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Children and Adolescents as Producers of Their Own Development

Richard M. Lerner

What My Grandmother Always Knew

1 completed my doctoral dissertation at the City University of New York in absentia. On the evening before my oral defense I flew in from Michigan, where I was teaching, to New York City. I stayed with my mother and grandmother, who shared an apartment in Brooklyn. Both seemed especially quiet that evening, as if reluctant to disturb what they may have sensed was a delicate homeostasis. When I left for Manhattan the next morning all either said to me was “Good luck.”

After a successful defense I returned to Brooklyn feeling quite elated and upon arriving I found my mothers reaction to my success to be more grandiose than mine. My mother and grandmother each had her own phone, with extensions often adjacent to each other in the same room. My mother sat facing the entrance of the apartment with a receiver at each ear. As I entered and answered the all-purpose Yiddish question, “Nu?” with “Yes, I passed,” my mother sprang into action. The relatives who were holding on each line were given their instructions about how to proceed with a chain call that, to hear my mother explain it, would reach family members of five generations on both sides of the Atlantic.

As my mother continued to dial and talk on two phones simultaneously, my grandmother walked over to where 1 was standing, incredulous in the apartment entranceway. With a Yiddish accent that remains strong despite her over 60 years in this country she asked, “So tell me Sonny, what did you write your book about?"

While my grandmother is a very bright woman, she has no formal education, especially in the technology (and jargon) of psychology. I immediately recognized that I would have to communicate the main findings of my work without recourse to the vocabulary of my profession. My dissertation dealt with topics that today fall under the headings of “child influences” and “reciprocal socialization,” topics that bear directly on key themes in this article. My work assessed whether children and adolescents who differed in their physical characteristics (i.e., their body types) elicited different, stereotyped reactions from their peers and, if so, whether these children and adolescents had body and self-concepts consistent with the appraisals of their peers. This explanation was not, however, the one I related to my grandmother. Rather, my jargon-free account went something like: “Well, Grandma, I found out that children don’t like fat kids as much as they do average build kids, and that fat kids don’t like themselves very much either.”

My grandmother let go of my arm. She took a step back and her eyes narrowed. “Tell me boychick” (I knew something was wrong: she had switched pronouns on me), “how long did it take you to find this out?”

“Well, Grandma, it took me about a year and a half to complete the whole thing.”

Her open hand flew up and flopped the side of my head. “Stupid,” she said, “if you would have asked me I would have told you in two minutes!”

Reformulating My Reply: A Transition in the Study of Human Development

Perhaps I should have given my grandmother more credit for being able to follow a bit more convoluted of an argument. What might I have said?

First, I might have indicated that in a sense it is the job of social science to deal with the obvious. This occurs in two ways. As argued for by Prewitt (1980, pp. xxiii—xxiv), first:

The greatest discoveries of social science quickly become conventional wisdom . . . social science has the power to label, and therefore the power to reveal empirical constants and patterns of association which would otherwise not be “obvious” to us. Many social science terms have since slipped into common usage; they have become part of the conventional wisdom of society. A partial list from various disciplines would include adolescence, socialization, . . . GNP, . . . hyperactivity, . . . the rising revolution of expectations.

However, second:

If social science discovers the obvious, and thereby renders it accessible, it also disproves the obvious. It evaluates the truth of conventional wisdom, often finding that accepted assumptions are wrong. . . . The social sciences seldom get credit for their counter-intuitive findings, as legion as they are, because people quickly rearrange their belief systems, claiming that they “knew it all along.” Even this obvious fact was not so obvious before psychology began to develop theories of dissonance reduction.

(Prewitt, 1980, p. xxiv)

Second, I might have then explained how this view of the nature of social science bore on my particular research interests. My dissertation work was completed in early 1971. By that time some of the major conceptual and methodological ideas that not only influenced my thinking but, too, were to forge what I view as a revised understanding of the nature of human development, had appeared (Bakes, 1968; Brim & Wheeler, 1966; Goulet & Bakes, 1970; Schaie, 1965; Tobach & Schneirla, 1968). As a consequence of these ideas I might have told my grandmother that my work related to a view of human development that differed from perspectives then traditional in human development.

Conventionally, the study of the child was approached from the framework of ideas that saw the major bases of development as lying either within the child or extrinsic to him or her, that is, from an organismic or a mechanistic perspective, respectively (Reese & Overton, 1970). My view, however, was a “relational” one (Looft, 1973). There are always both intrinsic and extrinsic influences on the person. However, to appreciate the nature of their impact, to understand the developmental changes with which they are associated, one must recognize that both individual and environment may change and that, often, changes in one affect changes in the other. By being in a context that they both influence and are influenced by, children may promote their own development.

Nevertheless, even after indicating how my dissertation data illustrated the use of this perspective, my grandmother may have responded similarly (although perhaps without a slap), that is, that she knew this all along. Indeed, as noted by Bakes (1979a), the idea that people and their worlds are reciprocally interactive is not new.

Thus, what makes this idea and the recent work associated with it important? Brim (1981), in addressing this very question, provides an answer which links work on this idea with a major, current transition in the understanding of human development. He says:

The idea that organisms act to create environments to elicit responses from themselves is not new. The plan for getting oneself into the right situation to help one become something else, something more than he or she is today, is exemplified by hanging “THINK” signs at strategic points in one’s home and work place, and joining some of the thousands of organized groups devoted to helping one become a different person. What is new and powerful about this... is that it is the first major work dealing in broad perspective with the idea, and placing the idea firmly in the theory of life-span development.

Behind this idea, to be sure, is the view that the organism is dynamic, powered by curiosity, growth, expansion, and a drive towards mastery over itself and its world. . . . Behind the idea is also the view that organisms are open to change, are much more malleable than heretofore thought, and that the consequences of early experience and biological endowment are transformed by later experience.

In other words, Brim (1981) sees the idea—that as a consequence of reciprocal relations with their context, children may be producers of their development—as having current importance because of its place in a larger network of ideas, often labeled as the life-span view of human development (Bakes, Reese, & Lipsitt, 1980). Therefore, to best understand how children and adolescents contribute to their own development it is useful to discuss the nature of the life-span perspective and the revisions it has fostered in thinking about human development.

