In 1950, Erik Erikson released his book, Childhood and Society, which outlined his now prominent Theory of Psychosocial Development. His theory comprises of 8 stages that a healthy individual passes through in his lifetime, each detailing a specific challenge or task. Erikson did not focus so much on ages but on the progression of the self. As individuals master each stage, they move onto the next, and confront a new challenge there. The stages unfold naturally, prompted by each individual’s upbringing and culture.
Each stage offers a unique conflict that the individual must master. One cannot simply dismiss the negative force presented at the time, but must strive to find a balance between the positive and negative force. As explained in each stage, the negative force offers positive outcomes in small amounts. The goal for the individual is to reconcile the two forces in order to achieve the goal. Goals for each stage are virtues that serve to better the lives of the individuals, such as hope, determination and wisdom. If an individual is able to master the conflict and gain the virtue of hope, for example, they are able to carry that virtue with them for the rest of their lives. It is expected that if a stage is not mastered, the challenge will reappear in the future. However, stages are not permanent; it is possible to master conflicts even after the fact.
- Stages of Moral Development – Lawrence Kohlberg
- Jean Piaget and His Theory & Stages of Cognitive Development
- Theory of Moral Development – Piaget
Stage 1: Oral-Sensory or Infancy Stage
Age: Birth to 18 months
Conflict: Trust versus Mistrust
From birth to 18 months of age, infants are in the oral-sensory stage. As the name suggests, the primary event in this stage is feeding. Through interactions with his or her mom and dad, the infant learns to listen to the biological urges put forth by the body. If the parents are able to respond appropriately to the infant’s needs, the child develops feelings of trust towards its urges and understands that the world is a safe and loving place. The task of a parent is to demonstrate consistency and familiarity to develop this trust.
This stage centers on the conflict of trust versus mistrust. Just as each parent aims to gain trust in their child, they must not eliminate the ability to mistrust. Trust can be directly observed in this stage: a child will not be super upset if they must wait a moment or two for mom or dad. Each parent does not have to perfect; the infant understands that even if mom or dad do not arrive right away, they will soon address their need. This central belief affects people throughout their lifetime. Adults understand that even if things are not going well right now, everything will work out well in the end. This hope helps people through tough times, disappointments in their careers, and challenges in their love lives. It is only through a balance of trust and mistrust can a child develop this hope.
If the parents neglect to satisfy the needs of the infant, they will instead develop mistrust. The child will become suspicious of others based on their personal experience. Ignoring the infant or unreliably fulfilling their biological urges makes them apprehensive of future relationships.
Stage 2: Muscular-Anal or Early Childhood Stage
Stage: Muscular-Anal /Early Childhood
Age: 18 months to 3 years old
Task: Toilet Training
Conflict: Autonomy versus Doubt /Shame
As a child reaches 18 months, they begin to enter the next stage: early childhood. This stage continues throughout toddlerhood until the child is 3 or 4 years of age. Just as infants learn to manage the conflict in their daily lives, toddlers do as well. In this stage, we see each child strive to find a balance between autonomy and shame.
Children learn autonomy by exploring the areas around them; if the parents allow the child to manipulate the environment, he will develop independence. Offering proper boundaries encourages a balance between confidence and self-control. This means that parents and other caregivers should encourage the child but also hold fast and follow through on the rules. Toddler parenting can be best summarized by the popular advice “firm but tolerant.”
In this stage, the life event or learning skill acquired by toddlers is toilet training. As children learn control over their own body, they begin to express it in different ways. Toilet training is one way for toddlers to show independence as well as develop confidence in their own abilities.
Ultimately, the goal of creating a balance between independence and doubt in a toddler is to develop determination, or willpower. This stage is often characterized by this trait; everyone knows of a toddler with a determined “can do” attitude! The idea is to preserve this willpower to be used appropriately later in life. While willpower can be frustrating in the tiny body of a three year old, it is valuable as an adult.
Alternatively, a child may develop doubt in the place of self-esteem. Small amounts are required to keep us safe in life – this is what prevents adults from running around with no clothes on or jumping off of a building – but an excessive amount of shame makes them believe they cannot make decisions on their own. Parents should be aware that even something as small as laughing at a toddler when he tries to make an effort can be damaging. He may start to doubt his own abilities or assume that it is too hard for him to learn. Similarly, parents should not discourage exploration or other attempts to be independent, as they are teaching their toddlers that they should not be acting of their own accord.
Another way for toddlers to develop an unwanted sense of shame or doubt is if there are no limits set forth by the parents at all. Unrestricted access to difficult or dangerous tasks teaches toddlers that they are not good at anything. Parents who always help their children also fall into this category. Toddlers who are unable to learn to do anything themselves assume that it is too difficult to do on their own. For example, a child will never learn to put on his shoes himself if a parent always ties the shoelaces for him.
