Early Childhood Education

Erikson, Erik H. (1902-1994)

 

Child psychoanalyst Erik Homburger Erikson was born on June 15, 1902, near Frankfurt, Germany’s scientific and industrial center. His parents separated before his birth, and his mother left for Germany to be closer to friends living in Karlsruhe. When he was three years old, his mother married Dr. Homburger, the local pediatrician. Young Erikson spent his childhood with his Danish mother and Jewish stepfather in a comfortable home overlooking a beautiful castle and park, with ample space to run and play, in a town that would soon become an industrial center.

Erikson attended the local primary and secondary schools in Karlsruhe, where he studied Latin, Greek, literature, ancient history, and art all subjects in which he excelled. However, with regard to formal education he was not a good student. After graduating, he traveled through the Black Forest, and on to Munich and Florence in search of answers of what to do next with his life. Although he was unsuccessful in his initial attempt to formally study art, he returned to Karlsruhe at the age of 25 and prepared to study and teach art.

It was at that time that he received a letter from his close friend Peter Blos in Vienna. Blos had been tutoring the children of Dorothy Burlingham, an American studying with Sigmund and Anna Freud. The ladies, Dorothy Burlingham and Anna Freud, had offered Blos an opportunity to start his own school, and he recommended that Erikson join this venture. So in 1927, Erikson moved to Vienna, where he worked with Blos to start an experimental progressive school. His subsequent work with young children was influenced by Montessori’s educational philosophy, and eventually led Erikson to study psychoanalysis in children as well as adults at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute.

In 1929, he met and married Joan Serson, who also joined the school’s faculty. By 1933, Germany and Austria were having rough economic times, Hitler had taken office, and most Jewish analysts were fleeing to America. Erikson and his family also decided to leave Vienna, and he arrived in Boston where he established himself as the city’s first child psychoanalyst, opening an office on Boston’s Marlborough Street. He also took a position at Harvard Medical School, living and working in Cambridge for the next three years. In addition, he was asked to consult at the Judge Baker Guidance Center which was a clinic devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of children’s emotional disorders. In 1936 he accepted the position of instructor at Yale Medical School, and then moved to California in 1939 where he resumed his analytic work with children in San Francisco, and his research in anthropology and history at Berkeley. After ten years in California Erikson moved back to the east coast and to Harvard University.

Erikson’s work led him to study children in different cultural contexts, specifically poor children, including those from the Sioux and Yurok Native American tribes. This work inspired his attempts to demonstrate how the customs of a given society influence childhood and child-rearing traditions. Erikson was additionally fascinated by the way people like Luther and Mahatma Gandhi could exert a psychological influence on millions. He visited India in 1962 to lead a seminar on the human life cycle, which prompted his exploration on Gandhi’s life.

Erikson published a great many articles and books including Gandhi’s Truth and Young Man Luther. His most important work, Childhood and Society (1950), in which he maps out eight stages of psychosocial development in the human life, had a profound influence on the social-emotional curriculum in early childhood education. In 1969, in spite of never having earned a formal college degree, Erikson was offered a professorship at Harvard where he taught until his death in 1994. See also Child Art; Development, Psycho-Social Theory of.

Further Readings: Coles, Robert (1970). Erik H. Erikson: The growth of his work. Boston: Little, Brown and Company; Crain, William (2005). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall; Erikson, Erik Homburger (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton; Erikson, Erik Homburger (1958). Young man Luther: A study in psychoanalysis and history. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; Erikson, Erik Homburger (1969). Gandhi’s truth: On the origins of militant nonviolence. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; Stevens, Richard (1983). Erik Erikson: An introduction. New York: St. Martin s Press.

Amita Gupta