A life-span theory of development is presented that is based on the concepts of primary and secondary control. Primary control refers to behaviors directed at the external environment and involves attempts to change the world to fit the needs and desires of the individual. Secondary control is targeted at internal processes and serves to minimize losses in, maintain, and expand existing levels of primary control. Secondary control helps the individual to cope with failure and fosters primary control by channeling motivational resources toward selected action goals throughout the life course. Primary control has functional primacy over secondary control. An analysis of extensive and diverse literatures spanning infancy through old age shows that trade-offs between primary and secondary control undergo systematic shifts across the life course in response to the opportunities and constraints encountered.