Features of the Life-Span View of Human Development

Developmental psychology is not the only scientific discipline concerned with the study of human development. Family and life-course sociologists, developmental and evolutionary biologists, comparative psychologists, physicians, and economists are also concerned with human development (e.g., see Riley, 1979). Human development, or more accurately child development, was often studied in the first several decades of this century within university' institutes, for example, at Iowa, Minnesota, and Berkeley, designed to be multidisciplinary; however, this pluralistic perspective began to erode by the 1950s and was replaced by a unidisciplinary, psychological view of development.1 Indeed, some reviewers (e.g., Hartup, 1978) have thus noted that relative disciplinary isolation characterized developmental research in the two decades prior to the 1970s. However, the years following this time were marked by renewed calls for interdisciplinary integration (e.g., Bakes, 1979a; Brim & Kagan. 1980; Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Burgess & Huston, 1979; Hill & Mattessich, 1979; Lerner & Spanier, 1978; Petrinovich, 1979; Riley' 1979). The bases for these calls were primarily conceptual.

Attempts to use a unidimensional biological model of growth, based on an idealistic, genetic—maturational (organismic) paradigm, to account for data sets pertinent to the adult and aged years were not completely successful (Bakes et al., 1980; Baltes & Schaie, 1973). Viewed from the perspective of this organismic conception, the adult and aged years were necessarily seen as periods of decline. However, all data sets pertinent to age changes, for example, in regard to intellectual performance, during these periods were not consistent with such a unidirectional format for change. That is, increasingly greater interindividual differences in intraindividual change were evident in many data sets (Baltes, 1979a; Baltes & Schaie, 1974, 1976; Schaie, Labouvie, & Buech, 1973).

On the basis of such data, Brim and Kagan (1980, p. 13) concluded that “growth is more individualistic than was thought, and it is difficult to find general patterns." Variables associated with membership in particular birth cohorts and/or with normative and nonnormative events occurring at particular times of measurement appeared to account for more of the variance in behavior change processes with respect to adult intellectual development than did age-associated influences (Baltes et al., 1980). Data sets pertinent to the child (Baltes, Baltes, & Reinert, 1970) and the adolescent (Nesselroade & Baltes, 1974) that considered these cohort and time effects also confirmed their saliency in developmental change. Conceptualizations useful for understanding the role of these non-age-related variables in development were therefore induced (e.g., Baltes, Cornelius, & Nesselroade, 1977), and a major conceptual change, if not a paradigm shift, has occurred among many of today’s social scientists. This new focus has led to the evolution of a new perspective about human development. Brim and Kagan (1980, p. 1) have summarized the status of this alteration in focus by noting that this

conception of human development . . . differs from most Western contemporary thoughts on the subject. The view that emerges ... is that humans have a capacity for change across the entire life span. It questions the traditional idea that the experiences of the early years, which have a demonstrated contemporaneous effect, necessarily constrain the characteristics of adolescence and adulthood . . . there are important growth changes across the life span from birth to death, many individuals retain a great capacity for change, and the consequences of the events of early childhood are continually transformed by later experiences, making the course of human development more open than many have believed.

As a consequence of this empirical and conceptual activity', the point of view labeled as “life-span developmental psychology'” or as the “life-span view of human development” has become crystallized. As discussed by Havi- ghurst (1973) and by Baltes (1979a), the historical bases of this perspective can be traced to 18th- and 19th-century European publications by Tetens (1777), Carus (1808), and Quetelet (1835) and, in the 20th century to contributions, in both Europe and the United States, such as those by Sanford (1902), Hall (1922), Hollingworth (1927), Biihler (1933), Pressey, Janney, and Kuhlen (1939), Erikson (1950), and by the faculty of the Committee on Human Development at the University' of Chicago (e.g., Havighurst, 1948, 1953, 1956; Neugarten, 1964, 1966, 1969; Neugarten & Guttman, 1958). For example, in the work of Havighurst (1948, 1953) we find a stress on an active organism changing across life (as a consequence of having to confront new “developmental tasks”) and an emphasis on the need to use a multidisciplinary perspective to understand organism—context relations across life.

By the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s these historical antecedents began to be synthesized, and the nature of the life-span view became clear, over the course of several conferences (Baltes & Schaie, 1973; Datan & Ginsberg, 1975; Datan & Reese, 1977; Goulet & Baltes, 1970; Nesselroade & Reese, 1973), the initiation of publication of an annual volume devoted to life-span development (Baltes, 1978; Baltes & Brim, 1979, 1980, 1981), and the publication of numerous empirical and theoretical papers (see Baltes et al., 1980). From this perspective, the potential for developmental change is seen to be present across all of life; the human life course is held to be potentially multidirectional and necessarily multidimensional (Bakes, 1979b; Bakes & Nesselroade, 1973). In addition, the sources of the potentially continual changes across life are seen to involve both the inner-biological and the outer-ecological levels of the context within which the organism is embedded. Indeed, although an orientation to the study of development and not a specific theory о/development (Bakes, 1979b), it is clear that life-span developmentalists are disposed to a reciprocal model of organism—context relations. As Bakes (1979b, p. 2, emphasis in original) has indicated:

Life-span developmental psychologists emphasize con textual is tic- d ialcctic paradigms of development (Datan & Reese, 1977; Lerner, Skinner, & Sorell, 1980; Riegel, 1976) rather than the use of “mechanistic” or “organismic” ones more typical of child development work. There are two primary rationales for this preference. One is, of course, evident also in current child development work. As development unfolds, it becomes more and more apparent that individuals act on the environment and produce novel behavior outcomes, thereby making the active and selective nature of human beings of paramount importance. Furthermore, the recognition of the interplay between age-graded, history-graded, and non-normative life events suggests a contextualis- tic and dialectical conception of development. This dialectic is further accentuated by the fact that individual development is the reflection of multiple forces which are not always in synergism, or convergence, nor do they always permit the delineation of a specific set of end states.

In sum, the development of life-span developmental psychology in the 1970s has led to a view of human development which suggested that individual changes across life are both a product and a producer of the multiple levels of context within which the person is embedded.

