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
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.