of slow gradual growth. His nervous system matures by stages and natural sequences. He sits before he stands; he babbles before he talks; he fabricates before he tells the truth; he draws a circle before he draws a square; he is selfish before he is altruistic; he is dependent on others before he achieves dependence on self. All of his abilities, including his morals, are subject to laws of growth. The task of child care is not to force him into a predetermined pattern but to guide his growth.”
Today’s parents have the benefit of utilizing information and experience from a wide variety of developmental parenting styles. One of the pioneers of child development theory and a champion of individuality, Arnold Gesell introduced an entirely new view of child development.
Arnold Gesell is most well-known for his popular book “Infant and Child in the Culture of Today: the Guidance of Development in Home and Nursery School. After receiving his Ph.D from Clark University, in 1906, he served as an assistant professor at Yale University. While there, he developed an interest in physiology and continued his studies and received his M.D. in 1915.
Among his primary interests were the causes and treatment of childhood disabilities. His outstanding research in that field led to the creation of the Clinic of Child Development and a full professorship at Yale. In order to improve observation techniques, he invented the Gesell dome, which was a one-way mirror named for its shape. Under this dome, children could be observed without the distraction of seeing their own reflections. He was one of the first researchers to combine the use of a one-way mirror and a movie camera to record and study children’s responses to stimuli in a controlled environment.
Through observation of approximately 12,000 children, he reached several conclusions. One of his conclusions was that all children experience specific stages of development. Gesell was the first to conclude that children develop not by age, but in stages. His research led to his belief that while those stages are the same for all children, the pace at which they reach each stage of development is not dependent upon their ages, but a combination of internal and external factors. Internal factors include genetics, physical development, and personality. External factors include environmental influences such as parents, peers, and society. His research also led to many of the developmental parenting styles of parents today.
Controversy Surrounding the Maturational Theory
Gesell’s Maturational Theory of child development led to the publication of the Gesell Developmental Schedules, which summarized descriptions of each developmental stage and its sequence. Critics of his theories maintained that he relied too heavily on genetic factors to accurately account for the complexity of perception, learning, and behavioral processes. The controversy surrounding his maturational theory still continues. However, Gesell himself was the first to recognize and acknowledge the difficulty of distinguishing between nature and nurture as the primary cause of a developmental delay.
One of the greatest benefits his research had on modern developmental parenting styles was freeing parents from the anxiety caused by rigid, age-based theories of development. Age based theories often had the effect of causing parents to panic or feel that there was something “wrong” if a child did not, for example, take its first step by the age of one year. Famous examples, such as Albert Einstein, who did not speak until the age of four, clearly demonstrate the vast range of differences in stages of development that can occur. Gesell’s theories also helped reduce the social stigma from children whose developmental schedules deviated from what age-based theorists decreed as “the norm”.
The Gesell Institute of Human Development, named after him in 1950, was started by his colleagues from the Clinic of Child Development. One of them was Dr. Frances Ilg, with whom he co-authored two books about developmental parenting styles. Although he was already retired by 1948, his theories are still highly respected today. In addition to championing equal rights and education for those with developmental disabilities, he was also ahead of his time in advocating for a universal childcare system. His theories also remain relevant regarding the current controversy over standardized testing and the development of educational curriculum.
Societies seem to be notoriously slow when it comes to implementing new scientific knowledge. However, there is increasing evidence that his research is resulting in developmental parenting styles that celebrate the unique individuality of every child.