In 2017, a study came out that showed girls start to doubt their abilities in math and science as early as age six. There is very little difference in the abilities between boys and girls, but certainly a difference in confidence. As early as six, stereotypes about gender begin to set in. Why? These children are going through a crisis of industry vs. inferiority.
That may be hard to believe, but this topic might show why stereotypes affect children as young as six. I’m going to be talking about the fourth stage of Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. The fourth stage of Psychosocial Development is known as “Industry vs. Inferiority.”
What Is The Industry vs. Inferiority Stage?
The industry vs. inferiority stage occurs as a child is entering middle childhood and beginning to interact with their peers. They experience a crisis, one unlike any other crisis they experienced before in their psychosocial development. The child begins to compare themselves to peers and evaluate their competency.
What is Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development?
Joan and Erik Erikson created the psychosocial stages of development to show the crises a person encounters throughout their life. The eight stages begin at birth and end at death. If the person is surrounded by a positive, supportive environment, they can move through the crisis successfully. Negativity and neglect may prevent the person from moving forward or even affect their ability to move into the next stage on time.
If this is the first time you are hearing about these stages, I recommend checking out some other pages on psychosocial development first for context:
Industry vs. Inferiority Age
Between the ages of 5-12, after children have completed the “Initiative vs. Guilt” stage, they enter into a new psychological crisis. For many Americans, this is the time in which a child enters grade school. They aren’t just answering to parents or family members anymore – they’re also answering to teachers.
What Happens During the Industry vs. Inferiority Stage?
All of a sudden, the child’s performance is measured. In previous stages, they were learning basic skills and engaging in play. While they certainly hit certain milestones (their first words, walking, etc.) measurement wasn’t involved. Through the fourth stage of development, they are getting report cards, grades, and more feedback from teachers. And they are beginning to see their peers getting all of these things, too.
What does the child do with all of this information? They compare. Social Comparison Theory suggests that humans have an innate drive to compare themselves to others. This makes total sense. We compare our work ethic to another person’s to make sure we are keeping up. We compare ourselves to someone to see if we are desirable, strong, or well-liked. Through the comparison of others, we understand our place in the world.
Of course, the results of this comparison are not always positive. A child may determine that they are inferior to their peers. That doesn’t feel very nice. And when children are subjected to standardized testing, the determination of who is “above” who is easier to make than ever.
The information that children use to make comparisons and move through this crisis may not be very helpful. How they interpret that information also makes a difference. Remember that study I mentioned at the top of this blog post? The comparisons that young children are making between boys and girls are a result of the environment around them. Children may not have all the test scores of their classmates to see that the boy and girl classmates are scoring equally on math, science, and language tests. They are taking in the world around them. They hear parents ask the boy child if he’s going to be an astronaut while the girl child is asked about being a princess. The world is changing, sure. But the study mentioned goes to show how subtle gestures can move a child through this crisis.
Example of Industry vs. Inferiority Stage
Ash is eight years old. She attends an assembly at school where professional gymnasts perform. She is inspired to try gymnastics out herself. On the first day of gymnastic lessons, she tries to perform a cartwheel and fails. This failure makes her cry. Fortunately, her parents and coach reassure her that with practice and time, she will be able to be just as great of a gymnast as the performers.
Zach is 10 years old and has different preferences than the other boys in his class. When other boys want to wrestle in the mud, he prefers to stay clean. Other boys find humor in dumping all their food into one big pile, and Zach thinks that’s gross. He prefers to sit on the sidelines instead of playing sports. When his father observes this behavior, he scolds him. No one affirms that he is allowed to stay clean, make his bed, and have more girl friends than guy friends. Zach doesn’t make it through this crisis feeling confident; instead, he feels inferior to the other boys in his school.
Josie has been having a hard time in school since she started. At the age of 6, she is already displaying behavior issues. Her anxiety regarding her mother’s departure in the morning distracts her, but she doesn’t feel comfortable expressing her anxiety to her peers or teacher. Her teacher is frustrated by her behavior. With too many students in the class, Josie cannot receive any individual attention to correct the behavior. Josie sees all the other students receiving praise, but notices that she gets none. This further stunts her social development.
