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Is It Just The Age?

Identity and the Life Cycle

Cynthia sent the following:

Is it just the age ? Becoming a teenager thing ?

It’s the age. Eleven is a “disintegrating personality” stage, somewhat like being 2 1/2 again. It is a necessary transition to make, though, from childhood to being a teenager.

May I suggest reading Erik H. Erikson on “Identity and the Life Cycle.” I got to meet this Harvard professor once after reading and studying his works. His was the theory of life cycles that many emulated later on. Hang on… I still have his book here somewhere. Never throw a good book away! My motto. I’ve managed to hang on to this one since 1966 or so.

Erikson’s premise is that each stage of life has its psychological “chore” to either master and grow on, or fail and somehow get “stuck” in some stage, sometimes for life.

The first stage of life, self identity is formed around “I am what I am given.” An infant defines himself by those things around him. Deprived of essential “things” he will fail to thrive. I’m talking about “things” like touches and smiles and milk and warmth. Those that learn to trust can have faith.

Then 2 hits, and identity is formed around “I am what I will.” Now there’s an element of choice. How terrible it would be to be left in the infant stage, thinking one had no choice to “will” something to happen! Those that demand and get autonomy at 2 become independent adults.

The third is characterized by “I am what I can imagine I will be.” This is the dress-up stage around 4-5, and the bragging stage. Some suppress this age, calling the imaginations “lying.” Too much suppression and you’re left with a personality that can’t imagine themselves into a better person.

School age, about 6-10 is the “I am what I learn” stage. Children (who now have trust, autonomy, and imagination integrated into their personality) are incredibly willing to watch and try new things. You can’t stop them! I think Erikson would approve of homeschooling. He says of this age: “In all cultures at this stage, children receive some systematic instruction, although it is by no means always in the kind of school which literate people must organize around teachers who have learned how to teach literacy. In preliterate people much is learned from adults who become teachers by acclamation rather than by appointment.” This is the age of “Industriousness.” It is the age in which things are done along side or with others. What is created from this industry is seen as part of oneself.

The Fifth stage, Identity (vs Identity diffusion), hits about 11-12. This is the end of childhood and the beginning of “youth.” the chore of this age is to define one’s social role. This is why youth are suddenly so concerned about how they look. All the previous identities are questioned, and aligned with the individual’s basic drives, what they are endowed with, and what opportunities come their way. They are not fooled by empty praise, but must feel treasured by their own uniqueness. Opportunities are needed for real accomplishments and recognition in society. The drive is to take hold of some kind of life. They identify, and sometimes over identify with “heroes” or rock stars, anyone who seems to “have a life.” The intolerance at this age stems from a genuine concern that life as an adult may be approaching too fast: that they are not feeling ready to define who they will be. The “Identity Crisis” stage is one of the most critical, and many don’t make it. These are the people we know who follow leaders sheepishly, as they allow some stronger personality to become their own rather than establishing one for themselves. Teens have a lot of choices to make and a lot to worry about: If I’d rather be with same-sex friends am I gay? Will these pimples ever go away and will I be attractive? I’m so compulsive! Will I ever be able to master my drives? Who the heck is in control of my body today? Why did I do such a stupid thing! What if I commit to someone as a friend, and they dump me? I don’t want to be hurt! What if I don’t master algebra, will I be on welfare my whole life? Whole aristocracies are formed by majorities that fail this stage and believe the best should rule; nations are ruled by men who were elected on the basis of the amount of sound bytes they could purchase.

Only when one’s identity as a trusting, autonomous, imaginative, industrious person with a unique way of approaching life is at least partially established can one move on to the adult stages:

6. Intimacy and Distantiation (or failing that, self-absorption) – the work of young adulthood. This means the ability to form intimate relationships, and also the ability to break off unproductive relationships. (Moving out, but not entirely emotionally away, from home.)

7. Generativity (or stagnation) – this is the stage of parenting: ensuring the establishment of the next generation. If one has no children, then creating something for future generations. People who are failing at this stage are noticeably behaving like their own child, indulging themselves to the detriment of the next generation.

8. Integrity (or despair and disgust) – reached in seniority if the other stages of identity have been established. Reached by those who have taken care of things and people, adapting to the triumphs and disappointment of being, by necessity, the originator of others and the generator of things and ideas. Integrity is reached with the acceptance for the responsibility of one’s whole life.


Erikson sums up by saying, “But if we want to make the world safe for democracy, we must first make democracy safe for the healthy child.”

This synopsis is lifted from parts of Erikson’s writing, some parts are my own summations, mostly from my memories of meeting Erikson through Paul Lee, my philosophy mentor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As a reference, I used:

“Psychological Issues”, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1959, Monograph 1
Identity and the Life Cycle, Selected papers by Erik H. EriksonBuy the Book
International Universities Press, Inc.
227 West 13 Street
New York, NY 10011

This version is out of print, but you may order the new version through Amazon.

Identity and the Life Cycle
by Erik Homburger Erikson

The homeschool support organization, Synergia Learning Ventures (formerly EnCompass,) seems to have evolved a philosophy of child raising based on Erikson. You might enjoy their website, which has loads of files on the stages of childhood, so you can be prepared to welcome your children into progressive stages rather than wish they’d stay how they were, but stuck, in easier, earlier stages.


Synergia Learning Ventures 
Through projects, programs and insightful mentorship, students at Synergia Learning Ventures discover rightful relationship to what is most profound in their lives, and in the world. Formerly Encompass Learning. Still run by the Weistars in Nevada City, CA.

Erik Erikson’s 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development
Erikson is best known for his concept of the identity crisis. This idea may have stemmed from a personal identity crisis he experienced at a young age. A tutorial about Eric Ericson and his work.

Erik Erikson – Biography
How he came to his theories of human development over stages of life.

Among the Oglala Dakota (or Sioux)
Erikson was moved by the difficulties faced by the Dakota childen and adolescents he talked to and observed. By Dr. C. George Boeree.

Erik Erikson: A Life’s Work
A vitae of his life and work. Did not do well in school and did not continue on to university. Had eight years of traveling Europe as a wandering artist. Had cross-cultural experiences throughout his life.

Overview of Development, Temperament, and Risk Factors
How we come to be the way we are is through the process of development. This section elaborates and extends concepts introduced above regarding the fundamental workings of the brain at different developmental stages. A report of the Surgeon General.


Ages in Stages
An Exploration of the Life Cycle based on Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Human Development by Margaret Krebs-Carter. Essentially a class outline.

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