Transitioning with my father

When I was working on the Transitions book with my father he referenced Erikson’s 8 stages of life in his version of the introduction. We struggled with the tone of the tome, and I feared that his reliance on long standing studies and references to phsychologic fact would take away from the directness that I sought. It wasn’t that I didn’t find the information valuable, but instead that I was trying, as I’m wont to do, to look at it from a completely different perspective.

In some sense, the reason we were compelled to write the book was because no one had really done any work on the main issue that we were discussing; the transition from a parent child relationship to a more peer based one. However, it now looks as if our line of reasoning was in lock step with the thoughts of Jeffery Jensen Arnett, a psychology professor who has begun advocating for an addition to Erikson’s list. He wants to add a section called emerging adulthood.

Erikson saw life as a series of transitions between stages, and further that a central conflict drives the transition between each of these stages. If the conflict isn’t successfully overcome then the person has a tendency to become somewhat stuck in the earlier stages. In this series of progressions, successful transition between the earlier stages relies a good deal on decent parenting.

For example, in the first stage, infancy (birth to 18 months) the central conflict is trust vs. mistrust. Feeding is the driver of this conflict. If the infant doesn’t get reliable care such as food when needed, they might develop an overriding sense of mistrust. In early childhood (2 to 3 years) the main conflict is between the individual’s ability to do things for themselves vs. a sense of shame and doubt. Again, if the parenting isn’t somewhat supportive in a process like potty training it’s possible that the individual might develop a sense of shame at their lack of ability. I believe that his focus on the caregiver’s behavior as a determinant of the cared for’s well being laid the foundation for the ascendency of Nurture over Nature as the overriding factor in terms of an individual’s success.

As I have continued to work on my film about the nature of family, I have become increasingly aware of how ascendent the concept of nurture was when my generation were children. This evolving understanding has enormous hidden implications. As an example, when I considered being a sperm donor I recall thinking that my “nature” was fairly unimportant because my unconscious understanding was that it was really “nurture” that was important. As the son of a psychologist (and a social worker) who came of age intellectually just as Erikson’s theory’s were coming to the fore it makes perfect sense to me that the idea that well intentioned parenting was much more important than the genes we are born with . The flip side of that coin is that it places enormous pressure on the parents. It creates a foundational belief that as parents we are responsible for our children’s success or failure. This in turn leads parents to become increasingly involved in their children’s lives.

Arnett’s argument for this expanded list has come under criticism by some in the academic establishment because Erikson’s list is meant to be seen as a universal, a series of stages that cuts across culture. There are others who argue that culture affects this process so it makes sense that different cultures would have different stages. This seems to make even more sense in the later stages as evolution likely tends to wield a less powerful brush as we get older. I was discussing this idea with my brother, who is a social psychologist, and it struck me that it might possibly be Erikson’s list itself which was one of the greatest contributing factors towards this need to define a new stage.

One of the main points of the book that my father and I were working on was that in our modern world, parents and children have become more entangled in each others lives. These increasingly complex relationships also have less clearly worn pathways and rituals to define them. We’ve all heard the term helicopter parenting in reference to the way in which modern parents hover over their children. While there are positive and supportive aspects of this behavior it creates issues that must be resolved. The more entangled we become, the more difficult it is for us to redefine our relationships as we grow and change.

As I write this I have been looking over a chart of Erikson’s 8 stages. What strikes me most about them is that they are “coded” with a progressive’s sense of supportive parenting/teaching. In stages 1-4 the successful transition seems to demand a nurturing environment created by, and supported by, adults. These descriptions appear to be re-defining the relationship between adults and youth and in essence paving the way for they youth culture progressivism of the 60’s and 70’s. I’m not an academic and I’m not basing this on studies or established literature. Instead, I’m basing this on intuition, as well as the work that I have done to understand my own generation’s rocky path towards adulthood. When I refer to my generation I am speaking less generally – and more specifically- about a community of artists, writers, and musicians that I belong to. I’m also looking towards the sense of child/adult relationships that we glean from media as we grow up. Holden Caulfield, for instance, seems like he would fit right into today’s generation whereas in his own he was completely out of step. I remember reading books that were set in the 40’s and 50’s and adults always talked down to children in a way that would seem “disempowering” if one were to follow the ethos of the progressivism of the 8 stages. When I was growing up afternoon TV would often be things like “The Brady Bunch” followed by “My Three Sons”. These are shows of slightly different eras and I recall understanding that there was a dissonance between the ways in which adults treated children in the different shows. These cultural cues/clues both reflect the subtleties of time, and influence the understanding of social relationships and more in young children.

I am pleased to see the concept being discussed in the way that it is. One of the greatest difficulties that my father and I had was that I had chosen to follow a path that he and I had no blueprint for. I didn’t know what I wanted to do exactly, but I did know what I didn’t want to do. i felt extremely stifled by convention, and I knew that while I might find a certain level of comfort in the safety of an academic pathway, I knew in my bones that it wasn’t for me. Why that’s the case is a completely different discussion, but knowing it forced me to seek out a different path. Had my father been a more direct colleague of Dr. Arnett’s I can assume that we would have had a much less rocky path ourselves.

One thing that the NY Times article points out is that an acceptance of these ideas by the establishment would call for a whole new set of social policies. Frankly, I’m less interested in the concept of the government codifying these ideas, than parents and children having the means and tools to work through them.

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