Sunday, 22 January 2012 09:19

Erik Erikson: Men Of Ideas

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Erik Erikson made a seminal contribution to developmental psychology. He delineated what he believes are the stages children and adults go through as they develop from infancy to death. His goal is to enable folk to know what critical issues are confronted at each stage and address them properly, and to make sure that negative traits are not developed.


Ozodi Thomas Osuji

Erik Erikson (1902-1994) was born in Germany of a Jewish mother and unknown father. Apparently, because of this issue he developed identity problems. He was a “Jewish boy” who looked Nordic (the unknown father was probably Scandinavian hence his blond hair and blue eyes). He was teased by his Jewish peers for looking Nordic and by Nordic (German, Scandinavian) children for being Jewish. He felt like he did not know where he belonged. Apparently, this confusion in identity set him on a life long quest to understand children and identity crisis. He studied psychoanalysis and devoted his life to understanding children, especially children with identity issues. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933 he left for Copenhagen and thereafter immigrated to the USA.  He worked at children’s guidance clinics at Boston and later taught developmental psychology at both Berkeley and Harvard.

In 1950 Erikson wrote the book that made him famous: Childhood and Society. He did write a few other books, such as Gandhi and identity crisis, but it is safe to say that he is known for the ideas he propounded in Childhood and Society. In other books he added to the points he made in the first book. Erickson added three stages to Sigmund Freud’s five stages of child development.

Before we delineate the eight stages of development let us pause to say that Erikson was a social psychologist. As such, he argued that society impacts the development of human and, for our present interest, children’s personality, for good or bad. In effect, if we want to produce healthy children we have to provide children with optimal nurturing and loving environment. It is society that affects what people turn out to be and the more propitious the social environment the better the human being turns out.

Clearly, it is true that society affects all people but that truth could be greatly exaggerated, as social psychologists tend to do. Neuroscience is increasingly showing us that biology or the child’s inherited body plays a greater role in shaping his personality.

We must bear in mind that at the time Erikson was writing (prior to 1950) folk were into social reductionism: everything was seen as caused by society. If a child has conduct disorder issues (anti social) it was deemed the result of how he was socialized.  In other words, it was his parents and society’s fault.

Blame society but do not blame the child for his bad behaviors; the individual is a victim of society.

Social psychology obviously has some relevance but it tended to see the individual as a determined variable, as a victim that society shaped and made to become whatever he is. B.F. Skinner, a social psychologist, in his book, Walden Two, boasted that through his behavior technology (classical and operant conditioning) he could make a child into whatever he wanted him to become. Yet all his Behavior Modification processes did not make one criminal pro-social in behavior.

It is simply not true that the human being is shaped only by his society. There are children raised in adverse circumstances that turn out okay.

There is strong suggestive evidence that biological variables play the greater role in shaping human personality.  Jerome Kagan, at Harvard, has demonstrated that temperament is inherited, not learned.

This is not to say that parents and adults should not make conditions as loving as is possible for children. We all could use some loving but that not withstanding we must be clear as to what determines what in our psychosocial development. Society impacts the child but it is safe to say that genetics probably plays the dominant role in the formation of individual’s personality.

Having gotten that caveat out of the way, let us now briefly describe Eriksson stages of development.

The first stage is, of course, infancy, the first year of the child’s life. Erikson believes that what is crucial here is for the child to develop trust. If care is not taken the child could develop mistrust. If the child is loved he develops trust in people’s ability to take care of him, and if not he develops mistrust of other peoples ability to take care of him.

The implication is that in adult hood situation where folks do not trust other people, where the world is perceived as hostile to the individual, such as in paranoid personality disorder, that the cause is lack of love for the individual during his childhood.

This assumption of social causation of personality disorders is greatly exaggerated. Biological factors play a role in the development of paranoid personality disorder; we know that it runs in families, indicating the role of biological constitution in its etiology. Without minimizing social factors in the genesis of personality it is simply not true that only social factors make us who we are. Yes, we do learn many things but our inherited biological datum largely determines our personality.

It is critical to accept this thesis so that we study our biological states and from doing so understand and correct our personalities rather than focus on social variables that even if changed would not make us different persons.

Stage two is between eighteen months and three years. As Erikson sees it, the critical developmental issues during this toddler stage are for the child to develop autonomy (independence) without developing doubt and shame. This is the period that the child ventures out to explore his environment. The idea is that if he is encouraged that he would feel empowered to become an autonomous adult, but if somehow told not to explore his world, if shamed when he tries to do things by himself and make mistakes that he would develop shame and self doubt.

There is some truth to this but it can be exaggerated. Children who are criticized tend to fear taking initiatives least they make mistakes and fail and get criticized. Children want to be accepted by their significant others thus take their parents criticisms very seriously. The idea is to love the child in what Carl Rogers would call unconditionally positive manner if he is to develop a sense of I can do it.

