By Julie Schwietert Collazo
Twelve years ago, I was a graduate student in social work, eyeball deep reading the seminal texts of attachment and developmental theories—those ideas about how our infantile and childhood experiences set the stage (or not) for the rest of our lives and how we become (hopefully) mature adults. I could find something of value in every text, but so much of the writing was unnecessarily dense. There were some exceptions, but professors didn’t seem to give them as much weight, as if the readability of a theory was inversely proportionate to its value.
One of those exceptional texts was Childhood and Society, a book written by the German-born psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson. First published in 1950 for a mainstream audience, the book nevertheless got picked up and added to developmental psychology curricula. Unlike so many of the parenting books of today, which focus on the adult’s philosophy and techniques, and how to apply these to kids, Erikson focuses on the child first. He suggests that if adults just understood the stages of human development better, they’d discover a parenting style most appropriate for their children.
Childhood and Society’s primary contribution to developmental theory is found in Chapter 7, “Eight Ages of Man.” There, Erikson lays out an idea that is remarkable in its lucidity and, in a way, revolutionary in its philosophy. He explains that human beings go through eight stages during the lifespan, and each of those stages presents us with a core need and dilemma that can frustrate our achievement of it. Resolve it, and we proceed to the next stage, well-adjusted and prepared for its challenge. Stumble or fumble, and we move forward with an earlier need left unresolved, a situation that’s likely to stymie our future efforts.
Though I wouldn’t go on to work with children, I kept Erikson’s book close at hand. It was plenty useful in my work with adults because his revolutionary idea was this: We never stop growing. It seems obvious enough, but other developmental theorists suggested that human growth “ended” when one made it through adolescence and stood on the threshold of adulthood. Even when I left social work, I found myself referencing Childhood and Society often, and when I finally had children of my own—three of them within five years—Erikson’s book enjoyed pride of place on my bedside table, thumbed through regularly, even obsessively.
This is especially true now, as my middle child approaches the age of two and has begun exhibiting epic tantrums, usually in public places. “What need is he trying to meet?” I ask myself, turning to Erikson to answer the question. The psychoanalyst is always there with a reliable answer, his Chapter 7 like a parental decoder ring. My two-year-old, he says, is entering a new phase, which he labels “Initiative vs. Guilt.” Erikson guides me into the folds of little Orion’s brain, inviting me to work on cultivating patience by empathizing wholly with me. This age is full of “dangerous potentials” (and I can imagine every single one of them as Orion flails, red-faced and raging, face-down on the sidewalk on the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway). But, he notes encouragingly, “the child is at no time more ready to learn quickly and avidly, to become bigger in the sense of sharing obligation and performance….”
And this is precisely why I love Erikson so much: He is certain of his theory and the utility of its application, but he also acknowledges without judgment that shepherding a child into healthy adulthood is damn hard work, especially when you’re still working on yourself. He is empathic with both children and adults, seeming to offer warm encouragement: We’re all in this together. We need each other. We’ll be okay. Try to keep things simple… or at least don’t make them harder than they need to be.
It’s a message worth reading over and over again, which is probably why the most recent edition of Erikson’s Childhood and Society was published in 2014. Though other chapters of the book feel quite dated, especially the chapters about the childhoods of Adolf Hitler and Maxim Gorky, the core contribution of this book is evergreen, a welcome reminder and encouragement that we’re all really just trying to meet our needs the best we can and that to the greatest extent possible, we must be kind and patient with one another and ourselves in the process. Which is why I often gift this book to new parents, and keep my own dog-eared copy close at hand.
Julie Schwietert Collazo is a former psychotherapist. She currently lives in NYC where she is raising her three children while working as a journalist and writer.