Three points about the present status of this view are important to note. First, in order to study the complex interrelations among organism and context life-span developmentalists (e.g., Baltes, 1968; Schaie, 1965) promote the use of particular research designs and methodologies (e.g., sequential designs, multivariate statistics, cohort analysis). Second, they seek both methodological and substantive collaboration with scholars from disciplines whose units of analysis have traditionally been other than individual- psychological, or personological, ones. For example, the work of life-course sociologists has been important in advancing life-span developmental psychology' (e.g., Brim, 1968; Brim & Kagan, 1980; Brim & Ryff, 1980; Elder, 1974, 1979; Riley, 1978, 1979). Third, however, these methodological and multidisciplinary activities are undertaken primarily for conceptual reasons. If contextual influences were not seen as crucial for understanding individual development, then neither methods for their assessment in relation to the individual, nor information about the character of these levels of analysis, would be necessary.

Accordingly, the life-span view promotes a model of development that can be described as contextual (Lerner, Hultsch, & Dixon, in press; Pepper, 1942). In so doing, it sees individuals as both products and producers of the context which provides a basis of their development. As such, individuals may be seen as producers of their development. Theoretical and empirical reasons suggest that childhood and adolescence exemplify both the use of the life-span perspective and the role of individuals as producers of their own development.

Childhood and Adolescence as Periods Exemplifying the Use of the Life-Span Perspective

Several data sets illustrate how the person both affects and is affected by variables in his or her relatively proximal familial settings (Belsky, 1981; Hill, 1980a, 1980b; Steinberg & Hill, 1978) and peer contexts (Bengtson & Troll, 1978; Lerner, Karson, Meisels, & Knapp, 1975); by variables in the broader ecological context (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Garbarino & Bronfenbrenner,

1976), for example, educational (Bachman, 1970; Bachman, Green, & Wir- tanen, 1971) and political (Gallatin, 1975) institutions; and finally by variables linked to the historical/evolutionary context (Bengtson & Troll, 1978; Brent, 1978; Lerner & Busch-Rossnagel, 1981).

For example, the secular trend regarding the decreasing mean age of men- arche has presumably been brought about by historical changes in nutritional levels and medical and health practices (Garn, 1980; Katchadourian, 1977; Lerner & Spanier, 1980). However, cohorts of early adolescents who are physiologically capable of reproduction at earlier and earlier ages do not necessarily achieve formal thought or ego identity' earlier. Yet, such earlier- maturing youth can have profound effects on the family, the peer group, and educational institutions. For example, by the beginning of the 1980s an average of more than 30,000 females, aged 14 years or less, gave birth out of wedlock (Jaffe & Dryfoos, 1976). If the secular trend continues even for a few decades more, a large proportion of today s young adults’ grandchildren or great grandchildren will be involved in an out-of-wedlock pregnancy or birth while still in their “childhood” years.

Another illustration of the potential for reciprocal influence between children and adolescents and their changing social context may be seen by' noting that in the United States there is an increasingly greater proportion of children and adolescents who experience several years of their preadult development in single-parent families and/or in families reconstituted through remarriage. At the same time, changing marital and family patterns, along with changing economic conditions, have led to a proportion of children and adolescents greater than ever before living in a household with a working mother (Hoffman, 1979). In addition, more and more children are experiencing caregiving in day-care or other non-home-setting contexts. These changes in the social context may have an impact on parents, on their interactions with their children, and on the individual development of the children and adolescents themselves.

For example, the adolescent daughters of working mothers are more likely to aspire to nontraditional vocational careers than is the case with adolescent daughters of nonworking mothers (Hoffman, 1979). Similarly, the changing career aspirations of women, as well as the economic pressures of inflationary economies, are leading adolescents to delay age of first marriage and, often, to forego having children until both careers, in an initiated marriage, are established (Lerner, Spanier, & Belsky, 1982). In turn then, the issue is not whether having greater proportions of older, career-oriented couples will have an impact on educational, financial, and marital institutions but rather how such impacts will be manifest.

Still other data indicate that the nature of early development is altered by historical changes in the social context. One of the best examples of the role of historical change is found in the research of Nesselroade and Bakes (1974), regarding the effects of time of measurement on changes in adolescents’ personality factor scores, for example, regarding dimensions such as superego strength and independence. Regardless of whether adolescents were 13, 14, 15, or 16 years old in 1970, and despite their initial (1970) scores on these two variables, by 1972 all adolescents decreased in superego strength and increased in independence, to a point where the scores of all age groups were comparable.

Another excellent example is provided by the work of Glen Elder. For example, data in his influential book Children of the Great Depression (1974), well document the role of the socioeconomic context, as it existed at particular periods in history, on the nature of both immediate, adolescent, and later, adult personal and interpersonal behaviors. For instance. Elder reports that characteristics of this historical era produced alterations in the influence education had on achievement, affected later, adult health for youth from working-class families who suffered deprivation during this period, and enhanced the importance of children in later, adult marriages for youth who suffered hardships during the Depressions.

The cohort effects illustrated by Elders (1974, 1980) research, and the time of measurement effects identified in the work of Nesselroade and Bakes (1974), suggest that we consider variables in the historical context of young people in our attempts to account for increasing proportions of the variance in behavior change processes. As a consequence of normative and nonnormative historically related variation,2 the trajectory of development may change in childhood and adolescence. In other words, because of its multidimensional and dynamic interactional character, child and adolescent development is a potentially multidirectional phenomenon, best studied within the context of research designs sensitive to historical change, and most adequately conceptualized and assessed through multivariate means

(Baltes, Reese, & Nesselroade, 1977; Lerner & Spanier, 1980; Nessel- roade & Bakes, 1979).

In sum, data sets pertinent to childhood and adolescence (e.g., Elder, 1974, 1980; Nesselroade & Baltes, 1974; Schaie, 1979) have led life-span developmental psychologists and life-course sociologists to forego simplistic, unidimensional, univariate, and/or unidisciplinary approaches to development. Instead, in attempts to integrate personological and contextual (e.g., historically changing social and cultural) levels of analysis, multidisciplinary perspectives about development and change have evolved (Baltes, 1979b; Lerner & Busch-Rossnagel, 1981; Lerner, Hutsch, & Dixon, in press).

