Friday, December 2, 2011

Erik Erickson: A Therapy Dog's View

This is part two of a very occasional series of posts about my take on different psychological theories. Earlier this year I took a look at Urie Bronfenbrenner's ecological approach to life. Who knew this would be my most popular post? As of this evening, over 4,430 people have viewed that blog entry. I'm thankful that the post is so popular: my human met him once and found him to be a very kind man.
Children love and want to be loved and they very much prefer the joy of accomplishment to the triumph of hateful failure. Do not mistake a child for his symptom. -- Erik Erikson
Today we draw our attention to Erik Homberger Erikson. Please note, this is someone radically different from the conservative commentator Erick Erickson. The two would have very little in common in their world views.

Erik was born on June 15, 1902 in Frankfort am Main, Germany. After graduating from high school, he moved to Florence Italy to study art. By 1927 he was teaching a a psychoanalytically informed school for children in Vienna that was started by Dorothy Burlingham and Anna Freud. Deeply influenced by this work, Erikson earned a certificate from the Maria Montessori School and later did psychoanalytic training at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute.

After graduating from the psychoanalytic institute in 1933, Erikson and his wife fled the Nazis who had come to power in Germany. His long career included positions at Massachusetts General Hospital  Judge Baker Guidance Center, Harvard Medical School, and University of California Berkeley. While in California Erikson studied children on a Sioux reservation for a year as well as children in the and Yurok tribe. Erikson left Berkeley when professors were asked to sign a loyalty oath. He returned to Massachusetts first working at the Austen Riggs Center for a decade and finally returning to Harvard. He remained a professor of human development at Harvard University until he retired in 1970.

Erik Erikson's highest academic degree was a high school diploma. In 1973 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Erikson for the Jefferson Lecture, which is the US government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. His lecture was entitled "Dimensions of a New Identity." 

Enough background information. Onto the good stuff. This chart is the most commonly learned distillation of Erikson's work. Sorry his name is spelled wrong in the chart. It seems there is a lot of confusion about the proper spelling of his name. The spelling I'm using, Erik Erikson, is the correct way.

So when you think about it, puppy development and human development isn't all that different. I'm not so sure dogs really ever get past adolescence. That's okay though, I think you all like us just the way we are. 

Here is Erikson's theory, as it applies to humans, in a nutshell:
The infant's first social achievement, then, is his willingness to let the mother out of sight without undue anxiety or rage, because she has become an inner certainty as well as an outer predictability. -- Erik Erikson
Early in life both babies and puppies face a crisis: trust versus mistrust. If the world is safe enough, and we are cared for well enough, we develop a sense of stability and security. If we work through this well we approach the world with a confident curiosity. If problems happen (abuse, neglect, deprivation) we learn the world is unsafe, we lose our curiosity, and become closed off and hidden. 

We learn to hope.

Always moving forward, our next crisis is autonomy versus doubt. Ever spend time with a two year old that constantly says no? Play a game with a very young child who insists on controlling every dimension of the game? Early on, youngsters learn a delicate balance between autonomy and interdependence. How many parents, in a demand for discipline, demand complete obedience from their children at all times? Too much of a demand for a child to bend to the will of an adult can create deep feelings of shame,  incompetence, and out of control behaviors. Striking a successful balance creates creatures who remain curious, have built in self control, and have a certain degree of autonomy. 

We learn will.
Children must eventually train their own children, and any impoverishment of their impulse life, for the sake of avoiding friction, must be considered a possible liability affecting more than one lifetime. -- Erik Erikson
Next up comes initiative versus guilt.Young ones busy themselves learning about the world around them. Square pegs fit in square holes. Round pegs fit in round holes. Sugar spilled on the floor makes mom crabby.  We learn to count, speak, and ask for things with ease. We start to engage in activities. We want to play with that game. We want to walk in this direction. We start to take risks and learn how to keep ourselves safe (look both ways before we cross the street!). Good enough parents encourage and support children's efforts toward their own goal directed activities in realistic ways. When things go wrong and parents actively discourage children's independent activities (or belittle their activities), children can develop guilt about their needs, desires, and activities. 

We learn purpose. 

The next crisis we all face is industry versus inferiority. During these years, our primary years of school, we find our self confidence. Now having developed goal directed activity, our activity becomes productive. We create the things we need. Words come together to form sentences. Sentences come together to form paragraphs. Paragraphs come together to form stories. Good enough parents share a sense of excitement in what their children create. When things go wrong, and children are ridiculed or unable to meet adult expectations, children internalize a sense of inferiority 

We learn competence. 
Every adult, whether he is a follower or a leader, a member of a mass or of an elite, was once a child. He was once small. A sense of smallness forms a substratum in his mind, ineradicably. His triumphs will be measured against this smallness, his defeats will substantiate it. The questions as to who is bigger and who can do or not do this or that, and to whom—these questions fill the adult's inner life far beyond the necessities and the desirabilities which he understands and for which he plans. -- Erik Erikson
As childhood rolls into adolescence, we face the crisis of identity versus role confusion. Having built confidence in our abilities, we start to look for our place in our world. We ask the question "Who am I and where am I going?" In this time of development we find ourselves at a crossroad of development where we consolidate the rapid development of childhood and walk across the bridge to adulthood. Given enough time and space to explore the different roles society has to offer us, a young person can freely experiment and explore many different kinds of identities. A good enough parent will let their adolescents stretch and reach into all sorts of different identities while also offering some loose protective boundaries. Restrictive and domineering parents can clip the experiences of an adolescent and prevent them from finding a sense of identity that can haunt them long into their adulthood.

We learn our identity.

As our adolescence grows into young adulthood, we grapple with issues of intimacy versus isolation. Having found our identities we no longer need to destroy things that threaten our sense of self. We ask of ourselves if we are loved and wanted, and whether we will share our life with someone or live alone. Done well we find ourselves forming long-term commitments to others through intimate and reciprocal relationships. Done poorly, we find ourselves isolated.

We learn love.

As young adulthood moves into middle adulthood, we face the crisis of generativity versus stagnation. We ask of ourselves, "Will produce something of real value?" We find our way to contribute to society developing a sense of generativity, productivity, and accomplishment. Through our work we provide something toward the betterment of society and future generations. Done poorly we feel stagnated, dissatisfied, and disconnected from a sense of purpose.

We learn care.

As adults grow into elders, we face the crisis of ego integrity versus despair. Our work gradually slows and our attention turns inward toward contemplating our accomplishments. Done well, we see ourselves has having created a successful life. Done poorly we review our lives and feel we haven't reached our goals and we despair.

We learn wisdom.
Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have the integrity enough not to fear death. -- Erik Erikson

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