Stage three is the genital-locomotor stage or play age. From three or four
to five or six, the task confronting every child is to learn initiative without too much guilt.
Initiative means a positive response to the world's challenges, taking on responsibilities,
learning new skills, feeling purposeful. Parents can encourage initiative by encouraging children to try out their ideas.
We should accept and encourage fantasy and curiosity and imagination. This is a time for play, not for formal education. The
child is now capable, as never before, of imagining a future situation, one that isn't a reality right now. Initiative is
the attempt to make that non-reality a reality.
But if children can imagine the future, if they can plan, then they can be
responsible as well, and guilty. If my two-year-old flushes my watch down the toilet, I can safely assume that there were
no "evil intentions." It was just a matter of a shiny object going round and round and down. What fun! But if my five year
old does the same thing... well, she should know what's going to happen to the watch, what's going to happen to daddy's temper,
and what's going to happen to her! She can be guilty of the act, and she can begin to feel guilty as well. The capacity for
moral judgement has arrived.
Erikson is, of course, a Freudian, and as such, he includes the Oedipal experience
in this stage. From his perspective, the Oedipal crisis involves the reluctance a child feels in relinquishing his or her
closeness to the opposite sex parent. A parent has the responsibility, socially, to enourage the child to "grow up -- you're
not a baby anymore!" But if this process is done too harshly and too abruptly, the child learns to feel guilty about his or
Too much initiative and too little guilt means a maladaptive tendency Erikson
calls ruthlessness. The ruthless person takes the initiative alright; They have their plans, whether it's a matter of school
or romance or politics or career. It's just that they don't care who they step on to achieve their goals. The goals are everything,
and guilty feelings are for the weak. The extreme form of ruthlessess is sociopathy.
Ruthlessness is bad for others, but actually relatively easy on the ruthless
person. Harder on the person is the malignancy of too much guilt, which Erikson calls inhibition. The inhibited person will
not try things because "nothing ventured, nothing lost" and, particularly, nothing to feel guilty about. On the sexual, Oedipal,
side, the inhibited person may be impotent or frigid.
A good balance leads to the psychosocial strength of purpose. A sense of purpose
is something many people crave in their lives, yet many do not realize that they themselves make their purposes, through imagination
and initiative. I think an even better word for this virtue would have been courage, the capacity for action despite a clear
understanding of your limitations and past failings.