However, it is important to note that the above examples of the role of historical change and of reciprocal relations in child and adolescent development are largely descriptive. We need then to consider the explanatory bases of such relations. Specifically, what may be the precise processes by which such transactions occur? There may be several means by which such influences proceed, means which may be specific to particular levels of analysis. Lerner and Busch-Rossnagel (1981) have discussed many of these. One process by which children and adolescents might produce their own development may involve the extent to which a person’s characteristics of physical and/or behavioral individuality provide a match, or a “goodness of fit,” with adaptational demands pertinent to the person s characteristics of individuality extant in the social context. After reviewing the theoretical bases of this goodness-of-fit model of person—context transaction, 1 will discuss two lines of research conducted by my colleagues and me which support this model.

A “Goodness-of-Fit” Model of Person—Context Relations

Conceptions of development which stress behavioral (Bandura, 1978; Bijou, 197(i), organismic (Erikson, 196)8), or contextual (Schneirla, 1957; Lerner, 1978, 1979; Thomas & Chess, 1981) mechanisms converge in suggesting that children may affect their own development. As a consequence of characteristics of physical (e.g., sex, body type, or facial attractiveness; Berscheid & Walster, 1974) and/or behavioral (e.g., temperamental; Thomas & Chess,

1977) individuality, children promote differential reactions in their socializing others; these reactions may feed back to children, increasing the individuality of their developmental milieu and providing a basis of their further development. Through the establishment of such “circular functions” in ontogeny (Schneirla, 1957), children and adolescents may be conceived of as producers of their own development (Lerner, 1978, 1979; Lerner & Busch-Rossnagel, 1981). However, this circular-functions idea needs to be extended; that is, in and of itself the notion is mute regarding the specific characteristics of the feedback (e.g., its positive or negative valence) an organism will receive as a consequence of its individuality.

Thomas and Chess (1977, 1980, 1981) and J. Lerner (in press) have extended these “person—social context reciprocal interaction” ideas by proposing a person—context “goodness-of-fit” model for adaptive development. Just as a child brings his or her characteristics of individuality to a particular social setting there are demands placed on the child by virtue of the social and physical components of the setting. These “demands” may take the form of

  • (1) attitudes, values, or stereotypes, held by others in the context, regarding the child’s attributes (either his or her physical or behavioral characteristics);
  • (2) the attributes (usually behavioral) of others in the context with whom the child must coordinate, or fit, his or her attributes (also in this case usually behavioral) for adaptive interactions to exist; or (3) the physical characteristics of a setting (e.g., presence or absence of access ramps for handicapped people, or the noise level in a setting) which require the person to possess certain attributes (again, usually behavioral abilities) for most efficient interaction within the setting to occur. The child’s individuality, in differentially meeting these demands, provides a basis for the feedback he or she gets from the socializing environment.

For example, considering the demand “domain” of attitudes, values, or stereotypes, teachers and parents may have relatively individual and distinct desires for behaviors of their students and children, respectively. Teachers may want students who show little distractibility, since they would not want attention diverted from the lesson by the activity of other children in the classroom. Parents, however, might desire their children to be moderately distractible, for example, when they require their child to move from television watching to dinner or bed. Children whose behavioral individuality was either generally distractible or generally not distractible would thus differentially meet the demands of these two contexts. Problems of adaptation to school or to home might thus develop as a consequence of a child’s lack of match (or “goodness of fit”) in either or both settings.

Similarly, considering the second domain, of behavioral mismatches, problems for efficient interaction might result when a child who was irregular in his or her biological functions (e.g., regarding eating, sleep—waking cycles, and toileting behaviors) existed within a family setting composed of highly rhythmic parents and siblings. Finally, a poor fit with the “demands” of the physical setting might exist when a child with a low threshold for reaction to noise and with a high level of distractibility is placed in a noisy physical setting and given the requirement of attending to a task (e.g., as occurs in studying for an exam).

Thomas and Chess (1977, 1980, 1981) and J. Lerner (in press) believe that adaptive psychological and social functioning does not derive directly from either the nature of the child’s characteristics of individuality per se or the nature of the demands of the contexts within which the child functions. Rather, if a child’s characteristics of individuality match (or “fit”) the demands of a particular setting adaptive outcomes in that setting will accrue. Those children whose characteristics match most of the settings within which they exist should receive support or positive feedback from the contexts and should show evidence of the most adaptive behavioral development. In turn, of course, mismatched children, whose characteristics are incongruent with one or most settings, should slow alternative developmental outcomes.

This sequence of events can best be appraised by observations over time. In addition, repeated measures of both child and context characteristics are required in order to describe the child’s effects on the contexts, the contexts’ behaviors toward the child, the child’s further development, and so forth. Moreover, because children exist in more than one context, and because behavior in one context affects behavior in others (Lewis & Feiring,

1978), that is, situational “transitivity” exists, the child—context goodness of fit in several contexts should be appraised. Finally, because of transitivity effects, measures of adaptation both within and across contexts appear useful. Enhancement of development in one context may facilitate development in another.

To date, there have been no direct tests of the “goodness-of-fit” model that fulfill all these requirements. Previous research bearing on the use of this model provides at best only indirect support because it has suffered from one or more of the following limitations: (1) it has focused on cross- sectional patterns of covariation, and not on repeated observations enabling the description of intraindividual change; (2) it has failed to include assessments of both child characteristics and contextual demands, and thus the “goodness of fit” between a child and his/her context had to be indirectly inferred; (3) it has assessed children in only one context, has thus ignored the “transitivity” (Lewis & Feiring, 1978) of functioning among contexts; and (4) thus it cannot speak to the use of enhancing adaptation in one context for more general adaptive functioning. Finally, (5) in the few data sets relevant to the model that have had a longitudinal component, methodological problems, due to focus on only one cohort and omission of drop-out- and retest-control groups, have existed (Bakes, Cornelius, & Nesselroade, 1977).

Thus, admittedly, while no existing data set has all the methodological features necessary for a complete test of this goodness-of-fit model, two lines of research followed by my colleagues and me provide data consistent with many of these features. While not providing an exhaustive appraisal of the model, the research allows for a good deal of evaluation of its use. These lines of research pertain to the demands domain of attitudes, values, and stereotypes, and the fit between these cognitive orientations of others in the child’s context and the child’s physical or behavioral attributes. The first line of research pertains to the role of characteristics of physical individuality in children’s and adolescents’ contributions to their own development; the second line of research pertains to the role of temperamental individuality in such contributions.

