Initiative vs Guilt: 10 Examples (Erikson 3rd Stage)

initiative vs guilt example and definition

Initiative vs guilt is the third stage in Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, which occurs between 3 to 6 years old. At this stage, kids are becoming more socially and cognitively aware and developing a sense of initiative in their actions.

Children between the ages of 3 and 6 take their exploratory activity outside of their bodies. They learn how the world works and how you can influence it. The world for them consists of both real and imaginary people and things.

Parents can help their preschoolers to plan and achieve goals by letting them explore the world within certain limits and providing support.

In addition, it allows children to develop initiative, a sense of ambition, and responsibility from learning how to interact with others.

When children are allowed to engage in research activities actively, they can develop better social skills, have a heightened sense of initiative, and make rational decisions. 

On the other hand, if they receive excessive criticism or punishment, they may develop feelings of guilt that impede their personal growth.

Overview of Initiative vs Guilt Stage

At the third stage of Erik Erikson’s renowned theory of psychosocial development, initiative vs. guilt, children between 3 and 6 years old begin to tap into their sense of power and control by taking charge during playtime and other social interactions (Erikson, 1963).

During this period, children explore the world around them more curious and enthusiastically. In addition, they start to engage in more complex imaginative play and become more assertive in their interactions with others.

This stage’s key crisis or challenge is to develop a sense of initiative rather than guilt. So, the main question asked is:

“Am I good or bad?”

(Erikson, 1963)

Children who are given the initiative to choose a motor activity, who run, wrestle, romp, ride a bicycle, sled, skate, develop and consolidate their entrepreneurial spirit.

If parents show the child that their motor activity is harmful and undesirable, the questions are intrusive, and the games are stupid, they begin to feel guilty and carry this feeling of guilt into further stages of life (Hurrell & Stack, 2017).

The basic virtue associated with the initiative vs. guilt stage is a purpose, which Erikson defines as a sense of direction, a long-term goal in life.

This virtue is developed through the process of taking the initiative, trusting one’s own abilities, and finding one’s place in society (Orenstein & Lewis, 2021).

Besides, the important event happening at this stage is a play. Therefore, initiative-based play is essential for children to develop social and cognitive skills, control their emotions, acquire self-confidence, and master their environment.

10 Initiative vs Guilt Examples

  • When a young one creates something—a sandcastle or fort, for instance—they can experience joy and pride in their achievement and develop an initiative to take on new challenges.
  • If a child decides to dress themselves, they can feel a strong sense of autonomy and ownership over their physical appearance. However, when these efforts are met with criticism or contempt from adults, it can emotionally damage them, leaving them feeling guilty and humiliated.
  • A young one may take the initiative to help with household chores and be proud of the contribution they make. 
  • A child’s willingness to make new friends can bring a sense of social confidence and optimism that they can form relationships with others. 
  • It’s natural for a child to feel curiosity and excitement when learning something new. But if they face difficulty in mastering the skill or get constantly told that they are not good enough, it may cause them to feel guilt and have a lack of self-belief in their ability to learn or progress.
  • When a child is allowed to speak their thoughts and feelings authentically, they can experience an incredible sense of self-expression and initiative. 
  • Exploring and taking risks can be a beneficial experience for children, allowing them to build their confidence and discover new things. Such adventure can be undermined if the child receives negative feedback, creating feelings of guilt for taking risks.
  • A child may take the initiative to care for a pet or a plant, feeling responsible and nurturing. Still, if they neglect their responsibilities or are criticized for their efforts, they may feel guilty and unsure of their ability to care for others.
  • When a child is playing with others, they may take the initiative to work together and find new ways to explore their imagination. However, if a child is excluded or made fun of by the group, it can lead to feelings of guilt and insecurity.
  • The initiative to resolve conflicts can be a positive experience for children, allowing them to practice their problem-solving skills. But if the conflict is unresolved or a child receives negative feedback for their intervention, they may experience guilt around not being able to manage the situation.

Factors Causing Children to Succeed at Initiative vs Guilt Stage

A supportive environment, encouragement of independence, and support for creativity are all critical factors for a child to succeed at the initiative vs. guilt stage (Erikson, 1963).

Here are some factors that can contribute to a child’s success at this stage:

  • Supportive Environment: Children need a supportive environment that encourages them to explore and take risks. Parents and caregivers who provide a safe and nurturing environment can help children feel secure enough to try new things.
  • Encouragement of Independence: Parents motivating their children to be independent can help them develop a sense of autonomy and control over their lives. For example, allowing them to make their own decisions, such as what clothes to wear or what activity to engage in, can help children become more self-confident and initiative.
  • Freedom to Make Choices: Children who are given opportunities to make choices and decisions can develop a sense of independence and self-confidence. It can help them feel empowered to take the initiative and explore new things.
  • Support for Emotional Development: Kids supported in their emotional development are more likely to feel secure and confident. They are likelier to take the initiative and explore their environment without feeling guilty.

Initiative vs Guilt Positive Outcomes

When children develop initiative, they can increase their self-esteem, improve problem-solving skills, gain greater independence, better academic performance, and even improve physical health. 

Children who successfully develop initiative are likelier to have higher self-esteem and confidence in their abilities. Besides, the ability to take risks and try new things allows them to develop problem-solving skills and think critically (Hurrell & Stack, 2017).

Importantly, those kids who possess initiative tend to be more independent and self-sufficient, as they don’t hesitate to take on risks and explore new opportunities.

