Maslow's Child Development Theory & Perspective

As you watch your toddler or preschooler play with his toys or test the limits you have set, you might not realize it, but your child is developing along principles set by Dr. Abraham Maslow 2. Back in 1943, the Brooklyn-born psychologist described children's development as a journey toward their full potential, or "self-actualization." He pictured this progress as a pyramid with five levels. A child's most basic needs are at the bottom and most advanced ones at the top.

Early Needs

The toddler or preschooler who cuddles in your lap for comfort has developed beyond the basic needs he had when you brought him home from the hospital. These included the needs to breathe, drink, eat, sleep, stay warm, get rid of bodily waste and avoid pain.include:

  • These included the needs to breathe
  • drink
  • eat
  • sleep
  • stay warm
  • get rid of bodily waste
  • avoid pain

Once these basic "physiological" needs are satisfied, says Maslow, your child starts to crave safety and security. The hugs you give are just as important as food in helping your child grow.

Belonging Needs

When your toddler tugs at your hand or demands, "Look at me, look at me!" for the hundredth time, you'll be glad to know it's a positive sign. She's developing right on schedule. In the first two years of life, says Maslow, children feel powerful, "belonging needs" and make growing demands for love and attention. Around the age of 2 years, they also develop "esteem needs," craving recognition of their own importance in the world.

Higher Needs

Maslow's ideas confirm what moms and dads always knew: there's more to the job than just keeping the kids fed, clean and warm. Give your little ones security, love and attention, too and they will blossom. For Maslow, only children whose physiological, safety, belonging and esteem needs have all been met will be in a position to achieve their full potential in later life. Only then they will be free to study, think clearly, be creative and form healthy relationships.


All those hugs add up. When you praise her new drawing or spend time watching him dance, you help build a firm foundation for your child. Young children face huge setbacks if their early needs are not met, Maslow argues. They "fixate" on what they lack, maybe for the rest of their lives. Children who often endure hunger will obsess about food, even as adults. The same holds true, Maslow suggests, of their needs for security, affection and self-esteem.


Maslow has been criticized for lacking rigor, since there is no way to measure whether a child's needs have been met. Maslow claimed that the lives of people he admired proved his theories to be valid, leading critics to question his objectivity. Some also say Maslow fails to account for the people who had tough childhoods, but still shone in later life. But Maslow's big idea continues to guide parents: a child who is cherished will always stand the best chance in life.