It should be noted that these lines of research bear on two distinct ways in which people may contribute to their own development. One type of “person effect” occurs as a consequence of the individual’s active (behavioral) shaping or manipulation of his or her context. The person’s behavioral attributes evoke reactions in the socializing context. The second line of research I will discuss pertains to another type of person effect, one which occurs in relation to individual attributes relatively more static than behavior may be. Examples of such (relatively) static organism attributes are sex, race, and body type. Here a persons contributions to his/her own development occur as a consequence of the organismic attributes placing the individual in one or another category of person perception (e.g., male or female; black or white; obese or well built); stereotypic expectations being maintained to all members of the social category; and stereotype- consistent feedback being given the person and behavior being then canalized (Lerner, 1976). The first line of research I will discuss pertains to such contributions by an individual.

The Role of Characteristics of Physical Individuality

Over ten years ago my colleagues and I initiated a line of research pertinent to the circular-functions, goodness-of-fit ideas outlined earlier. Our idea was to explore the role of childrens and adolescents’ characteristics of physical individuality in providing a basis of the person’s own development.

To provide support for the goodness-of-fit model several links between characteristics of physical individuality and the social context had to be established. First, we had to demonstrate that there existed distinct sets of expectations, demands, or evaluations pertinent to different characteristics of individuality. Second, we had to demonstrate that children and adolescents whose characteristics of physical individuality fulfilled these expectations (met these demands, or received favorable evaluations), were also accorded social feedback consistent with these appraisals. In turn, of course, we also had to establish that children and adolescents whose characteristics did not match with these social appraisals received feedback consistent with their mismatch. Finally, we had to establish that the different children had characteristics of psychosocial development consistent with their alternative types of feedback.

We have been successful in providing support for all three elements of our model. First, we initially operationalized our concern with the role of characteristics of physical individuality by a focus on variations in body type, or somatotype. Using Sheldon’s (1940, 1942) terms of endomorph, mesomorph, and ectomorph as descriptions only of body types essentially fat or chubby, muscular or average, and thin and linear, respectively, we conducted a series of studies to discover: (1) whether general (stereotypic) appraisals exist for male children and adolescents possessing one of these body types; (2) whether the age of the target person possessing the body type moderates the attributions toward him; (3) whether age, sex, or body type of the person doing the attribution significantly moderates the nature of the attributions made; and (4) whether membership in a different cultural (or national) context is associated with any moderation in attributions on the part of the person doing the attribution.

In a series of studies (Iwawaki & Lerner, 1974, 1976; Lerner, 1969a, 1969b, 1971; Lerner & Iwawaki, 1975; Lerner & Korn, 1972; Lerner & Pool, 1972; Lerner & Schroeder, 1971a) it was found that highly positive stereotypes exist for children and adolescents possessing a mesomorph body type, that markedly negative stereotypes exist for endomorphic children and adolescents, and that somewhat less unfavorable, but still essentially negative stereotypes exist in regard to those having an ectomorphic body build. Moreover, the nature and strength of these stereotypes do not vary substantially as a function of: (1) age of the person possessing the body type (e.g., the same sets of attributions were shown to target person stimuli representing 5-, 15-, and 20-year-old endomorphs, mesomorphs, and ectomorphs); (2) age of the person doing the attribution (e.g., 5- through 20-year-olds have essentially the same stereotypes regarding the three body builds); (3) body type of the person doing the attribution (e.g., chubby children and adolescents have the same negative stereotypes about endomorphs as do average-build or thin children); (4) sex of the person doing the attribution; and (5) cultural (or national) membership of the person doing the attribution (e.g., Mexican and Japanese male and female children and adolescents have body-build stereotypes that are essentially identical to those maintained by their American age and sex peers).

Do male and female children who possess different body types receive feedback from their male and female peers which is consistent with these stereotypes? Several data sets we have gathered suggest the answer is “yes.” Using sociometric procedures we have found that as early as in the kindergarten year chubby and thin children receive fewer positive peer nominations (e.g., “who would you choose as leader?”) and more negative nominations (e.g., “who is left out of games?”) than is the case with average-build children; these latter children receive more positive and fewer negative peer nominations than do their chubby or thin classmates (Lerner & Gellert, 1969; Lerner & Schroeder, 1971b). More importantly, it appears that from kindergarten through the sixth grade (i.e., from middle childhood through early adolescence), different personal space is shown toward fat, average, and thin male and female children by their male and female peers. Differences in personal space usage among children and adolescents are indicative of differences in the type or quality of their social relationships, and children use most personal space toward target person stimuli representing chubby male and female age peers, least space toward average-build peer stimuli, and a level of space intermediate between these two extremes toward ectomorphic peer stimuli (Lerner, 1973; Lerner, Karabenick, & Meisels, 1975a; Lerner, Venning, & Knapp, 1975). These differences in personal space use remain stable over the course of 1 year (Lerner, Karabenick, & Meisels, 1975b). In addition, they have been replicated among corresponding groups of Japanese kindergarten through sixth-graders (Iwawaki, Lerner, & Chi- hara, 1977; Lerner, Iwawaki, 8c Chihara, 1976).

Finally, do children and adolescents show evidence of psychosocial functioning which is consistent with such stereotype-based feedback? Again, the answer seems to be “yes.” Lerner and Korn (1972) found that the body and self-concepts of chubby 5-, 15-, and 20-year-old males were more negative than those shown by average-build age peers. Similarly, we have found that male and female late adolescents, who have bodily characteristics seen by them and others to be less interpersonally attractive or less individually effective, have lower self-esteems than is the case among late adolescent males and females whose body parts are regarded by them and others as more attractive and effective (Lerner 8c Brackney, 1978; Lerner 8c Karabenick, 1974; Lerner, Karabenick, & Stuart, 1973; Lerner, Orlos, 8c Knapp, 1976; Padin, Lerner, 8c Spiro, 1981). These relations among body attractiveness, body effectiveness, and adolescent self-esteem have been replicated among Japanese ranging in grade level from seventh grade through the senior year of college (Lerner, Iwawaki, Chihara, & Sorell, 1980).

