Aspects of Psychology: Erikson’s Stages

Initiative –v Guilt

Erikson’s third stage, that of Initiative-v-Guilt, relates primarily to early school years, often pre-schoolers, and their internal struggles at that age. It is highly significant developmentally as the basis for much of what comes later. Erikson believed that through play, many of the issues confronting the developing person at this stage could be resolved in a constructive way, allowing the freedom to move on to the next stage of development. His belief was that all these psychosocial stages were “normal” and that in fact if the stages did not occur as outlined, the child was not developing in a “normal” way.

Children ask a lot of questions at this stage of their development and how they are dealt with has an effect on their development. For example, a child may ask to play with something (showing initiative) but may be told “No” (resulting in guilt). Allowing a child to use its initiative encourages purpose which Erikson believes is the main psychosocial development resulting from this stage, however, stifling a child’s initiative at this stage can result in feelings of guilt (i.e. I am not allowed, why not, what have I done wrong?). By allowing a child to use its own initiative, for example to dress himself, the autonomy developed in the second psychosocial stage continues to flourish, where the use of initiative and consequences allow a child to feel positive about learning to think for himself. A purpose can be established.

As well as allowing children to ask questions freely and act on their own behalves, Erikson believes that playing, particularly fantasy and role-play, are central to this stage of development. Everbody Rides the Carousel, Erikson’s documentary type film made in 1976 by directors Faith and John Hubley, was a film attempt to show the mass-market the value Erikson’s theories have to the wider public. Their lack of onus on sexuality (like Freud’s psychodynamic stages) our outdated ideas (like Shakespeare’s seven stages of man) made them more palatable to a wider audience and particularly in terms of child development they have been very significant.

In Everybody Rides the Carousel, the Initiative-v-Guilt stage is depicted by a child proudly showing her father a picture she has drawn of him, only to be laughed at our loud by both of her parents. The initiative has been trampled on and she is back in her shell having had her creativity mocked; but interestingly she uses fantasy play to imagine awful things happening to her parents (like her mother ending up in a garbage can) and consequently resolves those issues.


This stage covers the ages of around 7-12 years, covering not just basic family in the way that interactions in the last stage do, but also the surrounding neighbourhood and importantly, school. Teachers and peers pay a big part in contributing to a child’s development during this time. Erikso’s definition of industry relating to a child was his or her wanting to understand how things work, how to make things and how to do things themselves. The sense of industry is reinforced in this stage with the significant input of teaching staff who actively encourage children’s sense of self-esteem along with peers, who can also make a child feel very inferior. The aim of this developmental stage is the achievement of “competence” – children learn to make things and to make things together with other children and adults.

Unsuccessful attempts to be industrious, or criticism at those efforts, can lead to a sense of inferiority in the child, as can a lack of guidance and encouragement from the significant adults in a child’s life.

For example, in Everybody Rides the Carousel, the child in the improvised situation (for the whole documentary-film was improvised by actors under guidance by the directors) fails in his attempts at industry, e.g. carpentry, and consequently feels inferior at these disasters. The symbol of this stage is a child, really willing and able to apply himself, only to stumble and find small situations and minor difficulties insurmountable as he struggles with a rising sense of inferiority.