I spent a lot of time in psychology classes. I guess that’s what happens when you decide you want to be a psychology major and then get a higher degree in it. Though my focus was on clinical psychology with the goal of working with people with psychiatric disorders, I was more interested in children than adults. Developmental psychology was everywhere in my education. Erikson, Freud, Piaget, Vygotsky…
My favorite is Erik Erikson. He aligned with Freud, but departed from him when it came to human development. According to Erikson, we progress through 8 stages throughout our lives. Each stage spans a certain amount of time and involves a crisis that needs to be resolved and a virtue to be gained. Successful resolution of each crisis provides a building block for the next stage.
Since his stages go from infancy to old age, and since I’m obviously nowhere near old age, I’ll just be focusing on the first 4 stages.
0-18 months: Trust vs. Mistrust
18 months-3 years: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
3-5: Initiative vs. Guilt
5-13: Industry vs. Inferiority
Trust vs. Mistrust
This first stage starts as soon as a child is born and lasts until they are about 18 months old. It’s fairly simple: either the child will learn to trust their caregivers or they won’t. The virtue that is to be gained when trust is established is hope, hope that there will be someone to take care of them.
When I was in grad school, my psychodynamic psychology professor told us, “You can’t spoil a child.” At the time, we were studying Freud’s theories, but those words stayed in my head. I always knew motherhood wasn’t going to be easy. Raising a small child into a responsible, contributing member of society is not easy. Caring for a newborn who wasn’t going to sleep through the night wasn’t going to be easy. But my tiny squirmy babies needed me, were completely reliant on me to meet their every need. You can’t spoil a baby. All they have are needs.
For those first 18 months, my babies would be dependent on me to take care of their basic needs. They would either learn to trust I would take care of them or learn I was not trustworthy because I couldn’t or wouldn’t meet their needs. It wasn’t always easy, but ensuring my babies successfully resolved this conflict was important to me, especially since it’s the first. That meant I breastfed on demand, didn’t sleep train and instead responded to every cry, scheduled my days and activities around the schedule they naturally developed, soothed them when they needed it, and followed their lead. They learned to trust I was going to be there for them and know they can always turn to me when they’re hurt, fearful, uncertain, and nervous.
Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
From 18 months to 3 years of age, children learn to be autonomous in their activities and develop willpower. How many parents are laughing right now? It might be a laughing matter, but there appears to be a developmental reason for why it’s called the Terrible Two’s.
According to Erikson, starting around 18 months of age, children start to learn they are able to move around in the world on their own. They discover a wide world ready for their exploration, and they want to do it on their own. They want to test their limits and see what they’re capable of. As parents, it’s easy to say they’re not ready and take control, but that strips them of their sense of independence and autonomy. Instead, they feel ashamed of wanting to do something Mom and Dad think they cannot do and doubt their own abilities and ideas.
Above all, children at this age just want to know it’s okay to be them. It’s okay to want to explore. It’s okay to want to have crazy ideas. It’s okay to do things their own way instead of the way Mom and Dad insist is right. They’re discovering new things every day and are anxious to try it out on their own. It’s often a battle of wills between child and parents. As parents, we see a tiny child who shouldn’t or can’t be capable of doing certain things, but the child wants so hard to just try.
Before becoming a mom, I had heard quite a bit about the Terrible Two’s and Three’s. I was ready. I braced myself. I was prepared to weather the battles, the tantrums, the meltdowns. Except my oldest turned 2 and was the sweetest child ever. Sure, he had his tantrums, but, when I explained why he couldn’t do something, he seemed to understand and we somehow managed to head off tantrums. It might have also helped that he had a speech delay and didn’t really talk until he was 3. We played 20 Questions a lot, but he never seemed to get frustrated. He knew we would eventually figure it out and was patient with us. He also had a terrible fear of time outs, and is still scared of punishment.