Moreover, these data linking body attractiveness, effectiveness, and selfesteem suggest that our findings relating individual differences in body type to social context appraisal and feedback may be just instances of a more general relation between individual differences in physical attractiveness and the social context. Indeed, Berscheid and Walster (1974) have also suggested such a correspondence and, in addition, have demonstrated that there exists in society a “beauty is the best” stereotype. Their research, as well as that of others (e.g., Dion, 1973; Langlois & Stephan, 1981; Mussen & Jones, 1957; Richardson, 1971), also documents that, consistent with such a physical attractiveness stereotype, children and adolescents receive differential feedback based on their characteristics of physical individuality, and that such feedback is linked to different personal (e.g., self-esteem) and social (e.g., popularity, interpersonal aggression) developments. Our own research also illustrates such relationships.

Lerner and Lerner (1977) studied a group of fourth- and sixth-grade males and females. Each child posed for a standard photographic slide, and from these slides a group of college students rated the fourth- and sixth- graders’ facial physical attractiveness. The teachers of the children rated them in regard to their academic ability and school adjustment, and the children’s actual grades in that school year, as well as in the two preceding years, were obtained. In addition, the children responded to a standard measure of personal and social adjustment, and the classroom peers of the children provided sociometric ratings of each child’s negative and positive relationships. As compared to their physically attractive classmates, the physically unattractive male and female children had fewer positive peer relations, more negative peer relations, were judged by teachers as less able and adjusted, and actually scored lower on the standardized adjustment test. In addition, in both their present classes and in their classes of the two preceding years the physically unattractive male and female children had lower grades than their physically attractive peers.

In sum, this first line of research conducted by my colleagues and me suggests that by “bringing” different physical characteristics to a situation, a child may affect how others react to, and provide feedback to, him oilier; this feedback may be linked to different developments in the child. Although our data supportive of this idea are derived essentially from unitemporal patterns of covariation, and pertain to a relatively static or “passive” characteristic of individuality, they do indicate that there are important psychosocial implications of such attributes: childrens physical characteristics may provide a source of their own development by either matching or not matching (i.e., fitting) with, in this case, the physicalistic stereotypes of their social context. Moreover, physical characteristics other than body type, such as sex, or race, may serve as even more potent static attribute contributors of the person to his/her own development, and may do so in manners consistent with the goodness-of-fit model. For example, Kagan and Moss (1962) found that personality characteristics showing continuity from birth to maturity were those consistent with traditional sex-role stereotypes. Similarly, Jones and Haney (1981) indicate that race serves as a physicalistic attribute canalizing people along different developmental pathways. In addition, Busch-Rossnagel (1981) reviews data indicating that physical disabilities lead to handicaps as a consequence of disabled persons being poorly fit with the demands of their social context. Thus, there may be several “static” organismic attributes that alone and in interaction serve to channel a person s development in a manner consistent with the present goodness-of-fit model.

Additional evidence for this goodness-of-fit model of person-context relations derives from the second line of research conducted by my colleagues and me, that is, the study of the impact of more active characteristics of individual differences: that is, our second line of research considers how temperament, or behavioral style, contributes to the person s own development.

The Role of Characteristics of Temperamental, or Behavioral Style, Individuality

Individual differences in temperament have been a major focus of those theorists and researchers concerned with assessing the child’s contribution to his or her own development (Thomas & Chess, 1977, 1980). The major support for the goodness-of-fit model comes from the study of temperament. Temperament has been defined as the stylistic component of behavior, that is, how an organism does whatever it does (Thomas & Chess, 1977; Thomas, Chess, & Birch, 1970). For example, all children engage in eating, sleeping, and toileting behaviors. While attention to the absence or presence of such contents of the behavior repertoire would not easily differentiate among children, focus on whether these behaviors occur with regularity (i.e., rhythmically or predictably), with a lot or a little motor activity, intensity, or vigor, or whether there is a negative, positive, or neutral mood associated with the behaviors, might serve to differentiate among children.

Results from the New York Longitudinal Study (NYLS; Thomas, Chess, Birch, Hertzig, & Korn, 1963; Thomas, Chess, & Birch, 1968; Thomas et al., 1970) have indicated that particular types of individual differences in temperament are differentially associated with adaptive psychosocial functioning in both handicapped and nonhandicapped children. For example, low rhythmicity or biological functions, high activity levels, high distract- ibility, low response thresholds, and high-intensity reactions represent a cluster of characteristics which have been found to place samples of both handicapped children (e.g., mentally retarded children or children born with multiple physical handicaps as a result of maternal rubella) and nonhandicapped children “at risk” for behavioral and emotional problems (see Thomas & Chess, 1977). Alternatively, similarly handicapped children, and nonhandicapped children, who either have none of these temperamental characteristics and/or have high rhythmicity and moderate activity, threshold, intensity, and distractibility levels, have fewer problem behaviors. Data from samples other than the NYLS, collected by the Thomas group (Korn, Chess, 8c Fernandez, 1978; Thomas 8c Chess, 1977) and others (Sameroff, Note 1; Super & Harkness, 1981), confirm the linkages between differential temperamental repertoires and contrasting psychosocial developments, again among children having various categories of handicap and among nonhandicapped children.

Although these data sets have been limited by an omission of direct focus on a person-context bidirectional relation, the data indicate that individual differences in temperament are associated with differences in adaptive functioning; unfortunately, they do not describe the interactions presumed to be involved in these relations. However, since the Thomas groups conceptualization of temperament is one which sees its impact as lying in whether a particular repertoire provides a “goodness of fit” with the individual characteristics of a specific context, Thomas and Chess (1977, 1981) and their associates (e.g., Korn, Note 2) have speculated about how their data are congruent with a goodness-of-fit model.

The NYLS sample is a white, middle-class one. Such social contexts may have fairly generalizable views about desirable behavioral styles for children. If so, then a child with a repertoire that has been labeled as difficult is only “at risk” insofar as his or her arrhythmicity, negative mood, and high-intensity reactions are not congruent with such demands. However, in another context, having alternative appraisals of such attributes, the “at risk” status would change. Korn (Note 2) and Gannon (Note 3) have presented data indicating that in lower-class Puerto Rican settings not only are these “difficult” attributes not undesirable but they may in fact be highly regarded. In turn, they indicate that, as compared to white middle-class samples, there is less association of such attributes with negative psychosocial development. Sameroff (Note 1) provides similar data in regard to social class and race differences in the implications of a “difficult” temperament.

