"There is in every child at every stage a new miracle of vigorous unfolding, which constitutes a new hope and a new responsibility for all." - Erik Erikson 1902-1994Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany, the so of a Danish mother. Although supported by a caring stepfather and attentive mother throughout his early years, Erikson never discovered the identity of his biological father. The ensuing search for his identity may provide a key to understanding his motivation to become a leading figure in human development. From his earliest years, Erikson demonstrated an intense interest in learning more about his identity, which continued throughout his years as a student and a teacher.
Erikson studied the theories of Sigmund Freud at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute in the late 1920's. With this foundation, Erikson developed his own theories, which he called "psychosocial development." Unlike Freud, who felt that our biological instincts were primarily responsible for our behavior, Erikson emphasized that social interaction was the driving force.
When Erikson came to the United States in 1933, he took a teaching position at Harvard Medical School and practiced child psychoanalysis privately. Erikson developed the view that each person experiences a set of "conflicts" that need to be resolved during each of eight stages of development, the first three stages spanning early childhood. These "conflicts" arise from demands made on a child by his parents or by society in general. As each conflict is resolved, the individual becomes ready to grapple with the next stage. When conflicts are unresolved, they remain issues for the individual to struggle with later in life.
First Three Stages of Psychosocial Development
Stage 1: Trust versus mistrust (birth to 1 year of age). During this time, the infant struggles to develop trust in the world. Erikson felt that children learn to trust when teachers are nurturing, responsive, and reliable.
Stage 2: Autonomy versus shame and doubt (18 months to 3 years). This stage is characterized by the child's increasing desire to discover. Teachers help children by understanding the child's needs for both independence and dependence. Erikson believed that, if this fails to occur, a child will experience feelings of shame and doubt.
Stage 3: Initiative versus guilt (3 to 6 years old). At this time, the child is eager to master new skills, use language to ask questions, and interact with other peers. At the same time, the child still relies on the comfort and security provided by teachers. If a child's developing sense of initiative is neglected or ignored, Erikson stressed that the child's misguided energy could result in verbal or physical aggression.
Although Erikson died without ever resolving the question central to his own identity, his contributions to the understanding of how people form their own identities are a great resource for all professionals and parents alike.
To learn more about the work of Erik Erikson: Identity's Architect by Lawrence J. Friedman (Harvard University Press, 1999; $19.95).