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The Child as Father to the Man - Erikson and Identity

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Essay title: The Child as Father to the Man - Erikson and Identity

Running Head: ERIK ERIK’S SON

“The Child as Father to the Man” - Erikson and Identity

Cameron Delacroix

Camosun College

Erik Erikson is known for his pioneering work in the development of identity and its stages as well as being a pioneer in the study of social psychology in the modern era. Especially important is his recognition that human development does not end with the transition to adulthood as Freud maintained, but continues into adulthood right through to old age. Because of this work on the life cycle, he is responsible for a whole branch of psychological study known as life span development. I will attempt to show that these accomplishments are because of a unique combination of all of the events and circumstance of his development, especially in his youth, and his ability to look at the world, including the world of psychology, from an outsider perspective. Although his training was as a psychoanalyst, he, much like the great pioneer cognitive theorist Jean Piaget, received no formal training in psychology. At the same time, he was able to focus on the social, historical and psychological realities of the era. It seems to me that the era in which he was born and his experiences living as a European and then an American ideally situated him to make his contributions. Throughout his whole life, he was able to integrate knowledge that he gained from many different sources to enrich and broaden the study and practice of Psychology. He associated more with anthropologists and sociologists than with psychoanalysts, he even enjoyed the company and ideas of Jungians. Although he was a psychoanalyst, he seems to have been able to integrate the ideas from cognitive and behavioural psychology into his work. Perhaps Erikson best expresses this himself, from Childhood and Society.

the human personality in principle develops according to steps predetermined in the growing person's readiness to be driven toward, to be aware of, and to interact with, a widening social radius; and that society, in principle, tends to be so constituted as to meet and invite this succession of potentialities for interaction and attempts to safeguard and to encourage the proper rate and the proper sequence of their unfolding (Erikson, 1963).

Erikson was born in 1902 in Germany of Danish stock and was raised by his single mother for the first few years of his life until she married Theodor Homberger, his Jewish pediatrician. The fact that he was scorned in his Jewish neighbourhood for his Nordic looks and at his school for being Jewish is cited as his first identity crisis.( ) This was magnified by the continuing deception about who his father was that was perpetrated on him by his mother. I think this is more important in that it set him up to begin to look at the world as an outsider.

As he entered adolescence or the stage of life he later categorized as “identity vs. role confusion”. Erik enrolled in the Gymnasium, which taught mainly classical literature and languages. He did not like school and did not do well. In his final exams in 1919-1920, he finished in the lower half of his class; even this only made possible because he was given extraordinarily high marks, by his professors, for conduct diligence and religious devoutness. His real interest was arts and crafts and there was none of that (Friedman, 1991). Fortunately, he was able to meet the parents of his school friend Peter Blos, who became an indelible influence on him that gave him the grounding for his path through life that was not provided by his schooling. These included his interest in both Mahatma Gandhi and Maxim Gorky whom he wrote about many years later. Most importantly, Erik’s later work on the conflicts within the stages of the life cycle probably began in his discussions about Goethe’s polarities. He was also very impressed with Peter’s mother because of her talent at oil painting.

This then was the groundwork for Erik’s seven year long “Wanderschaft”, a period of wandering and reflecting, a kind of journey both physical and psychological in search of identity (Friedman, 1991). Every thing about his life throughout this period constitutes a classic example of the Identity Status of �moratorium’ a stage where choices about identity are delayed while the person explores his or her alternatives. Critics of Erikson’s stages of development often complain that these categories are limiting because they are too rigid and are not culturally sensitive. His own extended stage of Identity/Role diffusion

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