A more direct, albeit a cross-sectional, test of the goodness-of-fit model was conducted by J. Lerner (in press). Using a psychometrically well-developed measure of temperament, the Dimensions of Temperament Survey (DOTS; Lerner, Palermo, Spiro, & Nesselroade, 1982), she measured the temperamental repertoires of early adolescent junior high school students. Lerner also appraised the demands placed on the adolescents in two components of their school context, that is, the demands of the teacher and of the classroom peer group in regard to temperament were assessed. In addition, for each of the two contexts, both actual and perceived demands were assessed. Finally, several indices of personal and social adaptation were taken (e.g., measures of grade point average, peer relations, and self-esteem). Children who were fit, or matched, in one context tended to be those matched in the other (i.e., transitivity was evident). Moreover, the greater the level of fit the higher were scores of adaptation—both within and across contexts. For example, a child who met peer demands not only had better peer relations but was seen by the teacher as more academically adjusted and capable. Furthermore, matched children had better scores on the measure of general adaptation (self-esteem) than did mismatched children. Finally, consistent with the idea that the adolescent plays an active role in his or her own development, the results also indicated that the match scores for the perceived contextual demands had more import for prediction than did the match scores for the actual contextual demands.

In another test of this model, J. Lerner, Lerner, and Zabski (Note 4) appraised the relation between goodness of fit and the actual and rated academic abilities of fourth-grade children. The children responded to a self-report version of the DOTS, and teachers responded to a DOTS form which appraised their demands/expectations of their students for each of the five temperamental attributes measured by this instrument. Teachers also rated their students’ academic ability and adjustment. Finally, objective measures of the students’ academic abilities were obtained through Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills and Stanford Achievement Test (Reading) scores. Results indicated that most of the children’s temperament attributes were related to teacher-rated and/or objectively measured academic attributes, and that for two of the three temperament attributes for which directional predictions were made, clear support for the model was found; that is, for two of the attributes that were predicted to be important in the school context (i.e., for attention span/distractibility and for reactivity—an attribute comprising activity level, threshold, and intensity items—but not for adaptability/approach—withdrawal), children who had goodness-of-fit scores indicative of better matches with their teacher’s demands tended to have higher scores on the teacher-rated and objective ability measures than did less well matched children.

Similarly, Palermo (Note 5) assessed the temperaments of fifth-grade children and, as did J. Lerner (in press) andj. Lerner et al. (Note 4), appraised teachers’ demands regarding behavioral style in their classrooms. Teacher judgments of academic ability' and adjustment, and peer ratings of positive and negative relations with target children, were also assessed. In addition, the mothers’ ratings of their children’s behavioral problems were assessed, and mothers also provided an indication of their demands for behavioral style in the home. As above, and both within and across the teacher, peer, and parent social contexts, those children who had goodness-of-fit scores indicative of better matches with either teacher or parent demands tended to have more positive scores on all the outcome measures, that is, they had higher ability' and adjustment teacher ratings, more positive and fewer negative peer relations, and fewer mother-identified behavioral problems.

In sum, findings such as these suggest that when there is a mismatch between a particular temperament and a particular context, problems of adjustment may arise. As such, the issue in temperament research is whether a particular set of person attributes is congruent of incongruent with the demands of a specific context. One should ask what person characteristics in interaction with what environmental characteristics lead to what outcomes. Moreover, given the evidence found for transitivity effects in J. Lerner’s (in press) and in Palermo’s (Note 5) results, we suggest that one may enhance the psy'chosocial adjustment of a child in a context through interventions aimed at that child’s functioning in another context. This conclusion regarding the implications for intervention of our model will be amplified as a consequence of the other conclusions we may draw about our model and the life-span perspective from which it is derived.


It is, of course, no accident that this life-span perspective about development arose largely from data sets pertinent to adolescence and later portions of life (cf. Lerner, 1981). Increasingly greater interindividual differences in intraindividual change occur with development during these periods, as the person becomes exposed to an increasingly more differentiated and singular social context (Baltes, 1979a; Bakes et al., 1980). In turn, the person must respond to, and in some way integrate, the unique set of presses imposed on him or her if adaptation will occur (Brent, 1978). In other words, the person must act on the context, to enhance goodness of fit with it, if he/she is to contribute to his/her own adaptive development.

Adolescence is a time when multiple transitions, in the inner-biological, individual-psychological, physical environmental, and sociocultural contexts, occur. Thus, it is a particularly appropriate time to study the relation between a changing person and his or her changing world. Successful adaptation always involves appropriate coordination between our changing selves and our changing contexts. But it is in adolescence, and particularly early adolescence (Hill, 1980a, 1980b), that such adaptational stresses may be most critical, due to their simultaneity and multidimensionality. One may see our research on physical and temperamental characteristics of individuality' as just two instances of the numerous dimensions of the adolescent for which presses for fit occur.

Thus, we may summarize the life-span conceptualization of human development as it impacts on our view of child and, especially, adolescent development and our goodness-of-fit model of person—context relations. First, developmental change is a potentially life-span phenomenon. Second, such change involves a contextual view of the person, that is, that the person is reciprocally embedded in his or her world. Third, such change therefore involves adaptations of changing people to their changing world, of individuals’ contributions to their own development. Fourth, adolescence, and again, particularly early adolescence, especially involves changes within the person, in the person’s social context, and therefore between the person and the context. Thus, fifth, not only is this period a key time within which to focus research in order to substantiate this view of development but, in turn, in order to understand adolescence one must appreciate the multiple changes involved in development at his time of life, and the integrative presses on the person in order for adaptative fit to occur.

Finally, sixth, these ideas have relevance to the theory and practice of intervention. Although it is often not emphasized in discussions of the goodness-of-fit concept, the term describes only the status of the relation between the person and his or her context at a particular point in time. However, a life-span developmental perspective emphasizes process and, as a consequence, a key concern in the application of the goodness-of-fit notion is the identification of the antecedent changes that resulted in a particular fit at a specific time and, in turn, specification of the consequences of this fit for later development. Only with such information can appropriate intervention be instituted. However, as emphasized by Kendall (1981), intervention can only proceed after necessary assessments are made; there are several cognitive and behavioral variables that would have to be assessed before one could intervene to enhance goodness of fit.

