The Walk of Life

In 1623, William Shakespeare wrote, “One man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages, from screaming infant to the finality of oblivion.” Three hundred years later, the American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson offered a more modern take on psychological transformation, examining and mapping the personal development of humans throughout their lifetime.

Erikson produced what has become known as the most popular and influential theory of human development. His model included 8 stages of psychosocial growth, where each stage – influenced by biological, psychological, and social factors – was sequential, from birth to infancy, childhood into adulthood, and finally middle age into old age.

Stage 1

In the first stage of Erikson’s model, infancy is crucial to our psychosocial development. In a child’s initial 18 months, they are uncertain about the world in which they find themselves and must develop basic trust. Obviously at this time the child is totally reliant on the warmth, love, stability and nurturing behaviour of the caregiver.

Failure at Stage 1 results in the development of fear, mistrust, suspicion, anxiety, and ultimately a belief that the world is unpredictable. Children may become anxious, believing they have no control or influence on their environment. Conversely, success within this stage leads to the virtue of hope – the sense that whatever crisis they meet, there will be someone around to provide support and help.

Stage 2

Stage 2 focuses on early childhood (18 months to three years). This is when the child is gaining independence and developing an increased perception of control over their physical skills. Typically, around this time, parents, teachers and caregivers begin giving children some degree of choice, letting them perform actions on their own. Subsequently children become increasingly mobile and develop physically, asserting their independence when putting on clothes and playing with other children and toys.

If a child is overly criticized and controlled, or prevented from asserting themselves at Stage 2, they may feel unable to survive, lacking in self-esteem, and be excessively dependent on others. The child needs to believe they can act with intention, rather than experience a sense of inadequacy and doubt.

Stage 3

Erikson’s third stage of psychosocial development occurs between the ages of three and five years. At this point, when conflict occurs between initiative and guilt, children learn to assert themselves. To their parents, their behaviour may seem vigorous, overly assertive, or even aggressive, and yet they are exploring their interpersonal skills.

If they are restricted too much from such exploration, either by parental control or through increased criticism, children can develop a sense of guilt. Similarly, while constant questioning in this stage can be tiring at times, if it is curtailed by caregivers, children may see themselves as a nuisance, inhibiting our interactions with others.  Success at this stage means children learn to feel capable, secure, and able to use their initiative. Failure for children at this stage could lead to them suffering guilt and self-doubt, potentially becoming less likely to lead.

Stage 4

The final stage pertinent to our children at Yateley Manor, Stage 4, applies to children between the age of 5 and 12, where they are immersed in a world of education. Teachers play an essential role in children’s continued growth within this stage. At the same time, peer groups and social interactions are increasingly relevant in the development of self-esteem. Feelings of pride arise as children successfully perform or complete tasks. Indeed, winning approval is a motivating factor, and children soon learn to associate it with displaying specific competencies valued by their peers and adults.

If successful at this stage, development leads to the virtue of competence, while failure can result in a sense of inferiority, where children feel unable to perform specific skills. Learning to fail can be a crucial element in our maturation, leading to the development of modesty.

There have been several challenges to Erikson’s development theory, such as accuracy of age ranges against stages and the fact that stages may not play out sequentially or in the order described. We must be aware that the model is a helpful tool rather than a testable theory. It provides a lens through which we can review our lifelong transformation rather than a prescribed set of steps.

The importance of attachment in the early years of childhood, providing choice for children, allowing them to explore life around them and celebrating the importance of failure in the learning process resonate in our daily work with children at Yateley Manor. Relationships and environment are key areas for successful development.