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(p. 543) A Clinical Approach to Family Problems: The Family 

(p. 543) A Clinical Approach to Family Problems: The Family
(p. 543) A Clinical Approach to Family Problems: The Family

Donald W. Winnicott

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Subscriber: null; date: 18 July 2018

Originally published in R. Shepherd, J. Johns, & H. Taylor Robinson (Eds.), Thinking about children (pp. 54–56). London: Karnac, 1996.
The introductory lecture for a course on Human Growth and Development given to postgraduate social work students at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1959. Winnicott gave nine annual series of ten lectures to the Applied Social Studies course at LSE between 1958 and 1969.

The family is a localized element in a society, an element that is orientated to the task of dealing with the arrival of a new individual. The nature of the family naturally varies with the pattern of the society. At one extreme we think of father and mother and child, and at the other we remember the families described in anthropological writings in which the actual parents are so integrated into the society structure that it looks as if aunts and uncles and grandparents and perhaps priests are more important than the actual father and mother.

Behind the idea of the family is a recognition of the individual small child’s initial need of a simplified version of society, one which can be used for the purposes of essential emotional growth, until development brings about in the child a capacity for using a wider circle, and indeed an ever-widening circle. Maturity can be described as the growth of the individual in relation to society appropriate to the age of the child, and resulting eventually in the individual’s capacity to identify with society without too great a sacrifice of individual impulse. Naturally, maturity does not lead us all to world citizenship. Perhaps we always have a few Gilbert Murraysi in our midst, some unrecognized, but, on the whole, we accept as mature the capacity of an individual (p. 544) to identify (without loss of personal identity) with a sub-group—a nation, a race, a political party, an ideology, a religion, or a persecuted minority.

We do not expect maturity in these terms till the individual has passed through adolescence and has begun to think in terms of establishing a family, with of course the co-operation of a partner.

You, although you are senior persons, are this year once again members of the most exciting of all groups: you are students. You contribute to society by your potential. I am sorry this happy state of affairs will, undoubtedly, end.

Societies vary in their conscious support of the family as the unit known to be of the right size and kind for meeting the need of the child as he emerges out of a two-body relationship to the mother and develops a capacity for making a three-body relationship. (I return later to the theme of the father’s role in relation to the infant-mother partnership.)

Parents, I suppose, know much more about their children’s needs than society does, because the parents are immediately involved. Society is remote, and needs to be kept constantly informed as to what it does and why.

For instance, ten years ago our country knew enough about deprived children to support the Children’s Act (1948) and this means that there was a general willingness to foot the bill.

The Government Paper on Children in Hospital (1959) is perhaps a good example on the positive side, reminding society of the value to society of the family.ii

I do not think, personally, that we do so much by proving the value of the family scientifically, as by the provision and the keeping open of channels of communication between (in this instance) parents, who know, and society, that needs to be kept informed.

And parents need to be informed too, about their own value both to the children and to society; here you and I come in because of our professional position. It is not a matter of propaganda but a matter of putting into words that parents can understand the things that they feel and do and refrain from doing, thus providing information that they need about their function.

There are ill parents, psychiatrically ill, and my job will be to refer to these illnesses, but our work is done on the basis that the vast majority of people are well enough in the area in which they choose to operate, and parents, on the whole, do well as parents, and can make great use of help, if this is given at the right time, and in the right way.

A rough outline of the dynamics of family life will include those factors in parents tending to form and maintain the family structure and those tending (p. 545) to disrupt it. The same factors are found in children, and then there is society’s contribution, both positive and negative.

We shall need to study the family at its inception, covering the toddler age, the latency period interweaving with school, the early stages of puberty, puberty itself, and finally adolescence, early and late. This will involve us in a study of the infant-mother relationship, because of the reappearance of infantile dependence at all stages.

We shall consider the family as affected by the type of parent and by illness in the parents.

Eventually, of course, we shall arrive at the individual child, since an understanding of the emotional development of the individual forms the basis for all other branches of dynamic psychology, even social psychology.

The study of the individual will lead us to the unconscious and to instincts, and to intrapsychic conflict.

[Editorial Note: Winnicott went on to describe a particular child’s difficulties and the part played by the mother and father. Unfortunately, he did not write this down.] (p. 546) (p. 547)


Editorial Note i Professor Gilbert Murray, 1866–1957 was a British classical scholar of renown whose poetic translations of Ancient Greek drama received great interest at this time.

Editorial Note ii Ministry of Health. Central Services Council. ‘The Welfare of Children in Hospital’. Report of the Committee (Chairman Sir Harry Platt). London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1959.