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Childhood, Society, and Erik Erikson

Insight and Responsibility

by Eric Erikson
Norton, 256 pp., $5.00

The career of the distinguished social psychologist, Erik Homburger Erikson, is remarkably interesting both in its own right and as a case study of the way our society handles the problems created by an exceptionally gifted scholar whose basic concerns are virtue and human growth. Erikson was a humanist before he became a scientist, and has remained one, in a society that is not notably humane. Since we nevertheless insist that the values of our culture are humane, we have had to develop effective ways of paying appropriate homage to distinguished humanists while limiting their influence on, and, gradually, their interest in, the way society actually functions. We try to find a place for them in which, like the good children of yesteryear, they can be seen but not heard. Healers like Erikson and Albert Schweitzer, who turn from careers in the arts to practice their new art on a darker continent, and who evolve into sages through the experience of practicing among peoples whose common humanity is masked by great cultural diversity, present a particularly challenging problem.

Unlike Schweitzer, Erikson is not a physician. Born in Frankfurt in 1902, he grew up as an art student and spent his young manhood as a practicing artist. When he became interested in psychoanalysis, he enrolled in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute, where he was a student of Freud. Shortly after he graduated in 1933, he came to this country and established himself first at Berkeley and in the San Francisco Bay area as a training analyst and a leading participant in studies of child growth and development then being conducted at the University of California. These studies, along with other research among the Yurok and Oglala Sioux Indians, and case material from his early clinical experience, form the basis of his first book, Childhood and Society, published in 1950.

Erikson’s psychosocial rationale cannot be summarized because, unlike that of Freud or the best of the Neo-Freudians, it is expressed in an approach to human behavior rather than in a doctrine about it. He observes at one point that all he has to offer is a way of looking at things; and this, though no reason for apology, is essentially true. It is just this way of looking at things that is valuable; and if this eludes any summary definition, it can still be characterized by some of its critical elements.

There is, first, the intrinsic psychoanalytic emphasis on the fundamental importance of developmental sequence—of having experience to grow on at the right time and in the right order. What Erikson has done is to identify the emotional polarities that are appropriate to each successive stage and to specify the developmental task that must be accomplished in each stage if the individual is to proceed to the subsequent ones without gross impediment or seriously warped growth. His most familiar piece of work, undoubtedly, is the little chart of the eight stages of man published in Childhood and Society and reproduced below. Simple as it is, the chart is slightly grandiose because the variable depicted on its abscissa is never specified; apparently, it is simple time itself. This means that it gives no more information than could be presented in a simple table listing the polarities of feeling and relationship that Erikson finds central to each stage of growth.


These are represented as boxes along the diagonal of the 8 by 8 chart—but the other 56 boxes in the 64 cell table are empty.1 We are left then, with a set of conflicting polarities, each of which is crucial to its particular age.

There is rather more in this formulation than meets the eye. By means of it Erikson stresses what most Americans seem to find incredible: that catastrophe is irreversible and atonement therefore usually presumptuous. An infant who has good reason to distrust his mother in the sense that she just isn’t there when needed, that she lets him down and cools him out, is not really going to trust anybody—ever—because he will not know what trust feels like and the occasions that might evoke it will terrify him. In order to live at all, he has to convince himself that it was unnecessary to trust anybody—and this is not true. Furthermore, this privation will warp all his subsequent stages of growth; if he cannot really trust himself he will whine and cringe when a more confident child would be walking and talking; then, in his first play group, he will cower uncertainly away from situations that other children would delightedly explore, and so on. Failure at any stage tends to precipitate failure in each of the later ones, cumulatively; success at any stage brightens chances at a later one. But, a person who achieves success at a later stage after protracted earlier failure is not repaired and made whole. We all know children who cover up years of fussy neglect by parents who had no confidence in them and no interest in anything about them but their achievement by bustling about with great compensatory bursts of industry at school. These are often the children whom teachers select to direct traffic at school crossings; in later life they may become assistant district attorneys; or efficient and officious obstetricians who are careful, for the sake of the infant, not to give the laboring mother as much sedation as she thinks she needs. But development usually works out less neatly.