See also: Andragogy Theory – Malcolm Knowles
Stage 3: Locomotor or Preschool Stage
Stage: Locomotor /Preschool
Age: 3 to 5 years old
Conflict: Initiative versus Guilt
The third stage of child development also occurs in early childhood somewhere between the ages of 3 and 6. Like the stages before, it is imperative that an individual develops a balance between conflicting forces, in this case, guilt and initiative.
Before we assess the role of initiative, we can ask: is guilt really necessary? Erikson would argue yes, absolutely. Guilt ensures that we are able to show remorse and reject evil intentions.
This stage develops a balance through play. Children are able to expand on their imagination, role-play, and predict something that could happen in the future. Initiative helps children develop new skills and explore their curiosity. Parents can support their children by encouraging them to expand on their ideas and having them make a plan.
Children in this stage develop morals and responsibility as they begin to understand the consequences to their actions. While a two-year-old may flush a cell phone down the toilet without understanding the outcome, a five-year-old certainly knows that mom or dad will be mad if she were to do so. The five-year-old would feel guilty if she knowingly flushed a phone down the toilet. She is able to imagine the reaction that she would get for her actions.
The goal of this stage is to develop purpose. A child who masters this balance understands their limitations and continues to courageously take action in their own lives. Using their own imagination, they create their own purpose in their life.
See also: Social Learning Theory: Albert Bandura
Stage 4: Latency or School Age Stage
Stage: Latency /School Age
Age: 6 to 11 years old
Conflict: Industry versus Inferiority
The fourth stage in Erikson’s theory occurs throughout elementary and middle school, or between 6 and 11 years of age. Socialization dominates this stage with peers, teachers, and other members of the community beginning to affect the child’s growth. Each societal group plays a part in determining a child’s development: peers show acceptance, teachers support learning, and parents continue to set boundaries and encourage them. Children aim to be successful in all areas of their lives, whether that is in the classroom or outside with their friends. The conflict observed in this stage is called industry versus inferiority.
As with prior stages, a balance between the two forces is needed. Socialization helps children build resilience, make goals, and follow through with their plan. They learn to focus on their academics and their social skills on the playground. This is called industry. While it would be nice to only tilt the balance in the favor of industry, inferiority is still required in order to prevent children from becoming arrogant or egotistical.
Like the other negative forces, too much inferiority will also have a poor impact on children in this stage. If members of the community continually reject the child, they lose confidence in themselves and their ability to complete tasks efficiently. This can be demonstrated in subtle or obvious ways; discrimination, bullying, harsh critics, and exclusion all have an effect on the child in question. It is imperative that a child is not judged by who they are, but by the effort they put in to succeed.
One distinction between stage three and stage four is the way that children play games. Children in stage three have only a vague understanding of the rules of a game and may change them multiple times. Children in stage four will have a clear understanding for the rules of the game and will follow them to the letter. They expect these rules to apply to their lives as well – others should treat them fairly and come to the appropriate conclusions based on the facts.
As an individual finds a balance between industry and inferiority, they develop competency. They have built enough confidence from their successful interactions on the schoolyard to take this skill with them into the future.
Stage 5: Adolescence Stage
Age: 12 to 18 years old
Task: Peer relationships
Conflict: Identity versus Role Confusion
The adolescence stage begins at puberty and lasts until one is fully an adult, between 18 and 20 years old. It was the adolescence stage that first piqued Erikson’s interest, which led to the analysis of all stages of development. This stage focuses on the conflict between ego identity and role confusion.
From an adult’s perspective, it seems like this stage is the most challenging. Adolescents are trying to find out where they fit into society. There is much internal struggle in this stage – teenagers attempt to discover how they can meaningfully contribute to society and how to present themselves based on what they believe. This is known as ego identity.
This is challenging because the world out there is in poor condition. All teenagers see is terrible news exposing bigotry, racism, materialism and self-righteousness. It discourages them from wanting to participate in the world! We really should work on promoting positive role models and sharing good deeds.
If there is not appropriate support for ego identity, individuals can develop role confusion. This means that they are unsure of where they fit in. From a young age we ask children questions to help them find their place in the world, such as “what do you want to be when you grow up?” An identity crisis is not atypical for this stage.
To help adolescents move towards adulthood, society implements rites of passage. These are intended to send a message to the adolescent and others that they are no longer a child. They vary across cultures; rites of passage can be symbolic ceremonies, tests, parties, or rituals.
The goal for mastering this stage is fidelity, or loyalty. Individuals have successfully reconciled their place in society, and they are rewarded with the skill to be able to live meaningfully within it. This does not mean that they accept all of the flaws previously outlined, but contribute to make it a better community.
See also: Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction
Stage 6: Young Adulthood Stage
Stage: Young Adulthood
Age: 19 to 40 years old
Task: Love relationships
Conflict: Intimacy versus Isolation
The sixth stage in Erikson’s theory encompasses young adulthood, which is between 20 and 30 years old in the modern age. As we move towards the sixth, seventh, and eighth stages, the targeted years become a bit more flexible. There can be dramatic differences in the maturity levels of adults; however, the conflict of the young adulthood stage is always the same.
