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(p. 397) Growth and Development in Immaturity 

(p. 397) Growth and Development in Immaturity
(p. 397) Growth and Development in Immaturity

Donald W. Winnicott

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Subscriber: null; date: 23 October 2019

Originally published in The family and individual development (pp. 21–29). London: Tavistock, 1965.

The reader should know that I am a product of the Freudian or psychoanalytic school. This does not mean that I take for granted everything Freud said or wrote, and in any case that would be absurd since Freud was developing, that is to say changing, his views (in an orderly manner, like any other scientific worker) all along the line right up to his death in 1939.

As a matter of fact, there are some things that Freud came to believe which seem to me and to many other analysts to be actually wrong, but it simply does not matter. The point is that Freud started off a scientific approach to the problem of human development; he broke through the reluctance to speak openly of sex and especially of infant and child sexuality, and he accepted the instincts as basic and worthy of study; he gave us a method for use and for development which we could learn, and whereby we could check the observations of others and contribute our own; he demonstrated the repressed unconscious and the operation of unconscious conflict; he insisted on the full recognition of psychic reality (what is real to the individual apart from what is actual); he boldly attempted to formulate theories of the mental processes, some of which have already become generally accepted.

Arising out of all this is something that is relevant here. Each individual starts and develops and becomes mature; there is no adult maturity apart from the previous development. This development is extremely complex, and it is continuous from birth or earlier right up to and through adulthood to old age. We cannot afford to leave anything out, not even the happenings of infancy, not even those of very early infancy.

Here we should pause to think about our aims in our work. We are concerned with the provision of the environment that is appropriate to the age of the infant, toddler, or child; the environment that will enable each individual (p. 398) gradually and in his own way to become a person who can take a place in the community without losing his or her own individuality. We do not want the children in our care to become persons who belong to an extreme category: either those who are indeed community-minded, but whose private lives are unsatisfactory so that they do not have a sense of the self going on; or those who maintain their own personal satisfactions only by neglecting their relation to society, or perhaps by being antisocial or insane. For we know that people who have to be classed in these two extremes are unhappy; they are suffering. Some of them achieve personal expression only in the act of suicide. Someone has failed them or something has gone wrong environmentally at one or more of the earlier stages, and at a late date it is hard to put things right.

But to return to the subject of young children. When we give children the right kind of good time there is really an aim in it all, namely, to make possible each child’s ultimate growth to the adult state which collectively is called democracy. We know, however, how important it is not to put children in a position that is too advanced for them. Moreover, we know how futile it is to ‘teach’ democracy as distinct from enabling individuals to grow up, to mature, to become the stuff democracy is made of.1

I would mention here some of the early equivalents of what may later become, given favourable circumstances, the material for democracy. I leave out of account the management of older children, allowing them to take part in clubs and various institutions appropriate to their age. At an earlier stage, however, there is the germ of this, surely, in allowing children to take over community functions temporarily. We would not expect cubs or brownies to run their own groups, but we would expect there to be moments in which a cub or a brownie might wish to play at being in charge. And play is serious as well as enjoyable.

Sometimes an elder sister has to be a mother, with very great responsibilities, at an early age, and we can see how this task, well performed, drains away the girl’s spontaneity and sense of her own self’s rights; these things cannot be avoided. But ordinarily any child will like to be the responsible person for limited periods of time. This works best when it is the child’s idea and not an idea imposed by ourselves. But gradually children become able to identify with us and so to accept our sensible impositions without too great a loss of their sense of self and the self’s rights.

