Excerpt: Child Development/Freedom

On Child Development and Freedom:
In terminating the infant's parasitism in his mother's womb, birth permanently removes all guarantees of material security for the remainder of his life. It is a politically momentous fact that the infant is now a separate and highly vulnerable entity that has been transported from the limited but guaranteed environment of the womb to the unlimited and contingent environment of the outside world. This most basic existential condition, one that lasts life-long for everyone, generates much of modern political conflict.

The core of the child's psyche, forged in his immature brain, becomes empowered or impoverished by interactions with the primary figures who nurture him or neglect him, protect him or traumatize him. In particular, his capacities for love and hate, affection and indifference, cooperation and opposition--all the qualities that define his humanness and enable him to participate in the human community--arise in his early interpersonal experience, first with his mother and later with others. They prepare him, or fail to prepare him, to live in freedom and harmony with others.

The most important caretaker in the infant's world is his mother. It is her task to provide him with the mental and emotional foundations on which to become an autonomous, economically productive, self-reliant and socially cooperative adult who plays by the rules and respects the rights of others. This is the intuitively evident endpoint of her efforts. Equally evident is the failed outcome at the other extreme: an economically and socially dependent adult child who claims to be victimized, blames others for his failures, seeks parental surrogates, attempts to manipulate the political system, and feels entitled to coerce goods and services from others while ignoring their rights to refuse his demands. Between these extremes lie an essentially infinite number of combinations of socially adaptive and maladaptive tendencies that impact on social processes.

The end of infancy at about fifteen months of age begins the era of autonomy, the second of Erickson's developmental phases. The foundations of self-governing, the literal meaning of autonomy, are laid down in this period along with the foundations of mutuality, an equally important achievement on the road to adult competence. Capacities for autonomy and mutuality form the twin pillars of adult participation in a free society: self-reliance, self-direction, and self-regulation are implicit in the idea of autonomy; capacities for voluntary exchange, sharing and altruism are implicit in the idea of mutuality. Both concepts reflect the bipolar nature of man as independent actor and joint collaborator. The toddler-age child's early interactions with his caretakers determine whether these critical achievements have their proper beginnings in his formative years.