One would have to assess whether the child or adolescent could appropriately evaluate: (1) the demands of a particular context; (2) his or her stylistic attributes; and (3) the degree of match that exists between the two. In addition to these cognitive assessments, other cognitive and behavioral skill assessments are necessary. One has to determine whether the child has the ability to select and gain access to those contexts with which there is a high probability of match, and avoid those contexts where poor fit is likely. In addition, in those contexts that cannot easily be selected, for example, family of origin or assigned elementary school class, one has to assess whether the child has the knowledge and skill necessary to either change himself or herself to fit the demands of the setting or, in turn, alter the context to better fit his or her attributes.

Appropriate interventions after sucli assessments might involve skill training, behavior modification, and/or various cognitive—behavioral changes. The common goal of all procedures would be to enhance the child’s ability for self-regulation, and thereby increase the ability' to actively' enhance his oilier own fit. RecallingJ. Lerner’s (1982) findings that the match between an adolescents temperament and his or her perception of the demands placed on him or her was a better predictor of adjustment than the match scores between temperament and actual demands, a prime example of such interventions may be derived from the work of Bandura and his colleagues on perceived self-efficacy' (e.g., Bandura, 1980a, 1980b).

Children who do not see themselves as efficacious in a particular setting will tend to withdraw from the situation, have a negative mood in or about the situation, and/or be less active in it (Bandura, 1980a, 1980b). For example, Bandura and Schunk (Note 6) report that such a style behavior was characteristic of elementary school students who were not performing well in mathematics classes. By withdrawing from the situation, the children were acting to enhance their own failure, since by not actively or enthusiastically participating they were not exposing themselves to the experiences and practice opportunities necessary for success in mathematics.

Assessing the children s perceptions of their efficacy before intervention revealed that, quite appropriately, they saw themselves as unable to do what was necessary for success in the situation. However, Bandura and Schunk found that by enhancing the child’s perceived self-efficacy', greater approach and activity was engendered. The child, now taking greater advantage of the learning experiences available in the context, eventually showed greater competence in mathematics.

In essence, then, the manipulation of self-efficacy is but one of many behavioral or cognitive—behavioral strategies that may be adopted (see Kendall, 1981, for a review of others) in order to enhance childrens abilities to create better fits for themselves in their contexts. In other words, rather than being “passive recipients” of the fit immediately afforded them as a consequence of their characteristics of individuality, assessments and interventions associated with a process view of the goodness-of-fit idea are aimed at providing the child with those abilities necessary to actively create a good fit for himself or herself.

In sum, any theory' of intervention compatible with a life-span perspective rests on a view of human development which stresses that there exists a potential for change after the early years of life, and that such change can be enhanced by facilitating individuals to actively engage their contexts, to constructively' act as producers of their development in order to transform or fit the presses of their contexts. These optimistic beliefs run counter to more pessimistic ones associated with views of human development which stress that constancy' (or developmental fixity) is established early' in life and/or that the individual is a passive recipient of either genetically' or environmentally determining influences. Characterizing such views, Brim and Kagan (1980, p. 21) have noted:

The belief that early experiences create lasting characteristics, like the belief in biological and genetic determinism, makes it possible to assume that attempts to improve the course of human development after early childhood are wasted and without consequence. If society' believes that it is all over by the third year of life, it can deal harshly with many people in later life because nothing more can be done, and social programs designed to educate, redirect, reverse, or eliminate unwanted human characteristics cannot be justified. Policies of racial, ethnic, and sex discrimination, incarceration rather than rehabilitation of criminals, ignoring urban and rural poverty', and isolation of the elderly have found shelter in the belief in the determinism of the early years of life.

In conclusion, as a consequence of their embeddedness and plasticity' children and adolescents may contribute to their own behavior change processes, and they appear to do so in a manner consistent with a goodness-of-fit model of person-context relations. Fruitful research questions can be formulated on the basis of ideas associated with this model. However, as I have emphasized, no current data set has all the methodological features required by this model. As such, the major contemporary' contribution of this perspective is to suggest ways that current theoretical questions and extant empirical literatures can be significantly integrated and extended. Such contributions are among the major goals of the continuing work of my colleagues and me on the implications of individuals’ contributions to their own development.


This paper was written while I was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study' in the Behavioral Sciences. I am grateful for financial support provided by National Institute of Mental Health Grant 5-T32-MH14581-05 and by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and for the assistance of the Center staff. I am also grateful to Paul B. Baltes, Jay Belsky', Orville G. Brim, Jr., Nancy A. Busch-Rossnagel, Robyn M. Dawes, Martin E. Ford, Ruth T. Gross, David F. Hultsch, David Krathwohl, Lewis P. Lip- sitt, Jacqueline V. Lerner, Margaret Snow, Mark Snyder, Alexander Thomas, and to two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on a previous version of this paper. Reprint requests should be sent to Richard M. Lerner, College of Human Development, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16)802.

Reference Notes

  • 1. SamerofF, A. |. Differences in infant temperament in relation to maternal mental illness and race. Paper presented at the Louisville Temperament Conference, Louisville, KY, September 1978.
  • 2. Korn, S. J. Temperament, vulnerability, and behavior. Paper presented at the Louisville Temperament Conference, Louisville, KY, September 1978.
  • 3. Gannon, P. Behavioral problems and temperament in middle class and Puerto Rican five-year- olds. Unpublished Masters thesis, Hunter College of the City of New York, 1978.
  • 4. Lerner, J. V., Lerner, R. M., Sc Zabski, S. Temperament and elementary school children’s actual and rated academic performance: A test of a "goodness of fit" model. Unpublished manuscript, The Pennsylvania State University, 1981.
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  • 1. Lipsitt, L. R, personal communication, December 1979; Palermo, D. S., personal communication, August 1980.
  • 2. Normative experiences are those encountered by most people in a cohort and/or alive at a particular historical moment, e.g., most people living in the United States today experience or will experience marriage and the birth of at least one child; non- normative experiences are atypical events, encountered rarely in the course of history, e.g., birth of quintuplets, experiencing an atomic bomb attack.


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5 Changing Organism—Context Relations as the Basic Process of Development

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