Have you ever heard someone tell a new mom that 3 or 4 was a “fun age?” If you have kids or cousins or siblings at that age, you know that it’s true. Between the ages of 3-5, kids are becoming more independent and fun. Erik Erikson called this time in a person’s life the “Play Ages.”
If you have been enjoying my content on The Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development, you already know who Erikson is. If you haven’t, I recommend that you start with the link I just shared.
This article is about the third stage of Psychosocial Development, which takes place between the ages of 3 and 5.
The third stage of psychosocial development is Initiative vs Guilt. It takes place between the ages of 3 and 5 after the child has wrestled with the crisis of Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt. Ideally, the child has developed a sense of autonomy and the ability to make decisions for themselves.
During this stage, the child also feels that the world is trustworthy (that comes from the first stage of development.) Unfortunately, some children do move forward with a sense of shame and doubt when it comes to their bodies and the decisions they make.
This stage takes decision-making to a next level. Children in the third stage of social development undergo a new crisis: Initiative vs. Guilt. If they successfully complete this stage, they develop the virtue of purpose. Interactions with parents, family members, and even other children may develop to the outcome of this psychological crisis.
Initiative vs Guilt Examples: What Happens?
During this third stage, children are learning how to play with others. In their play groups, they start to get a sense that everyone has a role. This allows some people to take initiative and take charge.
How Do Children Learn How to Take Initiative?
By taking initiative, a child might come up with a new game to play. They might map out the “rules” of make-believe. The child might be the one to suggest that it is time to play or time to do something else. Members of the play group may follow along or push back. Different members of the play group may also fight for the “top spot.”
These conflicts and interactions are good for the child’s development - it helps them develop a sense of initiative. This is the first time in a child’s life that they can explore being a leader or how a leader operates. Children can also experience planning, executing these plans, and compromising with others. If you have ever been around a three- to five-year-old, you know that there are a lot of questions asked during these ages. But these questions only help the child understand how to take charge, make plans, and make things happen when they want them to happen.
How is a Sense of Guilt Developed?
Like the second stage, initiative is developed if the child is encouraged to make plans or take charge. Exploration of role-playing only helps to further this development along. If a child is discouraged or kept away from group play, they may begin to develop a sense of guilt. If a child’s questions are dismissed or left unanswered, they might begin to feel guilty for bringing up those questions in the first place. They may regret speaking their mind or asking for the things that they want.
Like mistrust or shame and doubt, guilt can have long-lasting consequences. If a child learns that taking initiative is something to feel guilty about, they will fail to branch out, make plans for themselves, or take on leadership roles. They may instead choose to rely on parents or other authority figures when making decisions about their life. This has consequences in later stages of psychosocial development (identity vs. role confusion) where the person must decide who they are and how they want to live their life.
Parents may find that it’s not always easy to encourage exploration. Children between the ages of 3-5 are very likely to make mistakes. They may choose to hang out with the wrong friends or indulge in activities that the parent doesn’t think is right for them. But when a parent tries to control their child, the child may start to feel guilty for breaking free from that control.
One example is the creation of an imaginary friend. Without a best friend or a constant companion, a child may develop their own. An imaginary friend also gives the child the chance to make decisions for themselves and the friend and explore leadership. If a parent squashes the idea that the friend exists or that the child should interact with the friend, the child may not feel free to explore taking initiative. If the parent tries to control the whereabouts of the friend, the child may feel guilty for thinking they could take control.
Scolding a “Bossy” Child
Imaginary friends aren’t the most frustrating situation in this stage. Children also don’t always know if their method of leadership or asserting themselves is productive. If you’ve ever met a three-year-old who was “bossy,” you probably know what I’m talking about. It’s not uncommon for children to make serious demands during these ages as they explore what it means to take initiative or make decisions.
One or The Other May Not Be the Answer
Other children or family members may also make a child feel guilty during this stage. After all, children in play groups may also be in this stage of development and learning how they can be leaders as well. Conflict over leadership and who gets to make decisions isn’t always easy to navigate, but is crucial for development.
Guilt isn’t always a bad thing during this stage. A child may feel guilt when they realized they (metaphorically) stepped on another child’s toes or made other children feel bad. At this stage, the child might start to see that their role in a group may require them to sacrifice their needs and wants for the sake of others. Guilt is not always a bad thing, but in order for children to develop a healthy balance of initiative and guilt, they will need to be encouraged to play with others and make mistakes.
What Makes Initiative vs Guilt Different Than Autonomy vs Shame?
This question was asked on the psychologystudents subreddit, and the answers may help you understand the distinction between these two stages.
Kindlywolf1169 had this to say:
If a child doesn’t build a strong autonomy, they won’t feel confident in their actions.
Initiative versus Guilt is about impulse control and becoming cooperative. It is when children start seeing “how far they can push boundaries”. So the example I was given at school was that it’s time for a child to go to sleep but the child is watching TV. You told the child that you will give them 10 more minutes and they need to go to bed. You come back 10 minutes later and what do you see? The child is still watching TV. So they’re going to see how far they can go by adding extra time. Then, there are consequences imposed when they go too far. If the child is disciplined too harshly, that is what creates the guilt part. The child is learning to maintain a sense of initiative without imposing on the freedom of others.
The biggest difference would probably be personal vs. interpersonal. One has negative effects from a lack of confidence in self and the other has negative effects from the feeling of not being of use (which is to some extent developed by people around them). Children at that age tend to get that great feeling from doing something to help somebody (no matter how small). Developing that tendency and observing positive social development with people requesting the help would probably be an interesting paper to write.
Mongosmoothie explained it this way:
I think of it as exploring autonomy (oh wow I can get this blanket myself) vs getting initiative (I’m going to get this blanket myself). If the kid is getting everything done for them, they will doubt themselves of what they’re capable of doing for themselves. If this continues, they eventually feel guilt about wanting/doing things themselves.
Ages 3-5 In Other Stages of Development
Erikson’s theory focuses on social development. Psychologists like Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud focused their theories on other aspects of childhood development. When you compare what is happening from ages 3-5 in Erikson’s theory versus other theories, you may find similarities and very stark differences.
Jean Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development: From the ages of 3-5, a child is in the preoperational stage. They already have object permanence, but only think in concrete terms. Piaget also suggested that children at this age are largely egocentric. They have not yet developed empathy and only see the world through their perspective. Yes, children may start to take initiative and play games, but the tension will arise as the children try to share, make decisions, or resolve problems among the group.
Sigmund Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development: Children between the ages of 3-5 are in the phallic stage of psychosexual development. Yes, you read that right. In each stage, the child has a different erogenous zone that influences their behavior. Freud suggested that during this time, the child is discovering the differences between men and women. They also discover their affection for the opposite-sex parent. This is known as the Oedipal complex (Freud’s colleague Carl Jung added that girls go through an Electra complex.) Although Freud’s stages of psychosexual development are no longer widely accepted by modern psychologists, they are still fascinating to study.
Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development: Children are in the first stage of moral development until the age of 9. They are not yet making their own decisions regarding moral vs. immoral. If their parents give them a rule, they follow it “because they said so.” Kohlberg and Piaget have similar views on egocentrism during this time of life. A child does not see beyond themselves until later in their development. (This is addressed in later stages of Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, too.)
Industry vs. Inferiority
Initiative vs. guilt is the third stage of psychosocial development. The fourth stage is industry vs. inferiority. Before a child enters school, they may have moved through this stage of development with a sense that they can take charge or that others can take charge. But they likely haven’t grasped the idea that they can compare themselves to others. This is the central idea in industry vs. inferiority.