Introducing the world to the concept of the “good enough” mother really took a lot of pressure off parenting. Pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott delivered over 50 BBC radio broadcasts from 1943 to 1962 on the stages of child development and parenting.
His work as a pediatrician allowed him to observe children at all stages of child development. He wrote about his observations in great detail because he believed that the most subtle and intricate communications between mother and child often proved to be the most important. For example, emotions can be communicated through the quality of a touch or the tone of a voice even more effectively than through words.
While he viewed the relationship between mother and child to be of the utmost importance in the development of a healthy sense of self, mothers were not expected to be perfect. Rather, he considered it sufficient if a parent provided enough consistency to allow the child to work through conflicting feelings of anger and disappointment over (imperfectly) unmet needs. Successfully working through these feelings, the child would eventually reach the realistic conclusion that while people can be trusted to care for you, they are not able to provide for your every need.
Stages of Child Development —Undifferentiated Unity
During the first of the stages of child development which he called the “undifferentiated unity” he believed that the
“mother’s technique of holding, of bathing, of feeding, added up to the child’s first idea of the mother”.
The child’s first idea of the mother is then expanded to include the rest of the family and the outside world. He was the first to provide a detailed description of the physical process of picking up, holding, and gently putting a baby down, and stress the importance of that process in the healthy development of future relationships, including the relationship with the self.
When a parent responds to a baby’s expressions of feeling and self-motivated actions in a reassuring and welcoming way, the baby develops a healthy emotional confidence. As a result, the child doesn’t learn to view emotions as dangerous, to be controlled or avoided. Experiencing and expressing genuine emotion is one of the first stages of child development towards the creation of a healthy separate identity. It also contributes to a child experiencing its own body as a secure place in which to live.
Such expression contributes to a child’s feeling that they exist and that their actions can affect the world around them in meaningful ways. It also contributes to a child experiencing its own body as a secure place in which to live. For Winnicott, the role of the psychotherapist was that of creating a substitute “holding” environment that the patient may not have experienced as a child.
Separation and Disillusionment
Winnicott referred to the second stage (withing the stages of child development) as the “transition” stage, in which disillusionment takes place. The child recognizes both its own separateness and that the parent also has other duties and relationships. It is during this stage that the “good-enough” parent slowly moves away from the child in order to foster a sense of independence.
According to Winnicott, the role of the parent in this stage is to allow the child to express negative emotions without responding negatively. This encourages the child to trust the parent and learn to adapt to their true emotions. Part of this adaptation is the process of transferring their feelings for the parent onto an object that serves as an emotional substitute.
Unlike Freud, Winnicott believed that all humans have a true self and a false self, and that the false self is developed during the transition stage. The false self seeks to anticipate and comply with the needs and demands of others as a defense and survival mechanism. This self, though false, is viewed not as unhealthy, but as a necessary adaptation to society, since realistically, a high degree of economic inter-dependence makes true independence a rare occurrence.
When a child projects anger and frustration onto the parent, the parents’ response to those emotions determines whether the child will “introject” or accept those emotions as parts themselves or learn to deny them. In the third stage of child development, the “relative independence” stage, the child has a healthy sense of its true self, as well as a false self that it feels comfortable presenting to the world.
Playing and Reality
In one of his most popular books, “Playing and Reality” he explores the origins of creativity and ways to develop it. He asserts that play is crucial to developing an authentic self because play is when people do what they genuinely love. People feel most spontaneously alive and real when they’re participating in activities they’ve freely chosen and are keenly interested in.
Society has changed a great deal since his time, but for parents whose true selves want to provide their children with a safe place to become their true selves, his work remains timeless. While the perfect parent doesn’t exist, it’s a relief to know that playing can help make us good enough.