Is there not something of this in the evolution of children’s drawings? First comes messing and then scribbling. Then the child means things in the scribbling, but we would not know what unless we were informed. The child sees anything and everything in the marks made. Perhaps the line goes over the edge and that is equivalent to bed-wetting, or to some actual messing (an upset teacup) that was nice for the child even if inconvenient for the adult. Then perhaps a rough circle turns up and the child says ‘duck’. Now the child has begun to express more than the fun of instinctual experience. There is a (p. 399) new gain here, and for this the child is willing to forgo some of the pleasure of a more direct instinctual kind. Soon, all too soon, the child is putting legs and arms on the circle and eyes in the inside, and we say ‘Humpty-Dumpty’. We all laugh, and already direct expression is a long way away and drawing has started. But once more there is a gain because of the constructive nature of what is being done, which is recognized by someone near and dear to the child, and also because a new form of communication has been discovered which is better than speech. In no time the child is drawing pictures. The size and shape of the page determine the placing of the objects depicted. There comes a balance of objects and of movements, and a subtle interrelationship of all the relative proportions. The child is now an artist for a brief spell. More important, the child has shown a developing capacity to retain spontaneity while respecting form and all the other controls. This is the democratic idea in miniature. It is but weakly established as yet because it depends on some person who is in relation to the child that is drawing. Later, this very personal tie is broken, and must be broken and diffused, and before the child is either eventually an artist, or more likely an ordinary citizen, he or she has to be able to supply from within this person in relation to whom, externally, the early artistry was so richly shown.

All this leads us back and back. In terms of environment, this earlier and earlier means more and more personal, and it means that the person who is personal with the child needs to be more and more reliable.

Gradually as we go still further back the person has to be able to be even more than reliable from the child’s point of view. We know that with small children it is only love of the particular child that enables the person to be reliable enough. We love a child and maintain an uninterrupted relationship and half the battle is won. But let us go yet further back. Now even stronger words have to be used. I think that over the relatively short period of the first months the word ‘devotion’ takes us exactly where we need to go. I am not using words like ‘clever’, ‘learned’, ‘well taught’, although I do not despise them. Only a devoted mother (or mother-surrogate) can follow an infant’s needs. As I see it, the infant at the start needs a degree of active adaptation to needs which cannot be provided unless a devoted person is doing everything. It is obvious that it is the infant’s own mother to whom such devotion comes naturally, and even if it can be proved that infants do not know their mothers till they are some months old I still think we must assume that the mother knows her infant.

Education of Parents

I may be- criticized here. The reader may say: ‘But you are taking it for granted that mothers are normal and you are forgetting that many are neurotic and (p. 400) some are near-insane’. ‘Many are getting a poor deal themselves, and they pass on their sexual frustrations to their infants by being irritable or in more direct ways’. ‘It is absurd to talk about mothers acting naturally, or nurses or teachers or anyone. They have all got to be taught’.

My answer is not to disagree absolutely; but I would say that when people who care for infants and children are neurotic or near-insane (and many are), they cannot be taught. Our hope lies in those who are more or less normal. In our clinics we have to deal with the abnormalities, and we orientate towards abnormality. But in managing ordinary mothers and infants, and in teaching infants and young children, we must resolutely keep orientated towards the normal or healthy. And healthy mothers have much to teach us.

Are we quite sure that the doctors and nurses who so skilfully care for mothers in antenatal clinics, in maternity wards, and in welfare clinics really allow the ordinary healthy mother to function? Things have improved very much in the last few years. Now it is not so rare to see maternity hospitals with the babies in baskets beside their mothers. I need not draw a picture of the horrid alternative which is all too well known, of the infant in the infant ward, brought in at feed-time and pushed up against the breast of the bewildered and even frightened mother. Also, largely because of the work of Bowlby and Robertson,2 there is now a greater tendency to allow parents to keep in touch with their infants and small children who unfortunately need to have a spell in hospital.

The fact is that doctors and nurses have to recognize that they are experts in one direction only. In regard to such a thing as the beginning of an emotional relationship between the mother and the baby (of which the establishment of breast-feeding is a part), the ordinary mother is not only the expert; she is actually the only one who can know how to act for that particular baby. There is a reason. It is because of her devotion, which is the only motivation that works.

