The Great Psychoanalysts 1: Donald Winnicott

donald winnicott

How do you build a better world? There are so many well-known, urgent places you might start: malaria, carbon emissions, tax evasion, the drug trade, soil erosion, water pollution…

Donald Winnicott deserves his place in history because of the dramatic simplicity of his approach. He proposed that the happiness and future satisfaction of the human race depended ultimately not so much on external political issues, but on something far closer to home: the way parents bring up their children. All the sicknesses of humanity were, in his view, in essence consequences of a failure of parental provision. Fascism, delinquency, rage, misogyny, alcoholism, these were only the symptoms of poor childhoods that the collective would have to pay for. The road to a better society begins in the nursery.

A Day Inside German Children's Daycare
© Getty

Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) was an English paediatrician, who early on in his career became passionate about the then new field of psychoanalysis. He was analysed by James Strachey, who had translated Freud into English, and became Britain’s first medically-trained child psychoanalyst. He worked as a consultant in children’s medicine at the Paddington Green Children’s Hospital in London, and also played a crucial role in public education around child-rearing, delivering some 600 talks on the BBC, tirelessly lecturing around the country and authoring 15 books, among which the bestselling Home is Where We Start From.

It must have felt very odd, in 1954, to tune into BBC Radio at prime time and hear someone with a gentle, intelligent voice arguing incisively against the idea that babies cry ‘to get attention’ or that sending seven year olds to boarding school might be a good idea so as to ‘toughen them up.’

Resident of boarding school for members
© Getty

It was rather strange, too, that Winnicott should even have been English, given that his country was notorious, then as now, for its lack of tenderness and its resistance to introspection (and its commitment to irony, detachment and sarcasm instead). As he pointed out: ‘The Englishman does not want to be upset, to be reminded that there are personal tragedies all over the place, that he is really not happy in himself; in short, he refuses to be put off his golf.’

And yet Winnicott’s brand of psychoanalysis was, on closer inspection, peculiarly English. He wrote pragmatic, homespun prose, expressing the deepest ideas in plain, unadorned language. There was no German incomprehensibility or abstraction here. There was also a characteristic English modesty about what he saw as the point of child psychoanalysis. He wanted to help people to be, in his famous formulation, ‘good enough’ parents; not brilliant or perfect ones (as other nations might have wished), but just OK. And that was because he displayed, to a high degree, the downbeat, modest, realistic, temperament which is the particular glory of the English mind.

The UK Faces Budget Day As It Attempts to Recover From The Economic Crisis
© Getty

In an early paper, he announced his project as such: ‘I find it useful to divide the world of people into two classes. There are those who were never ‘let down’ as babies and who are to that extent candidates for the enjoyment of life and of living. There are also those who did suffer traumatic experiences of the kind that result from environmental letdown, and who must carry with them all their lives the memories of the state they were in at moments of disaster. These are candidates for lives of storm and stress and perhaps illness.’

It was this second category that he wanted to save and spare in the next generation. So what would it take, in his eyes, to encourage the ‘good enough’ parent? Winnicott put forward a number of suggestions:

Remember that your child is very vulnerable

Winnicott begins by impressing on his audience how psychologically fragile an infant is. It doesn’t understand itself, it doesn’t know where it is, it is struggling to stay alive, it has no way of grasping when the next feed will come, it can’t communicate with itself or others. It is an undifferentiated, unindividuated mass of competing drives. It isn’t a person. The early months are hence an immense struggle. Winnicott’s work never loses sight of this, and he therefore repeatedly insists that it is those around the infant who have to ‘adapt’, adapt so as to do everything to interpret the child’s needs and not impose demands for which the child is not ready.

Royal Family
© Getty

A child who has adapted to the world too early, or who has had inappropriate demands made upon it, will be a prime candidate for mental problems, just as health is the result of an environment that can respond appropriately to the child, which can keep elements of reality at bay, until the small creature is ready.

At worse, a depressed mother might prematurely force an infant to be ‘cheerful’, to be together because she was not; a child of very angry, unstable parents might be terrified from expressing any of its darker emotions; or a child of intrusive parents might be prevented from developing a capacity to be alone.

Let a child be angry

Winnicott knew what violence, what hate there could be in a healthy infant. Referring to what happens if a parent forgets a feed, he cautioned: ‘If you fail him, it must feel to him as if the wild beasts will gobble him up.’

But though the infant might sometimes want to kill and destroy, it is vital for the parents to allow rage to expend itself, and for them not in any way to be threatened or moralistic about ‘bad’ behaviour: ‘If a baby cries in a state of rage and feels as if he has destroyed everyone and everything, and yet the people round him remain calm and unhurt, this experience greatly strengthens his ability to see that what he feels to be true is not necessarily real, that fantasy and fact, both important, are nevertheless different from each other.’

Youngsters Receive Childhood Immunization

© Getty

Winnicott interpreted violent feelings against parents as a natural aspect of the maturational process: ‘For a child to be brought up so that he can discover the deepest part of his nature, someone has to be defied, and even at times hated, without there being a danger of a complete break in the relationship.’