The implication of Erikson’s formulation is not that psychotherapy is useless but that its purpose is not to repeal the past and make restitution for it. The most the therapist can do about the past is to help the patient to abandon it and devote his energies to the cultivation of his remaining resources and the relationships of which he is still capable. Growth—and fruitful growth—resumes and flourishes; but it is never the growth that might have been. Since we are all maimed and twisted, and none of us is fully confirmed in his potential or quite willingly permits his friends to achieve theirs, the ultimate truth of the matter is perhaps not psychoanalytic at all; though it is Viennese. We must finally agree that our life situation is always desperate but never serious. Erikson himself prefers this sentiment as expressed in the plaintive but hopeful statement of a cowboy: “I ain’t what I ought to be; and I ain’t what I’m gonna be; but I ain’t what I wuz!”

His eight-stage paradigm has a more novel use, however, than the obvious psychoanalytic function of setting the processes of growth in their proper order and relationship to the organic zones of experience. It serves its author best as a device by which he can distinguish decisively among different cultures, according to the stages of growth in which that culture is most likely to precipitate a crisis or a disaster. Middle-class American culture, for example, is superior in the way it institutionalizes the first four of Erikson’s eight stages. Our mothers usually mother their infants enough to establish trust; are patient enough in toilet training to permit young children to develop confidence in their ability to control themselves without being overwhelmed by shame; encourage initiative and industry beyond the bounds of reason in the Little League and junior science. There is every reason for American middle-class children to approach adolescence with the unconscious sense of mastery of Hannibal crossing the Alps on his favorite elephant, or however it was. And, usually, their confidence is about as justified as his.

For our society, and, indeed any mass society, is bitterly hostile and destructive to the positive goals of the succeeding stages of growth. We do not tolerate in our adolescents a firm sense of their own identity, or the impassioned, if transitory, commitments through which different identities can be tried and accepted or rejected. We are deathly afraid they will get a record that will count against them in later life; as, indeed, they will: school counselors compile it continuously, and record strong commitment as an aberration. We do not tolerate intimacy in young adults; parents and teachers fear going steady or homosexuality, as the occasion appears to warrant, and cripple the young with their fears. Fraternities and sororities are decried and put down as anti-democratic unless they transform themselves into good-natured service clubs open to all comers; they are suspected as dens of vice if they afford their young members any privacy and the members, confirmed in their viciousness, proceed very often to do what is suspected of them. Young men can find no jobs, and therefore can neither confirm their identity nor put the intimacy of which they are capable on any firm economic basis. (Despite our peculiar euphemism, it is not usually possible to achieve intimacy with anybody in the back seat of a car; you have to live with them in every sense of the phrase, and not just the erotic one.)

To speak then of an American adolescent is rather like speaking of a Mississippi salmon; the very concept is laden with unbearable frustration; the Yurok Indians, who respect salmon, would be moved to pity by the plight of so quick and vital a creature in a stream so sluggish and muddy. Nobody has written of adolescence with more insight, responsibility, and real respect and tenderness than Erikson. His papers on delinquency were the only source one could turn to for an approach that treated miscreant youths as human, and that discussed their behavior as it pertained to and affected their chances of becoming who they really were instead of concentrating on the problem of assimilating them into a law-abiding society. Erikson’s studies of delinquency are still the best in this field; his paper, “Ego Identity and the Psychosocial Moratorium,” for example, has never been equaled for insight, compassion, and, above all, for immediacy.2 This is the work of a man who was there at the time, doing what he could.