When we attempt to carry over this consideration to such a complex thing as the nursery school, we can say, greatly simplifying, that in any nursery school there must be two kinds of children and the same is true of all schools. There are those children whose parents have managed well and are managing well. These children will be the rewarding children, able to show and cope with all kinds of feelings. Then there are the children whose parents have not succeeded, and we must remember that the failure may not be their fault at all. It may be a doctor’s fault, or a nurse’s fault; or it may have come about through the operation of chance for instance, a bad attack of whooping cough; or perhaps willing helpers got in the way. These children need, at nursery-school age, the active adaptation to needs that belongs truly to the earliest weeks and months. They may need it from persons who are not their actual parents. Active adaptation coming too late is called ‘spoiling’, and those who spoil a child are criticized. Moreover, since this active adaptation (p. 401) to needs comes too late the children cannot make proper use of it, or else they need it to a very great degree and over a long period. Thus the person who is able to supply it may find himself in a very difficult situation because the child may develop a dependence on him that he dare not break.

The thing is that all schools should be in triplicate:

  1. (a) For the children of the first class that I have described, who can enrich themselves from what is offered to them and can contribute and gain by contributing.

  2. (b) For the children who need from the teachers what home has failed to supply, that is psychotherapy rather than teaching.

  3. (c) For the intermediates.

The Living Child

I would like now to turn this subject inside out, and to describe the infant and the child in terms of the development of the living child.

First I would simplify matters by separating out the excited state from the unexcited state. The excited state obviously implies the operation of instincts. As we know, every bodily functioning has its imaginative elaboration, and so the conflicts that develop in respect of ideas involve inhibitions and muddles in bodily happening; growth here implies not only going from stage to stage because of increasing age, but also the negotiation of each state as it is reached, without too much loss of the instinctual roots of feeling. It is just in these early stages of instinct development, however, that the serious repressions start that cripple the lives of many individuals. How necessary then, for the toddler, are a stability and a continuity of environment, in both its physical and its emotional aspects!

Although it is just here that the main forces of dynamic psychology are to be found I feel that I need not reiterate these points. Freud’s work, which has chiefly dealt with these vital phenomena, is now fairly widely known, especially by those who study the psychology of children.

The various instinctual drives that almost rend the infant by their strength develop according to a natural progression. At first, naturally, it is the mouth and the whole intake mechanisms, including the grasping of the hands, that form the basis for the fantasy that exists at the height of excitement. Later the excretory phenomena provide material for excited fantasy, and what goes on inside too. In the course of time a genital type of excitement turns up and can be said to dominate the life of the little boy or girl in the two to five age group.

The natural progression of these various types of excited ideas and of excitement organizations is not usually clear and simple because at all stages conflicts arise, and the very best management cannot alter this fact. Good (p. 402) management is more of the nature of providing consistent conditions in which each infant can work out what is specific to that infant.

Naturally, the ideas that belong to excited times form the basis for play and for dreams. In play there is excitement of a special kind, and play is spoiled when direct instinctual need comes to the fore. Only gradually do infants come to the management of these matters. Indeed, all adults know how the pleasures of life can be spoiled by the intrusion of bodily excitement, and part of the technique of living is to find ways of avoiding bodily excitements that cannot come soon to climax. Naturally this is easier for those whose instinctual life is satisfactory than for those who cannot avoid having to tolerate a high degree of frustration in sexual relationships.

Fortunately, while children are gradually finding out these difficult things they can reach satisfactory climaxes in all sorts of ways that are characteristic for children. Food can do a lot, for instance. Also sleep resolves a great deal. Defecation and urination can be extremely satisfactory experiences, and so can a good fight or being smacked. Nevertheless, in every childhood there are manifold symptoms that quite clearly reflect the condition known as ‘being all dressed up and nowhere to go’; excited, without the capacity for reaching a climax (bilious attacks, etc.). These things are not necessarily abnormal.

