Maturational Theory

The childhood years are a period of life during which great change occurs, both on the physical level as well as the psychological level. Over the past 100 years or so, many theories have been introduced that attempt to explain just how the development of a child unfolds, with the majority of these theories coming out of the realm of developmental psychology. For instance, one of the better known theories is Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, in which a person’s personality is formed before the age of five and through a series of progressive stages that involve a strong drive toward pleasure focused mainly on the erogenous zones in the human body.

This force is called the libido, and is the main factor in the development of one’s personality. Other theories exist too, with a few of the main ones being Erikson’s psychosocial theory, Piaget’s cognitive theory, and Kohlberg’s morality theory. Below will be discussed another such theory of how children develop, both psychologically and physically, and it is called Maturational Theory.

What Is The Maturational Theory?

The maturational theory of development was put forth by a U.S. pediatrician, Arnold Gesell. Gesell believed that most of the development in children is due to genes or biology, and that such biology pre-destines a child to behave in certain Newborn baby being held by her mom.ways. However, as Gesell contends, the right environment must still exist if the genetics are to unfold correctly, much like the right potting soil, light, and temperature is to a flower. Gesell also advocated for a stage theory, in which the child’s proper development will unfold according to progressive stages. These stages are marked by norms, or certain milestones that all children should reach at specific points in their development. Furthermore, Gesell maintained that outside of the child’s genetics, little else can influence development, not even life experience, illness, newly learned skills, etc. According to Gesell, all that is needed for a child’s ideal development is already programmed in the genes.

Current Application To Child Development

Gesell’s theory, and his explanation of how children will typically develop, their patterns and norms,  still rings true today, even among the drastic cultural differences between the 1950′s and now, so much so that many parents adopt Gesell’s theory into their parenting style. For example, included in Gesell’s theory is a concept called “growth gradients”, or maturational progressions, in such areas as a child’s expression of emotions, their educational life, and their abstract thinking, all of which can give parents a unique perspective of where their child has come from, developmentally, where he or she currently is, and where they can expect their child to be down the road. Observing this process can lead to many insightful moments for parents regarding their child’s unique personality growth. Thus, although Gesell did believe that there is not much a parent can do to influence their child’s development (aside from providing an extremely unbalanced and negative upbringing) what parents can do is to learn to adopt a sensitive and understanding approach to how their child develops, while watching out for the specific cues their child will hit upon, and that stem from the normative milestones in the developmental process.


Although modern theorists and parents alike still stand by Gesell’s theory of child development, the theory has drawn its share of criticism. For example, a big reason for criticism is that, some would say,  his theory does not take into account Group of three young children smiling at the camera.environmental or learning factors, rather it leans too heavily on strict biological determinism, genetics, as the sole reason for a person’s eventual personality development. Thus many detractors stand by the opinion that a child’s development is indeed, due to genes, but it is also just as much influenced by one’s beliefs, perspectives on life, how and what they learn, and when they learn it. Another criticism is that Gesell shunned the inner workings of the mind, choosing to do away with factors of human memory and cognition. One final criticism of this theory, and one that is shared with Freud’s theory, is that the theory does not lend itself quite readily to any experimentation, or hypothesis testing. Because of this, critics say Gesell’s theory can never be scientifically accepted as fact; although even to this day, as mentioned above, many parents and pediatricians still wholeheartedly embrace the maturational theory.