Erikson, at his best, could retain this immediacy and precision even when dealing with abstractions. His biographical study, Young Man Luther, maintains a taut and clear tension between the events of Luther’s life and his responses to them, and the psychological and social processes they reveal. One never loses sight of Luther himself, and one learns to cherish him in all his vulgarity and moral ambiguity even if one begins the book, as I did, with a strong dislike of the man. And one cannot read the following descriptive analysis of a typical young WASP, from Childhood and Society, without seeing that Erikson really cares about this boy, and understands his existential plight:

The family is Anglo-Saxon, mildly Protestant, of the white-collar class. This type of boy is tall, thin, muscular in his body build. He is shy, especially with women, and emotionally retentive, as if he were saving himself for something. His occasional grin, however, indicates a basic satisfaction with with himself. Among his peers, he can be rowdy and boisterous; with younger children, kind and circumspect. His goals are vaguely defined. They have something to do with action and motion. His ideal prototypes in the world of sports seem to fulfill such needs as disciplined locomotion; fairness in aggression; calm exhibitionism; and dormant masculine sexuality. Neurotic anxiety is avoided by concentration on limited goals with circumscribed laws. Psychoanalytically speaking, the dominant defense mechanism is self restriction….

Our boy thus became “regular,” but he also learned to associate both meals and bowels with worry and haste. His belated campaign for somatic autonomy thus started under bewildering circumstances, and this with a definite initial defect in the boy’s ability to make choices because his area of control has been invaded before he could either object or comply by reasonably free choice…It is here that the machine ideal of “functioning without friction” invaded the democratic milieu. Much political apathy may have its origin in a general feeling that, after all, matters of apparent choice have probably been fixed in advance—a state of affairs which becomes fact, indeed, if influential parts of the electorate acquiesce in it because they have learned to view the world as a place where grown-ups talk of choice, but “fix things so as to avoid overt friction”…

How does this home train this boy for democracy? If taken too literally one may hardly dare to ask this question. The boy has no political sense whatsoever. The “dignity of man” has never occurred to him. In fact, he does not even know any kind of indignation in the positive sense of becoming acutely aware of the violation of a principle, with the exception of unfairness…While this boy may grinningly join in some casual references to a lower race or class, he is not really intolerant: for the most part his life is too protected and “restricted” to bring him up against an individual decision in this matter…As far as “general citizenship” is concerned, he catches on to the school’s concept of behavior which goes by this name, but he does not connect it with politics. Otherwise, he more or less somnambulistically moves in a maze of undefined privileges, licenses, commitments, and responsibilities. He wants a vague, general success, and he is glad if he can get it in fairness, or while being unaware of unfairness. In this connection it must be said that our boy, mostly by default and because of restricted vision, and often out of carelessness, causes great harm to his less fortunate age-mates of darker shades, whom he excludes from his home, his clique, and himself, because to see them and to face them as actual human beings might cause vague discomfort…But I submit that this boy’s family life harbors more democracy than meets the eye….

Our boy is anti-intellectual. Anybody who thinks or feels too much seems “queer” to him. This objection to feeling and thinking is, to some extent, derived from an early mistrust of sensuality. It signifies some atrophy in this sphere, and then again, it is representative of a general tentativeness…

  1. 1

    In Figure 1, of his 1959 monograph, “Identity and the Life Cycle” (Psychological Issues, I, 1, p. 120) Erikson does fill in the horizontal for the one-stage—adolescence. But here, unless I misunderstand the chart, he has unwittingly changed its function. What he inserts in the boxes is a set of polarities that are partial aspects of adolescent development to which successful and appropriate growth in the earlier stages contributes; or to whose further development successful adolescence contributes in later stages of life. But what logically ought to have been inserted are the polarities that would be characteristic of a person who was trying to live at his particular chronological age while having got hung up on a failure at an earlier one.

  2. 2

    New Perspectives for Research in Juvenile Delinquency. H. W. Witmer and R. Kosinsky, eds. (Washington, U. S. Children’s Bureau Publication 356) pp. 1-3.

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