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Book Review - Winnicott On the Child
Winnicott On the Child
by D. W. Winnicott, Stanley I. Greenspan, Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton
Perseus Publishing, 2002`
Review by Michael Brodsky, M.D.
May 25th 2003

Perhaps no figure in the history of psychoanalysis embodies as many contradictions as the Briton D.W. Winnicott (1896-1971).  Although he worked as a psychoanalyst, he was trained as a pediatrician; although he considered himself a follower of Melanie Klein, his work resonates with that of Klein's archrival Anna Freud; although in his professional life he was devoted to children and parents, in his personal life he remained childless.

Many of the Winnicott's insights and observations have been validated by empirical studies of child development.  His conceptualizations of "good-enough" parenting, of the role of transitional objects, and of the "false self/true self" dichotomy that emerges in response to developmental stressors, have become cornerstones of contemporary understanding of child psychology.

Perhaps equally important to Winnicott's enduring legacy has been his unique writing style, which managed to convey highly sophisticated observations about human behavior without resorting to the abstruse terminology of psychoanalysis.  Winnicott's writing style stands in particular contrast to the dense and sometimes impenetrable prose of some of his contemporaries, such as Klein and Fairbairn.  Among analysts, perhaps only Sigmund Freud himself is better known for his incisive prose.

A prolific writer and speaker, Winnicott lectured to professional and lay audiences throughout Great Britain and North America.  Among his better-known works was a series of lectures broadcast on the BBC radio network in the 1940's and 50's.  This series, as well as speeches from other venues, have now been collected and re-published in Winnicott on the Child, the latest in a series of volumes that introduces Winnicott's ideas to a larger audience.

Winnicott on the Child is divided into subsections based on the origin of each essays, but the subject matter remains consistent throughout the book: namely, the intricate, intimate emotional tête-à-tête between mother and child, which propels forward the child's emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development.  The overarching theme of the book is that when it comes to raising children, mothers really do know best.  Winnicott urges the parents in his audiences to ignore the steady stream of advice they receive from well-meaning friends, relatives, teachers, and even clinicians, and to do what they think is best for the child's welfare and development.  He writes:

It is astonishing how, when one listens over again to the descriptions mothers give of the management of a child in the home, in the end one comes down to feeling that one cannot tell these parents what to do; one can only se that one might have done the same, or one might have done worse in the circumstances. (p. 96)

The author exhorts mothers to trust their own instincts to guide them to the right answers in caring for their children.  At the same time, Winnicott cautions that a child's growth and development will inevitably spawn powerful negative emotions in both parents and children: irritation, insecurity, jealousy, even hatred.  In articulating this observation, the analyst validates the powerful feelings aroused by child care, and perhaps seeks to expiate the guilt that parents experience when overwhelmed by hostility or resentment toward their own offspring.

The book includes three introductory essays by the eminent contemporary developmentalists T. Berry Brazelton, Benjamin Spock, and Stanley Greenspan, each of whom describes Winnicott's profound influence on their own thought and work.  One wishes that their commentaries were more extensive, especially in describing the process by which Winnicott's rather gentle approach to child development came to be accepted by clinicians, theoreticians, and the public.

Winnicott on the Child appears to be aimed squarely at parents, teachers, and educators seeking a sampling of psychoanalytic theory from one of its most accessible and humanistic authorities.  Readers seeking more technical or in-depth descriptions of Winnicott's ideas will likely be entertained by the essays, but not fully satisfied with the depth of presentation.  This book is highly recommended for those readers in the former category, and strongly recommended for professionals who seek a more comprehensive picture of the writings and speeches of this seminal thinker in the history of child psychology.



© 2003 Michael Brodsky

 Michael Brodsky is a psychiatrist in training in Los Angeles, California, and an avid reader.