by Cynthia M. Braden, MFT
Children in early childhood are learning to assume responsibility for their bodies as in getting potty trained and becoming confident at feeding and dressing themselves as well as maintaining personal hygiene like washing hands and brushing teeth. Two to five-years-olds are learning to understand and conform to a school schedule, make friends, control their bodily functions, eat and sleep according to adult schedules, self-soothe and self-regulate emotionally. This is a big job for such a tiny person.
The task for the child at this age according to Erikson's model is developing a sense of Initiative. The child is learning to take the initiative to do things for himself and even others. They love to be the "little helper." They also need to feel safe taking a risk to take the initiative because they're really not very competent. It's much easier for parents to do things for the little guy. But for healthy development, the child must be learning to feel competent doing things himself and good about helping others . He realizes that he has to work pretty hard and endure many frustrations to do things with his little fingers, for example to put on his own clothes or hold scissors, put the right amount of glue, color inside the lines; or to develop his verbal capacity.
In his previous stages of development the child was working on trusting his caregivers (trust vs. mistrust); and realizing that he is separate from them (autonomy vs. shame and doubt), now he is already beginning to take the initiative to create his own life.
It is important to let the kid struggle for his accomplishments as long as it's safe. He will gain a strong sense of wanting to take initiative when he is rewarded with patience, attention and praise when he is showing you his initiative. If a parent is critical or anxious, or too quick to jump in to fix, refute or teach, there can be a real problem with kids learning to take initiative and feeling competent later. (Imagine the fifteen-year-old, or forty-five-year-old who's not motivated to do their responsibilities. The child may have learned to feel incompetent and guilty instead of confident about taking the initiative to tackle life's demand for consistent and persistent action.)
It is important to understand that the child needs to feel safe taking initiative. He or she is building on the relational skills of Trust and Autonomy which occur in the first and second stages of Erikson's psycho-social development model.
If Someone's Lack of Initiative is Bugging You
It can be very challenging to deal with teens and adults who have not learned to feel good about taking proper initiative. If someone in your life is not taking the initiative for their own responsibilites, the first thing you can do is stop doing things for them that they could/should be doing for themselves, or that you don't feel good about doing. Stop coaching and nagging. Start to allow that person to experience the natural consequences of their behaviors no matter how old they are. Resist the temptation to make excuses or cover for that person who needs to learn to feel good about taking the initiative for their own responsibilities as well as helping others.
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