Initiative vs. Guilt: Erik Erikson

Initiative vs. Guilt: Erik Erikson

When infants grow up, they gain many abilities they aim to master. Children want to try many things on their own in their growing years and wish to try their potential. Taking charge and initiation is very important in life. However, often parents can get overwhelmed by this enthusiasm of children. What happens if children are criticized for curiosity and will to try new skills? Erik Erikson elaborates on this situation in his third stage of psychosocial development of personality.

Second Stage

This stage builds on the second stage of 'autonomy versus shame/doubt.' The stages before the third stage are illustrated.

The early stages of psychosocial development

The third stage begins from age three and continues till age five. Here children have attained autonomy from stage two. They have also started mastering motor skills and therefore seek more independence. Children also have new sources for social communication as they grow up. They spend much time with their peers and at the playgrounds. This is a time when interpersonal skills are displayed and mastered. Children may start asserting themselves at these places and in these new relationships. For instance, they may decide what role they want to play and which games they want to play. In this stage, children may want to assume leadership roles. What happens in this stage paves a path for many events in the later stages of life.

What is the third stage of psychosocial development?

Erikson defined ages three to five as the 'play ages.' Children during these ages have gained control over many motor skills and are ready to go out. They are mostly in preschool, where they meet their peers and are old enough to play with other children. This stage allows a child to display interpersonal communication and leadership by taking the initiative.

How is an initiative built?

Children who learn new things daily may want to try them out. They may want to remodel a scarf into a cape or build a fort out of cardboard boxes. They may wish to open a museum using artifacts in their homes and make tickets out of paper. Children learn to take the initiative when they realize that their plan has worked well and use their acquired skills. Children enjoy playing games and activities where they get a chance to lead. They may choose a game to play with others as they play. When they are pretending, they can choose their roles and the roles of other players. Children are not just assigned roles; they actively plan and execute their ideas. They gain leadership skills when they take the initiative.

When does guilt develop?

Children in this stage are prone to make mistakes. They are also bound to get aggressive since other children in the group may also wish to take the initiative. Additionally, they have not matured enough to act cooperatively with other children. Guilt can develop as a result of interaction or conflict with others. For example, a child can feel guilty for not allowing another child to play a particular role. Guilt in this stage is an important as well as a harmful component. If children do not feel guilt for being bossy, it can lead to a lack of empathy. They may not care for others if there is no guilt. Additionally, too much guilt can be detrimental and lead to a lack of self-confidence in one's decisions. If the child feels guilty, it can inhibit his interaction with others. Some amount of guilt is essential so that the child develops self-limits.

Role of Parents

Parents' role is to help the child find a proper balance between taking the initiative and guilt. Without guilt, the initiative can lead to a lack of regard for other children. Too much guilt and too little initiative can lead to a child lacking leadership qualities. Parents must encourage the child's initiative and be mindful whenever the child fails. For instance, any harsh criticism and control by parents during this stage can be harmful to the child at this stage. The child can withdraw from others if the parents are too controlling or critical. To encourage initiative, parents should appreciate the child's efforts rather than criticize their mistakes.

At this stage, parents must be helpful guides and mentors for the child. Children are bound to make mistakes during this stage. A parent's job is to point out the mistake without being critical. The child must learn about the solutions to the mistake and the acceptance of the mistake. Parents need to teach limit setting during this stage. This can be achieved by teaching children to take turns during play. Teaching them the importance of cooperation and helping them learn the importance of honesty and empathy.

What to avoid during this stage?

Parents should avoid being too suggestive during this stage. The child must be given the space to explore his ideas. Parents should make sure that they intervene only when necessary. It is normal for children to be aggressive or demanding during this stage, and parents must not display excessive amounts of criticism, overwhelm or control. Effective limit setting is important so that children learn to respect and obey.


In the third stage of the psychosocial development model, Erik Erikson sets the tone for many life events in the future. When a child learns initiative while being careful about others' needs, they can become powerful leaders. It enables individuals to take meaningful actions and achieve their aims. Not being able to achieve the virtue of 'purpose' during this stage can lead to children becoming emotionally weak and suspicious of their ability to take the lead. Additionally, an absolute lack of guilt can make a person unruly and stubborn. A parent or caregiver can help the child to find the right balance in this stage.


Simply Easy Learning

Updated on: 13-Oct-2022

1K+ Views

Kickstart Your Career

Get certified by completing the course

Get Started