I also understood he was growing up fast and wanted to try things on his own. When it was safe, I let him. I let him explore. I let him learn and practice new skills. I encouraged him to try new things, but never forced him if he wasn’t ready, and was always ready to offer help when he became frustrated. He was always prepared to let me know if he wanted to do something on his own or if he wanted me to do it.
My daughter is at the beginning of this stage. She’s already very independent, vocal, and dramatic. I don’t know yet if she’ll display the typical signs of a Terrible Two’s child. She throws her fits, has her tantrums, but always knows a hug from Mommy makes things better. She understands when I give her reasons, just like her brother. She’s happiest when I let her do and try things on her own. I always hover over her just in case she needs me, but, as long as I don’t interfere, she’s as happy as a clam. I just have to remember to give her the same freedom as I did her brother. With two kids, sometimes I feel a little rushed to get things done, but I still have to remember she’s learning new skills and needs time. I don’t want her to be a willful child, but I do want her to have willpower.
Initiative vs. Guilt
From about 3 years to 5 years of age, children learn to take the initiative and find purpose. Otherwise they may feel like a nuisance and feel guilty and as though they can be nothing more than a follower. They know they are capable of doing things, so now they learn to become assertive and take the lead in order to accomplish things on their own. They develop purpose in their actions.
At this age, many children are in preschool. They’re developing friendships and social skills. They’re learning to be apart from their parents. If they have successfully resolved the previous conflict, they will know they have autonomy, they know they are capable, and they will be able to take the initiative. They become capable of starting their own games and are increasingly able to draw others in to their play.
My son is towards the end of this stage. He’s definitely needed more than a little push to take the initiative. His happy place is letting others take care of him and it’s been a bit of a struggle to get him to do things on his own, to develop his own ideas, and decide what he wants to do. He knows he’s capable, knows he can. He just lacks the desire. So, I give him the space to develop his own ways of entertaining himself. I let him become bored so he can find new things to do on his own. I encourage him and provide ideas, but I let him take the lead. When he says he wants to do something, I do my best to accommodate him, to show him his ideas are interesting and he should follow where they lead. He definitely has no problems with taking the lead when he’s playing with his sister. But sometimes it’s tough because she’s learning to be independent at the same time.
Industry vs. Inferiority
From ages 5 to 13, children learn to be industrious and develop a sense of competence and accomplishment. They’re capable of figuring how they stack up against their classmates. Otherwise they’ll feel inferior to their peers and incapable of performing at the same level.
At this age, children are in school. They’re learning to navigate academics and developing a social life. They spend much of their waking time learning, often away from their parents. Grades enter their lives and their progress and knowledge are tracked in a way they can follow. They know whether they are deemed to be productive or not and whether or not they are actually learning. They also have a good idea of how their peers are performing and will start to measure their abilities against those of their classmates. If they do not feel they are measuring up, they will likely develop a sense of inferiority.
Sooner than I’d like, my son will be at this stage. He will be off to Kindergarten, whether or not he’s ready to start his academic life. He’ll learn everything the curriculum has to offer and will have to do homework (though his preschool already assigns it at the end of the week, so he should be used to having it). He’ll learn to be productive every day and the value of active learning.
During this stage, my parents had my siblings and me doing workbooks every summer to keep our brains working and to help us retain what we had learned. I have every intention of doing the same with my kids. I aim to teach them to work hard, learn everything they can, and feel accomplished and competent in what they do. I can’t stop them from constantly comparing themselves to others, but I hope to ensure they are on the same level and can still feel pride in what they are able to accomplish.
It’s not easy being a parent, but I like to think I have Erikson’s stages as a guide. It makes it easier for me to understand my children’s behavior, reminds me to be patient and that it’s my job to help them learn based on where they are and what their abilities are, and helps me guide them towards adulthood so they stand a good chance of being successful in whatever they choose to do. Erikson might not be for everyone, but he’s definitely for me.
And if you’re like me and fall between 18 and 40 years of age, our conflict is Intimacy vs. Isolation.