Erik Erikson, a U.S. psychologist who lived from 1902 until 1994, classified eight stages of psychosocial stages of development. The stages emphasize the roles of culture and society in the development of an individual's personality, a process that lasts a lifetime. Each stage includes biological, social and psychological aspects, and some stages include milestones that put development into motion -- in the case of the second stage, potty-training serves as this essential event.
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Erikson dubs stage one -- which occurs from birth to the first year -- as “Trust vs. Mistrust,” claiming that this is when a child comes to develop trust and hope, feelings especially tied to his caregiver. Stage two, “Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt,” occurs during the child's second and third years. During this stage, learning to walk and make conscious choices based on their own preferences begins to give the child a sense of independence and autonomy. Alongside walking, beginning to feed themselves and developing essential motor skills, Erikson says potty-training helps a child develop the virtue of willpower and learn the difference between holding on and letting go.
The Importance of Potty-Training
During Erikson's second stage, potty-training serves as a crucial example of a child's progression toward independence because this act gives the child the critical skill of self-control. The parent's response to toilet training and accidents, which should rely on encouragement and support, determine whether the child develops a healthy sense of independence or a sense of shame and doubt. As is the case with the other stages of development, Erikson believes that the failure to complete this stage can lead to an unhealthy sense of self, though he says those complications can be resolved later in life.
Because of its focus on the development of motor skills and successful toilet training -- a key event in learning to control body functions -- some psychologists define Erikson's stage two as the “muscular-anal” stage of childhood development. This alludes to Sigmund Freud's view of this stage of development, which he dubs the “anal” stage. While Erikson defines his theory as psychosocial, Freud's is psychosexual in nature. Both psychologists' theories of development, however, include views about potty-training. Freud viewed the anus as a source of pleasure for infants at this stage, and classifies the act of potty-training as a conflict. If not resolved through successful toilet-training, Freud purports that related fixations and complications can occur later in life.
Other Childhood Stages
Following age 3 up to age 5, stage three -- “Initiative vs. Guilt” -- emphasizes the child's tendency to assert himself, initiate activities, ask questions and lead others. Erikson said that if parents restrict these notions too heavily, the resulting guilt might lead to a lack of initiative later in life. From years 6 to 12, “Industry vs. Inferiority,” the child learns to read and write and develop important relationships among peers, practicing their initiative in a practical, social setting. If this initiative is reinforced, Erikson believes that the child develops a strong sense of industry, as opposed to the sense of inferiority that might result from the failure to develop these social skills.