The young adulthood stage highlights the forces of intimacy versus isolation, which presents the challenge of closeness to others against the protection of oneself. Just as adolescence is focused on peer relationships, young adults are focused on love relationships. They have hopefully mastered the last stage and do not feel the need to prove themselves anymore, focusing instead on growing and supporting another in a relationship. Individuals have more confidence and are aware of their own role in society. This allows them to be an independent being without fear of losing their personal identity when connecting with others.
Some challenges do arise in this stage – immaturity is often seen when young adults demonstrate a “fear of commitment.” They delay progress in their relationships or choose not to commit at all. Many make excuses for their behavior, explaining that they will dedicate themselves to a relationship when they feel more stable, for example, when they are done school or when they get a house.
Regardless of the challenges of this stage, the payoff is worth it. If a young adult is successful in their balance of isolation and intimacy, they will gain the virtue of love. Erikson believed this to be a powerful psychosocial strength. The love that an individual is able to reconcile from this stage means that they are able to demonstrate “mutuality of devotion,” which means that they are able to put aside their differences and care for others, not only for their spouse and family, but also coworkers, neighbors, and friends.
Stage 7: Middle Adulthood Stage
Stage: Middle Adulthood
Age: 40 to 60 years old
Conflict: Generativity versus Stagnation
As with the other adult stages, the seventh stage is a bit fuzzy on the timeline, but is estimated to occur between 30 and 60 years of age. This period is characterized by the time spent raising children, or parenting in general.
While this is considered a rewarding stage, it also has a bad reputation for shouldering the “midlife crisis.” This is a period of questioning where men and women begin to doubt what they have accomplished or what they thought their lives would look like at this time. They may take drastic measures in an effort to relive their youth, such as quit their jobs, leave their spouse, or buy a sports car. This panic is useless as their happiness is often short-lived. They end up focusing on themselves and forgetting who they are doing it for or what makes life worth living.
A midlife crisis is a perfect example of one half of the conflict in this stage: stagnation. An adult reflecting on his or her experiences is often worried that their life has become stagnant, or boring. They are concerned that there has been no activity or development, and panic at the thought that their life has not been what they had imagined. Concern for self is the exact of opposite of generativity, or the selfless concern for the world that you will leave behind.
Generativity is woven directly into the parenting done in this stage. While the previous two stages focused on reciprocal love, this stage outlines love and hope extended into the future. Parents love their children without expecting anything in return and strive to make the world a better place for them. Although it is most common for people to have children and practice generativity, there are many other ways to make a difference. Contributing to society can also mean teaching others, writing, advocating for social justice issues, or designing an invention.
As one resolves the conflict in this stage, they acquire the virtue known as caring. Individuals feel satisfied with their contributions to society and are able to take the ability to care with them into the next stage.
See also: Bloom’s Taxonomy
Stage 8: Maturity Stage
Age: 65 years to death
Task: Reflection and acceptance
Conflict: Integrity versus Despair
The last stage begins when the kids have grown and retirement sets in, around age 60 in modern societies. It is affectionately known as late adulthood or less affectionately, old age. While folks in our ageist society despise every passing year, it is actually a feat to reach this stage of maturity.
The conflict in this stage is ego integrity versus despair. Ego integrity involves a reflection of your life and coming to terms with your life as it is, including the end of it. If you are able to accept the choices you made and the way you lived your life, you should not be afraid to die. It is important to acknowledge that even your mistakes made you the person you are today. This is a difficult task, especially when you consider the pull of despair in this stage.
The first element of despair in this stage is biological: one’s body does not function the way it used to. Individuals react more poorly to the flu and broken bones, and they do not recover as quickly. Women experience menopause, while men may struggle with erectile dysfunction. Chronic illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease begin to affect quality of life.
In addition to physical ailments, individuals become more concerned about death. They witness their peers, relatives, and perhaps even their spouse die. They may feel despair as they await their inevitable turn in death.
If that wasn’t enough to deal with at this stage, individuals also experience elements of social despair. As they enter late adulthood, they social structures in their lives seem to fall away. Their kids move out, they retire from their jobs, and most discover that others are no longer interested in their opinion. To young adults, this seems like the most difficult stage of all.
There are many coping mechanisms to deal with the despair that arises in this stage. Some people may become depressed, delusional or spiteful. Others may respond by dreaming of the past, when life was better. Yet even more may become preoccupied with poor decisions that they have made, even though it is too late to change them.
If an individual is able to master this stage, he or she will be rewarded with wisdom. To possess wisdom in life is seen as a gift. Erikson believed that one’s “generosity of spirit” was characterized by their gentle perspective of life and can be used to teach others. Elders are able to share their wisdom with children, an enormous benefit. “Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.” – Erik Erikson.
Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. W W Norton & Co.