‘Initiative versus Guilt’ is one of the eight stages of psychosocial development proposed by pioneering psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1902 – 1994). Each of the stages described by Erikson constitute a milestone in personality development, wherein the child is faced with a primary psychological issue / theme/ conflict that he/she needs to resolve satisfactorily for healthy development of the personality. For eg., the conflict faced by the child in its first year is, “ Is the world a good and safe place to live in?” and in its second year is, “Am I capable of controlling my environment?”
Similarly, a conflict faced by a child between 3 and 6 years of age is “Am I capable of planning and carrying out socially approved activities?” Children passing through this stage are curious about their environment and ask the questions “why” and “how” very often. They want to understand if they can influence their environment in a “meaningful” way. Upon successful resolution of this stage, children develop a sense of ‘purpose’, i.e., they are assured of being able to take meaningful initiatives while also harboring some sense of guilt for having tried activities that are disapproved by parents / teachers/ other significant authority figures. It is essential that their sense of initiative overpowers their sense of guilt.
THE FLIP SIDE – WHAT CAN HAPPEN IF THIS STAGE IS NOT SATISFACTORILY RESOLVED?
If not successfully resolved, children may grow up feeling that ‘they are bad’. In other words, they may believe that they are not capable of performing socially approved behaviors. Their self esteem deteriorates, they may withdraw into a shell and may manifest what is popularly known as ‘low-self confidence’. Chances are also there that such children may develop anti-social tendencies if the conflict remains unresolved over time.
HOW CAN WE HELP OUR YOUNG ONES THROUGH THIS STAGE ?
We would all wish to facilitate healthy resolution of this stage in our children. The first step towards this is gaining an understanding of what all behaviors the child can engage in during this stage.
Children when 3-6 years of age are still beginning to understand what behaviors are acceptable. They cannot still distinguish between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ behaviors. This in fact is learning generated in this stage. Hence, they may engage in several ‘wrong’ behaviors. Let me give you an example here:
A five year old I met would insist on picking up every single breakable item in the counseling setting. An exclamation of ‘Be careful, it can break!!’ would elicit this reply from her – “I can do it!” Similarly, she would continually attempt to step on one chair directly from another one kept at a distance, without any help. A statement like, “Mind the distance. You could fall!” would elicit the very same response, “I can do it. Watch me!”
What have we to understand from this example? Well, we need to keep in mind that the predominant reason why a child could perhaps engage in ‘wrong’ behavior is to try it out and gain a sense of mastery, NOT to disobey us, show us down or be stubborn and naughty. The importance of this cannot be undermined. Children by nature love and seek the approval of those around them. Hence, acting in a way that snatches approval away is something a child would not naturally wish to do. Their insistence upon doing something ‘bad’, like stepping into the neighbour’s house everyday asking for a chocolate, is most probably not to disobey orders from the parents not to do so. It is to judge for himself/herself how good he/she is at persuading.
Understanding a child’s motivation behind such behaviors is critical to help them. Equally critical is communicating this understanding to the child. It is essential to convey to them that you appreciate that the child is curious and not mischievous or stubborn. I will cite an example of healthy and unhealthy communication.
“How many times do I have to repeat, DON’T touch the lamp!!”
Meaning of the message – you do not wish to listen to me and like to trouble me.
The child understands – Mom/Dad thinks I am bad / I don’t love them.
A Healthy Alternative:
“Sweety you want to lift the lamp? Hmm it could be too big for your little hands and may break. Why don’t you try lifting it along with me? We can both hold it. Or, try lifting this bowl first. It is smaller.”
Meaning of the message – I understand that you wish to lift the lamp, however it could break. Let us try doing this together or you try a smaller object first.
The child understands – Mom/dad is with me and wants to help me do this. Hmm let me see what she/he is trying to say.
It is necessary to keep in mind that the child may not always obey us even upon healthy communication. We need to be firm and let them understand that they will not be allowed to lift the lamp alone. They will then adhere to one of the alternatives given to them. Additionally, it could also be helpful to say, ‘promise me never to lift the lamp when I am not there till you grow bigger. I am afraid it will break.” The child will understand your concern over time and abide by what you say, even while being assured that he/she is good and that mom and dad love me.
Papalia D.E., Olds S.W., Feldman R.D. (2004). Human Development. 9th edition, Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Limited, New Delhi
Post contributed by: Malini Krishnan (Psychologist, Inner Space, 2010-Present)