In addition, they perform better academically as they are motivated to learn and take on challenges.

Besides, taking the initiative can also lead to improved physical health, as children are more likely to engage in physical activities and healthy behaviors.

For instance, they may take the initiative to eat healthily and stay active, helping them reach their goals (Hatfield & Kincheloe, 2018).

Overall, the success of developing initiative in children can positively impact their overall well-being, success in school and future careers, and overall happiness and satisfaction in life.

Factors Causing Children to Fail at Initiative vs Guilt Stage

Criticism and punishment, lack of opportunities and encouragement, overprotective parenting, fear of failure, and traumas are among the factors that can cause children to fail at the initiative vs. guilt stage (Erikson, 1963).

Here are some factors that can cause children to fail at this stage:

  • Criticism and Punishment: Constant criticism and punishment can lead to guilt and shame, hindering a child’s desire to explore something new.
  • Lack of Opportunities: Children who do not have access to opportunities to explore and learn new things may become bored and disinterested, leading to a lack of initiative.
  • Lack of Encouragement: Children who do not receive encouragement or positive feedback from their caregivers may feel discouraged and develop feelings of guilt for trying something new.
  • Overprotective Parenting: Overprotective parents can hinder a child’s desire to explore and take risks, leading to a lack of initiative (see: helicopter parenting).
  • Fear of Failure: Fear of failure can paralyze a child’s desire to take the initiative, as they may fear making mistakes and facing the consequences.
  • Trauma or Stressful Experiences: Traumatic or stressful experiences can impact a child’s capacity to take the initiative, as they may be hesitant or fearful of taking risks.

Initiative vs Guilt Negative Outcomes

When parents fail to develop their child’s initiative, the consequences can range from negative to serious. These include a lack of self-confidence and independence, poor academic performance, anxiety, and depression. 

Failing to nurture a child’s initiative can cause them to be too reliant on others and lack self-sufficiency. In addition, it can lead to feelings of low self-worth and insecurity since they don’t feel comfortable taking risks or trying something new.

Besides, children who cannot step out of their comfort zone and explore something new may struggle with learning and academic performance.

Furthermore, the lack of initiative can hamper their potential to be creative and thus prevent them from growing in that area (Erikson, 1963).

Without initiative, children may have difficulty setting and achieving goals, leading to a lack of direction and purpose. Developing initiative also requires interacting with others, so lacking this development can hinder a child’s social skills.

Lastly, a lack of initiative can easily cause anxiety and depression. When children are presented with unfamiliar situations or duties that they feel unable to finish, fear and guilt may consume them (Hurrell & Stack, 2017).

Such feelings can have a long-term effect on their mental health. 

Other Stages in Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory

StageAge RangeKey QuestionDescription
Trust vs. MistrustInfancy (0-18 months)“Can I trust the people around me?”The child develops a sense of trust in their caregivers if their needs are consistently met, or they develop mistrust if their needs are not met.
Autonomy vs. Shame and DoubtEarly Childhood (1-3 years)“Can I do things myself, or am I reliant on the help of others?”The child develops a sense of autonomy and control over their environment, or they develop shame and doubt about their abilities.
Initiative vs. GuiltPreschool (3-6 years)“Am I good or bad?”The child learns to take initiative and plan activities, or they feel guilty and anxious about their actions.
Industry vs. InferiorityChildhood (6-12 years)“How can I be good?”The child learns to feel competent and confident in their abilities through school, sports, and other activities, or they feel inferior and incompetent.
Identity vs. Role ConfusionAdolescence (12-18 years)“Who am I?”The teenager explores and develops their personal identity, or they experience confusion and uncertainty about their role in society.
Intimacy vs. IsolationYoung Adulthood (18-40 years)“Will I be loved, or will I be alone?”The young adult forms close relationships with others, or they experience feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Generativity vs. StagnationMiddle Adulthood (40-65 years)“How can I contribute to the world?”The adult develops a sense of purpose and meaning in life through work, family, and community involvement, or they feel stagnant and unproductive.
Integrity vs. DespairLate Adulthood (65+ years)“Did I live a meaningful life?”The older adult reflects on their life and experiences a sense of fulfillment and acceptance, or they feel despair and regret over missed opportunities.


The initiative vs. guilt stage is an essential phase in a child’s development, where they learn to explore and take risks while developing their sense of autonomy and control over their lives.

During this stage, adults are the driving force for propelling children towards taking the initiative and actively fostering a supportive environment that encourages self-confidence.

When children are free to explore and make decisions, they can develop a sense of purpose and direction that will serve them well in later life.

However, excessive criticism or punishment can lead to feelings of guilt that can impede personal growth. 

Thus, adults should strive to provide a nurturing and supportive environment that encourages initiative and self-confidence, setting the foundation for future success.


Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society. Vintage Digital.

Hatfield, N. T., & Kincheloe, C. A. (2018). Introductory maternity & pediatric nursing. Wolters Kluwer.

Hurrell, K., & Stack, M. (2017). Initiative versus guilt. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, 1–3.

Orenstein, G. A., & Lewis, L. (2021). Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing.

Viktoriya Sus

Viktoriya Sus (MA)

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Viktoriya Sus is an academic writer specializing mainly in economics and business from Ukraine. She holds a Master’s degree in International Business from Lviv National University and has more than 6 years of experience writing for different clients. Viktoriya is passionate about researching the latest trends in economics and business. However, she also loves to explore different topics such as psychology, philosophy, and more.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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