This month I am writing about the preschool period, which is approximately ages three to six. In keeping with the theme of this series, I will refer back to Erik Erikson’s stages of development, of which this is number three, the one he called “Initiative vs.
Guilt.” This means that the main developmental crisis of this stage is either to emerge with a feeling that we can take initiative and become more and more independent, or a feeling of guilt for the things we have done wrong when we have tried and failed.
Previously I talked about toddlers and young preschoolers needing the freedom to take risks and fail, to skin their knees, to bump their heads, to get dirty, and to come out on the other side knowing that they will be OK. This period builds on that premise, and children during the preschool years continue to take more risks, to initiate activities and connections, and feel more independent, at least when they are supported in their quest for independence and do not meet with any frightening traumas such as a serious accident when their risk was miscalculated. The theory says that if the child is not supported in his quest for autonomy, or is punished for taking chances or making his opinions and needs known, he will feel guilty about his feelings.
How does this work? A child at this age should, naturally, want to seek out more autonomy. He should want to initiate activities, play with friends and family, ask for what he wants and needs, try new things. The Montessori schools are based somewhat on this premise, and they are structured in such a way that a child can choose from many stations and activities, explore new things, and learn on his own. It is assumed that if a child of this age is left to his own devices, he will be motivated to initiate interactions with others and be curious about the world around him.
When a child is thwarted in his attempts to become his own person and explore his world, according to Erikson, he will begin to feel guilty for his feelings and his actions. In particular, we can’t forget that many Freudian-based theories place the Oedipal conflict smack in the middle of this stage, which is when little boys fall in love with their mothers and little girls fall in love with their fathers and want to ship the other parent and any other competitors off to Siberia. Children feel, according to this theory, very conflicted about their feelings. On the one hand, we learn a lot about interpersonal and romantic relationships from our parents. The first member of the opposite sex that we interact with on a regular basis is our opposite sex parent. We look at our same sex parent and begin to learn what it means to be a member of that gender. It is only natural for us to develop a “crush” on our opposite sex parent, and to want him or her all to ourselves.
However, the fantasies that the child may engage in that involve sending Dad away so Mom can be here only to meet her son’s needs, cause guilt in the child, understandably so. Erikson felt that if a child’s feelings were seen as “bad” or were squelched or punished, he would feel even more guilt than he already does. I have an adorable cartoon that I often show when I teach human development classes. It shows a mother leaving for what we presume is a business trip, and a little girl standing with her father at the door as Mom is leaving. The caption says, “Don’t rush home, Mommy, I’m going to marry Daddy while you are gone.” I find that cartoon very sweet and it always makes me laugh.
It is during this period, that not only do children start to think about who they will marry (someone like the girl who married Dear Old Dad?) and what it means to be male or female, but also about what they might be when they grow up. Children of this age can often be seen imitating adults and adolescents as they try to figure out what role they play in the world. I have a cousin who is about 13 years older than I am. I can remember at this age how I couldn’t wait to grow my hair really long and wear bell bottoms and platform shoes. Of course, once I hit adolescence the styles had changed, but as a preschooler my pretty teenaged cousin was the fashion plate I hoped to emulate when I was her age. This type of admiration and imitation is very common at this age. There is a sweet folk song by Dar Williams written from the point of view of a little girl with a major “crush” on her babysitter. The little girl in the song is so in awe of this college-bound young lady and so proud to have the best babysitter in the world, that it always brings back memories for me of my first babysitter. I can even remember the smell of her shampoo.
When children are allowed these fantasies and role plays, they usually move on to the next stage with a feeling that they can try new things, take chances, be whatever they want to be, and not feel any shame or guilt about what they feel or think. In visiting one of my friends a few days after Christmas, I had the pleasure of being greeted at the door by her naked almost four-year-old, who after putting his clothes on, serenaded me with the guitar and microphone Santa had brought him. Because this child is supported in his efforts, and encouraged to try, he had no trouble fancying himself the next guitar great as he sang who-knows-what for me. He was so happy that I had arrived that clothes seemed trivial, and he had some sense that, like his parents, I would indulge him in his concert and cheer for him when he was done. OK, so his performance didn’t hold a candle to the James Taylor concert I had seen the week before, but I’m sure JT had to start somewhere too.
If this little boy was consistently told to be quiet, or that he had no talent as a rock star, or that he was silly to think he would ever be famous, he would begin to feel embarrassed, guilty about his dreams, and eventually take no initiative in any areas. Because Erikson saw his stages of development as psychosocial in nature, he believed that a lot was dependent upon our interactions with those around us, rather than on our own unconscious, internal feelings and conflicts. So, the response that we get from our parents, teachers, friends, and other significant figures, plays an important role in our self-assessments.
Parents of preschoolers would do well to indulge their fantasies, no matter how far-fetched or silly, to encourage them to try new things and be active participants in their lives, and to cheer them on for trying, even if they don’t succeed. I did not become any of the things I thought I would be when I was little (a veterinarian, one of the Smothers Brothers, a zookeeper, and artist) but the actual goal is not as important as simply having one in the first place. The goal itself can always be changed, but the drive to succeed, the looking towards the future is hard to get back when it is lost.
I can’t wait to see what my friend’s son gets for his birthday…I hope it’s not drums.
Dr. Barbara Kapetanakes owns the Sleepy Hollow Family Resource Center