This post is the third in a series about Erik Erikson’s Stage Theory of Psychosocial Development. If you would like to know more about this series, go here. To see the second post on stages 1 and 2, go here.
Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt
This stage spans the age range of 3-5 years old, otherwise known as the preschool years. Assuming that the first two stages have been successfully achieved, then the 3-5 year old trusts the world and has a healthy sense of autonomy (as much as could be expected from a 3 year old generally – feeding, toileting, etc).
In the preschool years, children begin to become more deeply involved in their play; this is how they explore the world and express themselves. This makes sense, doesn’t it? Do you remember being obsessed with trains and acting out scenarios, or playing with a baby doll, or building something out of blocks? That was exploratory and expressive play!
Initiative vs. guilt could also be understood as “I’m a good kid who can try things, sometimes succeeding, sometimes making mistakes” vs. “I’m a bad kid who has bad ideas”. At this stage it is important that parents and caretakers encourage their children (when reasonable) to make some of their own choices: what they play with, who they play with, what they’re interested in. This builds up a child’s sense of initiative, or security in one’s own abilities and decision-making skills. If the answer to any child-led idea or direction is often put down or squelched, then the tendency is for the child to assume that they are a nuisance and therefore “bad.”
How do you help your 3-5 year old pass successfully through this stage?
1. Take the time to notice what your child is doing in their play
“You really know how to take care of that doll” emphasizes your child’s ability to nurture and empathize with others.
“That tower game is hard to get right, but you keep trying anyway!” emphasizes your child’s ability to be persistent and hard-working.
2. Listen to your child’s ideas and treat them seriously
3. Make an effort to compromise with your child on ideas they might have
In therapy, the counselor would help your child achieve these goals through play therapy and by coaching parents in developing the parenting skills they need to foster initiative in their preschool-aged children.