The Early Theories of Human Development

The Early Theories of Human Development

Human development occurs through age-related changes which take place over the course of an individual’s life span. Various psychologists in the past including Erik Erikson, Sigmund Freud, and Jean Piaget have described development as a process that entails a series of different stages. To explain how people develop in the course of their lives, the above mentioned developed various theories. This paper is going to provide an overview of the theories the psychologists mentioned above developed, comparing them to each other and highlighting their weaknesses.

Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Personality

The world today knows Sigmund Freud as the father of psychology. Most of his work still holds significant weight in the modern day despite some of it being dismissed. According to Freud’s theory of human development, human beings pass through various stages in their development process. The first stage of development according to this theory is the oral stage. Here, a child puts everything he touches in the mouth since it is its erogenous zone.

The next stage of development under Freud’s theory is the anal stage. At this point, children experience sexual gratification through bowel movements. This stage occurs between the age of two and three years. The third development stage under this theory is the oedipal stage. At this stage, children become more interested in their sexual organs than before.

The fourth development stage is known as Latency. At this point, children become interested in same-sex relationships. For instance, boys become interested in playing with fellow boys. At this stage, children are usually calm. The genital stage is the final developmental phase under Freud’s theory. At this point, children get the real sexual desires as the erogenous zone moves to the genital organs (Shaffer & Kipp, 2010).

Erik Erikson’s developmental theory

Erikson’s theory emphasizes the importance of a child’s early childhood phase. Erikson believed that development was a continuous process. Unlike Freud’s theory that has five phases, Erikson’s theory has eight distinct development stages. According to Erikson, a person’s development starts during infancy. This stage is known as trust versus mistrust where the child starts assessing whether the world around him can be trusted (Shaffer, 2009). The final phase in a person’s development occurs at old age. At this point, an individual accepts his life and ends up accepting death.

Jean Piaget’s development theory

Unlike Freud’s and Erikson’s theories, Piaget’s development theory is based on cognitive stages. The stages were determined by what a child could do. According to Piaget’s theory, a child’s development entails four stages. Piaget was interested in the senses and abilities, and not sexual desires as Freud. A child’s first stage of development is the sensorimotor stage. At this phase, a child learns the basics of object permanence and language (Ginsburg & Opper, 1988). The child is also able to understand the various environments it finds itself in.

The second phase of development under this theory is the preoperational stage. At this stage, a child develops a representation and language system. He can use words to represent events, places and people. This stage occurs between the age of two and seven years. Between the age of seven and thirteen years, a child is in the concrete operational stage. Here, he can solve problems using logic and rationale. The final developmental stage under Piaget’s theory is the formal operational phase. Once a child reaches this point, he can think in an abstract manner and employ hypothetical reasoning to solve problems.

Similarities and differences among the three theories


When we look at the three theories of human development, we can see that they all use stages to cover the process. Each of the highlighted phases has different characteristics and challenges. Based on these similarities, it is apparent that the successive stages of development build upon each other. Therefore, failure of one stage is likely to lead to failure of preceding next stages.

The other similarity among the three theories is that they are based on the idea that development takes place in the course of an individuals’ lifespan. Here, it is clear environmental surroundings influence a person’s development. From these findings, it is important to conclude that the three theories have a significant impact a person’s learning, particularly early childhood education.


There are several differences among the three theories of development. Freud’s theory focuses on sexual gratification, something that is not the case with Piaget’s theory. Piaget’s theory is based on the capabilities of the child whereas Freud’s theory focuses on a child’s erogenous zones. Under Piaget’s theory, adolescents are rational beings who use reason and logic to make decisions. Erikson posits that adolescents focus on self-discovery, intimate relationships, and are independent in decision making.

Erikson’s theory highlights how social experiences across an individual’s lifespan affect his development. According to this theory, a person’s development continues into the adulthood stage. Freud’s theory claims that biological forces and basic needs have a significant impact on a person’s development process. At the same time, Freud’s theory implies that development ceases at a certain stage in life.

Criticisms labeled against theories of development

Analysis of Freud, Erikson and Piaget’s development theories reveals that they each have good and bad points. One of the negative aspects of these theories is their paradigmatic assumptions. While coming up with the theories, the above-mentioned theorists took some ideas for granted as valid facts. For instance, Freud’s belief that women have low self-esteem due to penis envy is fallacious and wrong. At the same time, his belief that sexual desires are the driving force behind most of the things taking place in the society is false. People can repress their sexual desires easily and instead focus on important issues.

According to Piaget’s theory, there is a specific order through which a child must learn skills or virtues. However, this is not always the case children tend to develop differently. As a matter of fact, a child may develop wisdom if he fails to follow Piaget’s stages of development. In addition, a person can thing hypothetically without learning how to add, contrary to Piaget’s theory. One of the reasons why the early theories of human development are criticized is that they did not take into account race, ethnicity, gender and/or social economic statuses which do change. These factors vary across cultures and time, thereby resulting to different development levels.




Ginsburg, H., & Opper, S. (1988). Piaget’s theory of intellectual development. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall.

Shaffer, D. R. (2009). Social and personality development. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage    Learning.

Shaffer, D. R., & Kipp, K. (2010). Developmental psychology: Childhood and adolescence.          Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.