Erikson pointed out that this stage is vital to a person’s self-confidence. If a person is consistently praised or encouraged, they will develop self-confidence. They will see that their industriousness, or diligence, pays off. The basic virtue developed during this stage is competency. When a child believes that they are competent (on top of trust, autonomy, and the confidence to take initiative,) they will likely become more productive members of society. Remember the study of Learned Helplessness in the Autonomy vs. Shame stage? The test subjects only made efforts when they believed that they could and that their efforts would pay off.
Unfortunately, not all children exit this stage with a strong sense of self-confidence. While some children may compare themselves to others and see themselves as successful, others may look at other children and see themselves as a failure. They may feel inferior. Like the girls in the study I mentioned earlier, they may not see themselves suited for certain jobs, talents, or careers.
Industry vs. Inferiority
Like I mentioned regarding the Initiative vs. Guilt stage, either extreme is not healthy for development. Experiences that may make a child feel inferior may really humble them. Someone who has only been told that they are the best at every skill can quickly develop a sense of arrogance. And being industrious isn’t just about being good at something. If someone is industrious, it means that they are diligent and hard-working. Confidence without industry may lead to some big reality checks down the road.
Difference Between Stages 3 and 4 of Psychosocial Development
You may think that these stages overlap, just like this Reddit user on the Mcat subreddit. But u/Coconut19 provided a great description to help you tell the two apart:
“I think the main difference between stage 3 & 4. Is that stage 4 is more about development in a school sense. Here’s what I have in my notes: hope it helps:
3.Initiative vs. Guilt
- (3-6): can I act? Conflict leads to either being too afraid to act or overcompensating by showing off
- school stage (ages 3–6 years), they are capable of initiating activities & asserting control over their world through social interactions and play.
4.Industry( competence ) vs. Inferiority
- (6-12): can I be competent? Conflict leads to low self esteem and self efficacy
- During their elementary school years kids begin to compare themselves with their peers to see how they measure up. They either develop a sense of pride and accomplishment in their schoolwork, sports, social activities, and family life, or they feel inferior and inadequate because they feel that they don’t measure up.”
Ages 5-12 In Other Stages of Development
Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development is not the only theory within developmental psychology. Other notable names like Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget have their own ideas on what is going on in a child’s mind between the ages of 5-12. Compare Erikson’s industry vs. inferiority stages with the following theories:
Jean Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development – children are moving out of the preoperational stage into the concrete operational stage. They are acquiring skills like empathy and conservation.
Sigmund Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development – children are moving out of the phallic stage into the latent stage. Boys and girls are noticing differences at this stage too, but they are very different differences than math or science skills.
Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development – children are moving between the stages of preconventional and conventional morality. They are learning that there is more than one point of view and using that information to form stronger interpersonal relationships.
What Can Parents and Teachers Do to Encourage Competency?
Parents, neighbors, extended relatives, and teachers all play a part in this stage of psychosocial development. It’s important for all of these parties to encourage children, even if they are struggling. Trying a math problem in a new way or bringing home an improved grade are all worthy of praise. The more a child hears that they are not good enough, the more they will believe it.
Open dialogues with children about success and failure can also help children during this stage of development. Parents should be in contact with their child’s teacher and see how the teacher is encouraging (or discouraging) the child at school. If the teacher is not providing extra assistance or advice to the child, and the parents also fail to offer this support, the child is more likely to feel inferior and lost as they move forward with their studies.
Unconditional love, separate from achievement or performance in school, is also crucial. A child needs to understand that they are still loved and supported even if they bring home a poor grade. Separating love and affection from report cards will help a child’s development no matter how they are doing in school. There are many reasons why a child might struggle at school, from stress to bullying and beyond. Adding the fear of letting one’s parents down won’t help the child magically get better grades.
What Happens After the Industry Vs. Inferiority Stage?
Things will only continue to get confusing as the child moves into adolescence. Like the ones before it, the Industry vs. Inferior stage will set a foundation for how the adolescent moves through their life and develops a stronger sense of identity. If a child is already self-confident and hard-working, they will have an easier time with the identity that they want to explore. If they feel inferior, they might feel that their options are limited.