Learning requires making mistakes and failing; parents should not make a mountain of a mole hill when their child makes necessary mistakes in learning to walk, run and so on. It helps to encourage a child than to discourage him with criticism. Do not focus on what the child does wrong but on what he does right. Praise his successes and do not bad mouth him when he fails, as he must; there is no learning without failing. Positive reinforcement of good behavior, as the Behaviorists tell us, makes sure that such behaviors would be repeated rather than focusing on bad behaviors (which also makes them repeated). Tell a child: “you did a great job” whenever he does some thing right but keep your motor mouth shut when he does not.

The thirst stage is the pre-school stage, ages four to six. The goal here is to permit the child to develop initiative without feeling guilt. Apparently, some parents make the child feel guilty for doing what he or she wants to do that the parents do not approve. Independence is frowned upon by society and children are made to feel guilty for trying to be themselves. Let the child’s true self come out and encourage it. The child is not you and nothing you do would make him you.

The forth stage is the elementary school stage, from age six too twelve. Here, the child is at school and is graded by teachers and peers. The goal is to do so in such a manner that the child develops industry, a sense of “I can do it” without using his necessary failures at school to make him feel inferior.

Bad teachers can make a child feel inferior for failing grades.  When a child feels inferior he either drops out of school or becomes a problem child. Alfred Adler talked about some children reacting with superiority to inferiority.

Clearly, it is useful not to shame children but to say only what makes them feel confident in themselves and their abilities despite their making mistakes at learning.

Nevertheless, it is not criticism only that makes children feel inferior.  Children feel inferior because of inherited biological issues. If a child inherited weak organs and as a result is unable to compete with other kids at play etc he is likely to feel inadequate. The trick is to encourage him so that he overcomes his sense of inadequacy. Such children do not need to be criticized.

The fifth stage is adolescence, ages thirteen to eighteen. The task here is for the teenager to achieve ego identity, a sense of who he is without confusion as to who he is.

Erikson had adolescent confusion and paid particular attention to this stage of development. The idea is to help the teenager to accept himself and not reject his true self and seek becoming an ideal self that is not who he, in fact, is.

We know that teenagers are motivated to obtain their peers acceptance and would do all kinds of crazy things, if their peers suggest them, to be accepted.

In racist North America society accepts white skin color and looks down on black skin color. As a result, some black adolescents hate to be black and want to be white. Well, they are not going to be white no matter how much they wish it.  If they wish to be white they have identity confusion and this may paralyze them.  This problem is often exaggerated in mixed race children.

The thing to do is to give the child the feedback that no matter what his color is that he is loved and accepted by society.

Puberty is a time young persons begin to have adult sex desires. There are teenagers who are confused as to their sexual orientation.  Apparently, some persons are oriented towards homosexuality and puberty is generally tough for them since society considers that life style unacceptable. Some such persons would then be ashamed of their sexual orientation and hide it. Some even say that they pretend to be heterosexual, marry and have children while secretly practicing their homosexuality. Perhaps, when they feel emboldened they finally come out of the closet.

It would seem that the solution to teenagers’ incipient homosexuality is for society to accept them as they are.  But should they be accepted as they are? Should every human behavior be accepted just because folk want to engage in it? There are those who, for some reasons, have desire to have sex with children (under twelve) should society approve it?  Shouldn’t folk struggle to overcome certain behaviors; must all behaviors be tolerated just because folk desire them?

We shall soon find out that antisocial personality disorder is inherited, so should we accept criminals because they inherited their propensity to criminal behaviors?

Is it not possible to identify the implicated genes in certain deviant and through genetic engineering correct them?

To avoid a long discourse here let us say that some folk  believe that certain sexual practices are unnatural; we must respect their view and not force them to accept the everything goes cultural relativism of our time.

Stage six is young adulthood (18-30). The task here is to develop intimacy with other people rather than separation from them and live in social isolation. This entails developing good social skills and reaching out to be with other people rather than avoiding them out of fear of rejection.

Clearly, to marry and have good relationship with ones spouse, to have good relationship with ones work peers and to get along with people in general  requires one to be  friendly and have confidence in ones self. Social skills training are useful where it is deficient.

Stage seven is adulthood, ages twenty five to mid fifties. During this time folk are raising children. The task here is to develop what Erickson called “generativity and stagnation”. The idea is to identify with future generations, so as to do what would serve them, what does not necessarily serve one. Parents work for their children’s future good, a good that may not benefit them. It is when a person identifies with the whole society that he works for its future rather than just his self interest.

Stage eight is what we might call retirement age, age sixty five and over. Here, death is starring the individual in the face and how he copes with it is critical. The task is to develop ego integrity rather that despair at the coming death (aging is accompanied by weak and aching body). If a person accepts death gracefully he tends to develop wisdom rather than despair. On the other hand, if the person is fighting reality, aging and dying, he tends to be cantankerous and immature.

A man who accepts the inevitable without despair makes a good counselor for younger people.

Erikson’s typology is obviously useful. As a general guideline it is excellent but as a theory of personality it is useless. Biology plays a greater role in the etiology of personality than the social factors that Erickson emphasized.  Erickson is a product of his time; he lived at a time of sociological reductionism and made his contribution within that now antiquated view of the genesis of the human personality.


Erikson, Erik. (1950)  Childhood and Society.

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176