Developmental Psychology Academic Essay Dominic Ward

Given that we all experience our lives differently, can normative development exist? Normative development, as a concept, is a strange creature. Initially, there is a compelling logic to the idea that there are observable milestones that define normal, or average, development. A milestone is after all simply a chronologically significant achievement; non-achievement of certain critical milestones is often thought to be an indication of abnormal development. Yet, on closer consideration, much of this façade falls away at an instant. After all, what is ‘normal’? What is truly even understood by this term? That no two individuals express the same self begs the question: by normative development, is it really only meant that which is socially appropriate? Or is it yet something else entirely? It will be the objective of this essay to argue that normative development does exist and is best understand under the terms defined by a bioecological theory of development. Furthermore, it will be proposed that there are three distinct elements observable in the developmental process, all of which can be explained by bio-ecological theory. In fulfilling this aim, firstly, a review of the concept of normative development will be presented, by way of setting an overall tone for the study. Within the context of this review, the three key elements of the developmental process will be discussed, in order of presentation: physical norms; age norms; and the growth of the will. Following this will be an in-depth examination of the bio-ecological view through the vehicle of a case study. This case study should serve as a proving ground for

the ideas to be propounded within this essay. Supplementarily, a third section to the essay will provide a detailed report into the conclusions and possible ramifications indicated by the critique of theory through the vehicle of the case study, making then final recommendations for the resolution of the issues of normative development. It is hoped that through this essay, it might be shown that there is a place in counselling for the concept of normative development.

Much has been written about the physical milestones or norms. Most new parents understand that their newborns will develop strength in their necks at around three months, crawl sometime around six to eight months, begin walking and talking at around twelve months, develop their full adult immune capacity around six years of age, stop growing in height by the time they are twenty (perhaps a little younger for girls), outlive them, eventually dying around the ages of 76 for men and 81 for women (Sigelman, 2009). The chronology for all of these milestones described represents the average. That is, for example, a majority of babies begin to walk and say their first meaningful words around the age of twelve months. That a baby may be a month early or late in achieving these milestones is largely beside the point; from the point of view of statistics, any additional data will only further reinforce the average, whether that average is mobile or static.

That brings the discussion to age norms, socially prescribed milestones that fit a larger cultural definition of what it means to develop through the life. As there are specific physical milestones that indicate the health of the body, so there are societal norms, age-

based, that define expectations of behaviour and responsibilities, and therefore indicate the health of psyche. In current western culture (whatever is really meant by this), it is recognised that, for example, at age 6 or thereabouts, a child will be ready to begin schooling. Similarly, at age 17, society deems an adolescent capable of driving a car. Then at 18, the right to vote and drink alcohol among other things is ordained; the individual at this birthday legally becomes an adult and his or her parents are legally absolved of all responsibility to and for him or her. All human cultures have readily observable and demonstrable age norms. Unlike physical norms which are individualspecific, age norms typically describe a milestone that will be achieved uniformly by all individuals of that society at that exact age. In this way, age norms can elicit a negative experience in those members of a society who lacks the means, for whatever reason, to fulfil them adequately. Much angst and alienation may be the result of this. Positive achievement, obviously, will have the reverse affect, instilling a feeling of accomplishment and pride in the individual, giving them much confidence to move forward through the life-span.

The third element observable in the developmental process is, admittedly, speculative. However, it is hoped that the case study will highlight how it fits in with the bioecological model. The will, also referred to in literature as the spirit, the soul or the ego, is that part of our individual being which informs our deepest choices and seeks to guide us towards the fulfilment of our potentials. No other theory explains adequately this internal drive that allows even the most humble of acolytes the power to act against his or her master. This idea shall be studied in-depth later in the essay.

That there are observable physical and age norms - without even talk of the speculative notion of the will - it must surely now be concluded that normative development exists. It is not logically possible to answer otherwise. However, this conclusion must be explained in order to give it a final weight. Physical norms are mere observations and age norms are nothing more than societal and cultural constructs, arbitrary and shifting. What links these two together, explaining adequately at the same time their place in the total picture of human development? What can explain, more importantly, the fact that not all children develop according to these prescribed norms? Development of this nature cannot readily be explained by any of the major theories, for it is the intention of this essay to argue that there is an underpinning human force that drives development – a development of the spirit. In elaborating, through the analysis of a case study, it will be of help to utilise the work of Urie Bronfenbrenner, as his theory will shine much light on what is truly occurring in the developmental process.

It is now time to introduce the case study. Kurt Cobain was the lead singer, guitarist and, most importantly, songwriter for the most successful rock band of the 1990s, Nirvana. By all accounts a bright and happy child, he retreated into a world of despair and depression around the age of eight. The trigger may have been his parent’s divorce, but clinical depression and suicidal ideation were a family theme – two uncles and a grandfather had succeeded in killing themselves previously. (Thompson, 1994). At age 23, Cobain was the most important man in rock music of his time. By 27 he had had enough of life, his suicide finally coming in the April of 1994. In terms of physical and age norms, there is no information to suggest that Cobain did not develop at any

significant deviation from the average. (Thompson, 1994; Azerrad, 1993; Cross, 2002). He achieved his physical milestones largely on schedule and met many of the age norms within his society and culture. Yet, he was a tortured young man, alive with daemons the like of which the average person simply could not understand.

