Initiative vs. Guilt: Psychosocial Stage 3

Initiative versus guilt is the third stage of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. This stage occurs during the preschool years, between the ages of 3 and 5. During the initiative versus guilt stage, children begin to assert their power and control over the world through directing play and other social interaction.

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

Let's take a closer look at some of the major events that take place at this stage of psychosocial development.

Overview:

  • Psychosocial Conflict: Initiative versus guilt
  • Major Question: “Am I good or bad?”
  • Basic Virtue: Purpose
  • Important Event(s): Exploration, play

What Is Initiative?

Within the context of Erikson's theory, initiative is "a truly free sense of enterprise, manifested at the societal level in a society’s economic structure and endeavour."

In practice, this looks like the enthusiastic desire to attempt new tasks, join or come up with activities with friends, and use new skills in play. The child begins to learn that they can exert power over themselves and the world.

Benefits of Initiative

Kids who develop initiative are eager to try new activities and experiences without excessive fear of failure. They learn what they can and cannot control. When they do make mistakes, they don't feel guilty; they understand that they just need to try again. By trying things on their own and exploring their own abilities, they can develop ambition and direction.

How Do Kids Develop Initiative?

At this stage, play and imagination take on an important role. Being given the freedom and encouragement to play helps a child feel excited about exercising some control over what they're doing.

What Is Guilt?

Guilt is shame over failing to complete a task successfully, provoking irritation in adults, and/or otherwise feeling embarrassed over attempting something. Children who experience guilt interpret mistakes as a sign of personal failure and feel that they are somehow "bad." A child who feels more guilt than initiative at this stage learns to resist trying new things for fear of failing.

Success and Failure in Stage 3

Success in this stage relies on a healthy balance between initiative and guilt. Initiative leads to a sense of purpose and can help develop leadership skills; failure results in guilt. Essentially, kids who don't develop initiative at this stage may become fearful of trying new things. When they do direct efforts toward something, they may feel that they are doing something wrong.

When caregivers stifle efforts to engage in physical and imaginative play, however, children begin to feel that their self-initiated efforts are a source of embarrassment.

How to Build Initiative

Children need to begin asserting control and power over the environment by taking initiative: planning activities, accomplishing tasks, and facing challenges. During this stage, it is important for caregivers to encourage exploration and to help children make appropriate choices. Caregivers who are discouraging or dismissive may cause children to feel ashamed of themselves and to become overly dependent upon the help of others.

This stage can sometimes be frustrating for parents and caregivers as children begin to exercise more control over the friends they play with, the activities they engage in, and the way that they approach different tasks. Parents and other adults might want to guide children toward certain choices, but children might resist and insist on making their own choices.

Although this might lead to conflict at times, it is important to give kids a chance to make their own choices. Of course, parents must continue to enforce safe boundaries and encourage children to make good choices through the use of modeling and reinforcement.

How to Limit Guilt

To help prevent feelings of guilt, caregiverscan encourage children to see their mistakes as learning opportunities. It's very important that parents and teachers avoid excessive criticism, ridicule, and dismissiveness at this stage and encourage children to keep trying through practice and persistence. Encouraging a child's natural curiosity without judgment or impatience is crucial.

Children who are over-directed by adults may struggle to develop a sense of initiative and confidence in their own abilities.

A Word From Verywell

The preschool years are the setting for Erikson's initiative vs. guilt phase. During this time, children begin to control their environment in small ways. Trying new things poses the risk of failure. Guilt results and initiative diminishes when the child isn't taught resilience and persistence in the face of difficulty. However, success at this stage produces a child who, rather than giving up after failing a task, keeps trying.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What age group is initiative vs. guilt?

    Erik Erikson's initiative vs. guilt phase occurs in the preschool years. It begins around age 3 and transitions to the next phase (industry vs. inferiority) at about age 5.

  • How do you work with children in the initiative vs. guilt stage?

    Caretakers should be positive and supportive when children undertake new tasks. Should a child fail at a given task, the caretaker should teach them that everyone makes mistakes and encourage the child to try again.

  • What are Erikson’s 8 stages of psychosocial development?

    Erik Erikson broke psychosocial development into these eight stages:

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Erikson EH. Childhood and Society. W.W. Norton.

  2. Sugarman L. Life-Span Development: Frameworks, Accounts, and Strategies. 2nd ed. Psychology Press.

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.