This is why he appreciated and spoke out for difficult adolescents, the sort that scream at their parents and try the odd bit of stealing from their purses. They were proof of children who had been properly loved and could hence dare to defy and test the adult world: ‘A normal child, if he has confidence in mother and father, pulls out all the stops. In the course of time, he tries out his power to disrupt, to destroy, to frighten, to wear down, to waste, to wangle, and to appropriate. Everything that takes people to the courts (or to the asylums for that matter) has its normal equivalent in childhood… If the parents can stand up to all the child can do to disrupt the parents’ world, things will settle down.’ (Winnicott is almost always deeply encouraging in his tone).

Keep Out sign on child's bedroom door
© Getty

Make sure your child isn’t too compliant

Parents are delighted when infants and children follow their rules. Such children are called good. Winnicott was very scared of ‘good’ children. He had a messier view of childhood. The point of the early years was to be able to express freely a lot of ‘bad’ feelings without consequences, and without fear of retribution.

However, there might be parents who could not tolerate too much bad behaviour and would demand compliance too early and too strictly. This would lead, in Winnicott’s formulation, to the emergence of a ‘False Self’ – a persona that would be outwardly compliant, outwardly good, but was suppressing its vital instincts; who was not able to properly balance up its social with its destructive sides and that couldn’t be capable of real generosity or love, because it hadn’t been allowed fully to explore selfishness and hate. Only through proper, attentive nurture would a child be able to generate a ‘True Self’.

In Winnicott’s scheme, adults who can’t be creative, who are somehow a little dead inside, are almost always the children of parents who have not been able to tolerate defiance, parents who have made their offspring ‘good’ way before their time, thereby killing their capacity to be properly good, properly generous and kind (for the compliant personality is in truth only a fake version of a responsible, giving self).

Let your child be

Every failure of the environment forces a child to adapt prematurely. For example, if the parents are too chaotic, the child quickly tries to over-think the situation. Its rational faculties are over-stimulated (it may, in later life, try to be an intellectual).

A parent who is depressed might unwittingly force the child to be too cheerful – giving it no time to process its own melancholy feelings. Winnicott saw the dangers in a child who, in his words, has to ‘look after mother’s mood’.

Soldier leaving for the First World War, c 1914-1918.
© SSPL/Getty

Winnicott had a special hatred for ‘people who are always jogging babies up and down on their knees trying to produce a giggle.’ This was merely their way of warding off their own sadness, by demanding laughter from a baby who might have very different things on its mind.

The primordial act of parental health for Winnicott is simply to be able to tune out of oneself for a time in the name of empathising with the ways and needs of a small, mysterious, beautiful fragile person whose unique otherness must be acknowledged and respected in full measure.

Realise the gravity of the job you’ve taken on

Many of the parents Winnicott saw were worn down by their labours. Winnicott tried to bolster them by reminding them of the utmost importance of what they were doing. They were, in their own way, as significant to the nation as the Prime Minister and the Cabinet: ‘The foundation of the health of the human being is laid by you in the baby’s first weeks and months. This thought should help when you feel strange at the temporary loss of your interest in world affairs. It is not surprising. You are engaged in founding the mental health of the next generation.’ Winnicott called parenting: ‘the only real basis for a healthy society, and the only factory for the democratic tendency in a country’s social system.’

Of course, there will be errors. Things go wrong in childhood. And that’s what psychoanalysis is for. In Winnicott’s eyes, the analyst in later years acts as a substitute parent, a proxy ‘good enough’ figure who ‘is in a position of the mother of an infant’. Good analysis has things in common with those early years. Here too, the analyst should listen without forcing the patient to get ‘better’ ahead of time. She shouldn’t force a cure down his or her throat, she should provide a safe place where bits of childhood that weren’t completed or went awry can be recreated and rehearsed. Analysis is a chance to fill in the missing steps.


© UIG/Getty

In his descriptions of what parents should do for their children, Winnicott was in effect referring to a term which he rarely mentioned directly: love. We often imagine love to be about a magical intuitive ‘connection’ with someone. But, in Winnicott’s writings, we get a different picture. It’s about a surrender of the ego, a putting aside of one’s own needs and assumptions, for the sake of close, attentive listening to another, whose mystery one respects, along with a commitment not to get offended, not to retaliate, when something ‘bad’ emerges, as it often does when one is close to someone, child or adult.

Since Winnicott’s death, we’ve collectively grown a little better at parenting. But only a little. We may spend more time with our children, we know in theory that they matter a lot, but we’re arguably still failing at the part Winnicott focused on: adaptation. We still routinely fail to suppress our own needs or stifle our own demands when we’re with a child. We’re still learning how to love our children – and that, Winnicott would argue, is why the world is still full of the walking-wounded, people of outward ‘success’ and respectability who are nevertheless not quite ‘real’ inside and inflict their wounds on others. We’ve a way to go until we get to be ‘good enough.’ It’s a task – Winnicott would have insisted – that’s in its own way as important as curing malaria or slowing global warming.