The bio-ecological model proffered by Bronfenbrenner: …accounts for both outcomes and processes of development by incorporating the interactions of individuals with their environments over time. Bronfenbrenner rejected the common assumption of most research that developmental attributes (intelligence, achievement, Piagetian-type stages and processes etc) can be measured and examined out of the context of an individual’s life, time and society. (Renn and Arnold, 2003). Bronfenbrenner believed that human development is a gestalt of environmental systems. Each system affects the development of the individual in an open-ended manner. In this way, Cobain’s development could be understood to have been a product, firstly, of his individual condition, that is, his age, health, sex, and secondly, of the multitude of environmental factors that contributed to his immediate surroundings (family, school, friends – the microsystem), his larger surroundings (mass media, neighbours, his town – the exosystem), the prevailing attitudes and ideologies of his time (the macrosystem) and finally the workings of time on his experiences (the chronosystem). Bio-ecological theory further posits that: In order for development to occur, the individual must engage in increasingly complex actions and tasks. (Renn and Arnold, 2003).

That is, development is affected through the process of challenging oneself. Growth will not occur in a vacuum; static functioning does not promote development in that no learning will take place. (Weisner, 2008). Bio-ecological theory therefore has something in common with the learning theories of Skinner, Watson and others.

Applied to the case study, bio-ecological theory easily explains much of Cobain’s life. At the core is the individual: the physical traits (those that define normative development at the physical level) and the sensibilities and potentials (encapsulated in the genes). Cobain was male, had blond hair and blue eyes and was of average health. He had abilities in the fine arts, music and a particular skill with language. His microsystem described much of the angst and alienation he would feel as he grew up: his parents were divorced and his affinity for the arts led to his being ostracised from the general workingclass mentality of his school peers and neighbourhood. He eventually drifted into groups that were at least somewhat sympathetic to his sensibilities. (Azerrad, 1993). All of this was reinforced through the processes of the mesosystem that connected these areas of his microsystem. His depression certainly would have been exacerbated by the connections between his poor family life, his alienation from peers and by the constant grey and gloom of the town in which he lived. (Thompson, 1994; Cross, 2002). The exo- and macrosystems that he experienced influenced him greatly, and visa-versa and his acute sensitivity to the zeitgeist of his society, culture and time allowed him to eventually, through his music and lyrics, become the ‘spokesperson for his generation.’ (Thompson, 1994; Azerrad, 1993; Cross, 2002). His final act of suicide can also be largely understood within the bio-ecological context for development. It was certainly part of his

genetic plan (the history of suicide in his family) and the combination of his addictive personality (chronic heroin addiction), the complexities of the industry he was in, the pressures and expectations that accompanied his fame and his own personal issues (serious marital problems among others) all led to this ultimate choice. But there is still this matter of personal daemons which seemed to plague Cobain’s life.

The ego, the will, the spirit; whichever name is given this force, its essence remains the same: it is the mechanism by which Bronfenbrenner’s exclamation that development requires a learning process whereby, ‘the individual must engage in increasingly complex actions and tasks’ (Renn and Arnold, 2003) is made true. It is the contention of this paper that it is ego which drives the individual onto to these new experiences and challenges. Although Bronfenbrenner made no discussion of the ego in his bioecological model, it would not have been out of place: indeed, it would take up seat quite comfortably as an element in Bronfenbrenner’s concept of the individual. …ego development is an evolving framework of meaning that is imposed by the individual upon his or her inner experiences and perceptions of people and events. Implicit in this view, then, is the assumption that each person has a customary orientation to himself or herself, and to the world, and that there is a continuum along which these frames of reference can be arrayed. (Hauser and Safyer. 1994). Furthermore: The essence of the ego is to integrate and make sense out of experience. (Cramer, 1999).

Perhaps an easier way of understanding what exactly is meant by ego is to examine the ideas of Scheler and Nietzsche. Both men believed that the ego, or the will, is the manifestation of the individual power of a person. (Burston, 2003). In this capacity, the ego acts to drive and direct the individual towards certain experiences that serve to fulfil the latent potentials or powers within. Through these interactions with the different spheres of the bio-ecological model, the ego develops, creating the reality of the individual as it does.

Cobain, as earlier suggested, was possessed by daemons that otherwise defy rational explanation. His creative visions tormented him, and his yearnings for a fusion of these visions with his reality eventually obliterated him. He could not make the beauty he experienced in his sub-conscious fit in with the demands of the concrete world, and it was his sense of integrity that suffered. (Cross, 2002). It was this integrity of spirit that defined his ego. Cobain was motivated then by this primary ego drive to seek the experiences he did, thus contributing to his overall development. The fulfilment of physical and age norms were supplementary to this, playing roles described in the bioecological model. Cobain’s suicide, then, was a necessary outcome of or step in his development, informed as it was at the level of the ego, and shaped by an experience of the world that derives much influence from its proximal and distal environments.

In conclusion, normative development does exist. It can be traced through the life of Kurt Cobain as much as any other person. It even can describe the death of a person, perhaps at this point even having the final say about the ultimate meaning to the

individual life. That there are delineated age norms, prescribed by culture and society, there is no doubt. These are readily identifiable and easily explained, for they provide necessary functions within the society. Neither is it disputed that there are observable milestones for physical development; again this is merely functional, providing indications of the health of the developing child. Indeed, it would be prudent to now proffer the opinion that age norms, in particular, as societal constructs, can have a negative impact on individuals. And nor should the status of the physical and age norms be reduced to that of mere inconvenience, for it has been seen that they both have a role to play in the processes of the bio-ecological model. But on a personal level, away from the chatter of function, normative value means something far more esoteric than has been thus far propounded in the literature. Normative development, as demonstrated through the example of Cobain, is that process by which an individual, informed and motivated by the ego-state, develops through the life-span by constantly challenging and learning from experiences provided them by their environments, both proximal and distal. Furthermore, it is the nature of the individual ego that influences the types of experiences that will be sought. In this way, normative development can be said to simply describe this universal process by which all humans journey through life. It is, therefore, by its very nature, existent.

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