Behaviorist Theory

So much growth occurs during the childhood years. Children grow rapidly not only physically, but also socially, emotionally, and psychologically. Over the decades there have been many theories which attempt to explain just how it is that children develop. Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, and Gesell’s Maturational theory are just two examples. One other example is the Behaviorist theory, which is a theory that attempts to explain how we learn, and thus develop from such learning. Provided below is a deeper investigation into Behaviorist theory.

What Is The Behaviorist Theory?

The Behaviorist theory states that how we learn and develop and grow from that learning is entirely based on outside stimuli, with the more internal states of mind such as consciousness, playing no part in the developmental process.

For Mother watching her baby.example, a child, according to this theory, is essentially an organism that responds to external stimuli, with the child being in the role of a passive learner. Thus, the child, at birth, starts out as a blank slate, untouched by the influences of the outside world. However, soon the child’s behavior, their development of personality, begins to be shaped by either being rewarded or punished for choices they make in response to external stimuli. Whether there is a reward or a punishment will determine if the child’s future behavior is to respond in that same way again. So, development of a child is essentially a series of changes by the child of their responses (behavior) in certain situations. The theory was put forth by several psychologists, mainly during the 1930 and 40′s. For instance, B.F. Skinner and John Watson are two of the more prominent founding fathers of the Behaviorist theory, along with other such as E.L. Thorndike, Ivan Pavlov, and Albert Bandura.

Current Application To Child Development

Behaviorist theory has been, and still is today, a highly popular and, many would say, effective way to not only explain a child’s development, but also as a way to parent a child. Overall, the child’s brain learns over a series of situations and periods of time that if certain behaviors are repeated over and over, a specific result will occur. Essentially, the child is conditioned to react in a certain way to get a desired result, or not to behave in a certain way in order to avoid an undesired result. When it comes to parenting, a parent can use this learning pattern to shape their child’s behavior.

For example, on the one hand, parents can reward their child when positive, desirable behavior is performed, such as giving the child a special treat. Also, the parent can punish the child, by not giving the treat or giving a time-out when the child does not perform the desired behavior. One the other side, a parent can themselves model whichever desired behavior they wish their child to do, such as proper behavior at the dinner table. When the child sees the parent doing a certain behavior, that child is likely to copy.


As with any theory, the Behaviorist theory does come with its share of criticisms. For example, the theory does not take into account the subjective internal experience of the child, favoring instead to lay emphasis on the external world shaping Father playing with his baby.the child’s personality. This leaves little room for the possibility of free will in a person, the choice to do what he or she wants regardless of what is happening in the outside world. Also, the theory has a tough time explaining away in children the phenomenon of sudden creative and novel behavior, ideas and actions that had no bearing on what went on external to the child’s mind. One other criticism is that the behaviorist mode of parenting suggests that the only way a child can attain love from their parents is if the child acts in the way the parents are requesting, which may actually have as a result a worsening effect on the child’s personality development.