Unstructured free time lets your child decide what games to play, encouraging autonomy and decision-making.

How to Use Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development

by Rachel Kolar

According to psychologist Erik Erikson, every person's life is made up of different challenges. As a parent, for instance, you're most likely experiencing the challenge of productivity vs. stagnation, trying to make your mark on your career and family life instead of spending 12 hours a day playing smartphone games. Toddlers and preschoolers are going through the challenges of autonomy vs. shame and initiative vs. guilt, where they try to make their own decisions and take action rather than constantly looking to their parents, but how can you help guide your children to become autonomous and take initiative?

Toddlers: Autonomy vs. Shame

Child-proof your home thoroughly. If the only words your toddler ever hears are, "No, don't touch that!", she'll feel as though she can't do anything right by herself. If you give her a safe environment for playing, she can explore it independently. (Reference 1, page 538)

Give your toddler a safe space to do things himself. If she absolutely insists on drinking water out of a big girl cup but can't do it without spilling water everywhere, let her drink to her little heart's content in the bathroom or kitchen. (Reference 3)

Encourage your toddler to keep trying things herself. If you know for a fact that she can fit the puzzle piece without help but she starts whining when she can't do it right away, suggest that she keep trying and then give her big cheers and hugs when she figures it out on her own. Only intervene when she starts acting genuinely frustrated.

Focus on your child's ability to do something independently instead of her ability to do it well. If her attempts to put on a shirt for the first time make her look like a Picasso painting, praise her for doing it herself before you try to fix it. Constantly redoing everything she does will just teach her that she's too incompetent to accomplish anything by herself.

Preschoolers: Initiative vs. Guilt

Give your child choices as often as possible. Let him have time for free play instead of rushing him through a schedule so he gets the chance to pick his own activities. If he suggests something to do, try to go along with it if it's at all reasonable. If he wants to go the playground and you have plans, you can't drop everything, but if it's a free evening, why not accommodate him?

Break skills down into small steps when you're teaching him new things. For instance, if you're teaching him to brush his teeth, say, "OK, hold the brush like this. Great! Now we put toothpaste on the brush. Good job! OK, brush the sugar bugs off the front of your top teeth! Brush brush brush! Great! Now brush them off the back of your top teeth! Brush brush brush!" If he masters and gets praise for each small step, he'll feel a huge sense of pride and accomplishment.

Play make-believe games like house or school with your children, letting them take on the leadership roles like the mommy or the teacher. Make-believe encourages kids to make choices -- if Teddy and Dolly are arguing, your child gets to decide how they'll resolve it or how he'll discipline them for fighting.


  • Don't sacrifice discipline in the name of encouraging autonomy. It can be easy to worry that you're going to destroy your child's sense of self if you tell him not to climb on the table, but his sense of self needs to know the rules. Only encourage autonomy and initiative within reason.

About the Author

A resident of the Baltimore area, Rachel Kolar has been writing since 2001. Her educational research was featured at the Maryland State Department of Education Professional Schools Development Conference in 2008. Kolar holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Kenyon College and a Master of Arts in teaching from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

Photo Credits

  • Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images