Many people now know a great deal about all these things, but they may not know about some of the more indirect results of instinctual experience. I refer how to the way the richness of the personality builds up through satisfactory and unsatisfactory experiences.

It is helpful to postulate here an early ruthless stage in order to draw attention to the fact that at first the excited and highly destructive ideas that go with instinctual experience are directed at the mother’s breast without guilt. In health, however, the infant soon comes to put two and two together and to know that what is in fantasy so ruthlessly attacked is the same as that which is loved and needed. The ruthless stage gives way to a stage of concern.

The infant now has to deal with two sets of phenomena after a satisfactory excited experience. A good thing has been attacked and hurt and spoiled, and moreover the infant is richer for the experience; something good has been built up inside. The infant has to be able to stand feeling guilt. In the course of time a way out of the trouble appears, because the infant is able to find ways of making reparation, of mending, of giving in return, of putting back what has (in fantasy) been stolen. (Readers will recognize Melanie Klein in all this.)

We can see, then, that there is a specific need here which the environment must supply if the infant is to come through and grow (technically: to reach the ‘depressive position’ in emotional development). The infant has to be able to tolerate feeling guilt, and to alter this state of affairs by making reparation. If this is to happen, the mother (or someone in her place) has to stay there, alive and alert, over the guilt period. To put it crudely: an infant in an institution might be beautifully cared for by several nurses, but what if the guilt (p. 403) belonging to the morning’s experiences comes up for repair in the evening when another nurse is there, and so the reparation misses fire. The mother caring for her own infant is more or less always there and recognizes the spontaneous constructive and reparative impulses. She can wait for them and she recognizes them when they come.

When all goes well it is not guilt that is experienced, but a sense of being responsible develops. The sense of guilt remains latent, to appear when reparation fails relative to destruction.

Much more could be said about all this guilt and reparation, and about the infant’s anxieties in respect of the riches that are storing up inside. If we looked we should find frightening things in there too, inside the baby, arising out of the baby’s angry impulses. But I now want to leave consideration of the excited states and of the consequences of excited experiences in order to get on to something else. Let me say in passing that difficulties in this field, associated with the repression of painful conflicts, lead on to the various neurotic manifestations and to mood disorders. If we study the material of the unexcited states, however, we shall be nearer to a study of psychosis. Disorders of what I describe under the heading of unexcited states will be found to be psychotic rather than neurotic in quality, the stuff insanity is made of. However, I am not dealing with disorders; instead I am briefly describing the tasks which the infant has to perform in making an ordinary healthy development.

Development Apart from Excitements

If we turn, then, rather artificially, to the unexcited state, what do we find? For one thing we find we are studying the ego in the self’s journey towards autonomy. We are studying, for instance, the development in the infant of a sense of unity of personality, a capacity to feel (at any rate at times) integrated. Gradually, too, the infant begins to feel to be a dweller in what we so easily see as that infant’s own body. All these things take time, and are greatly helped by sensible and consistent management of the body, bathing, exercising, and so on.

Then there is also the development of a capacity to relate to external reality. This task which every infant must achieve is complex and difficult, and very definitely needs the attention that a devoted mother is qualified to give. The objectively perceived world is never the same as what is conceived of, what is seen subjectively. This is a big trouble with all human beings, but by actively adapting at the start a mother superimposes external reality on what the infant conceives, of; she does this well enough, and often enough, so that the infant becomes contented to leave this problem to be taken up later as part of the game called philosophy.

(p. 404) One more thing: if the environment behaves well, the infant has a chance to maintain a sense of continuity of being; perhaps this may go right back to the first stirrings in the womb. When this exists the individual has a stability that can be gained in no other way.

If external reality has been introduced to the infant in small doses, accurately graded to the infant’s or child’s understanding, the child may grow up to be capable of making a scientific approach to phenomena, and may even perhaps carry a scientific method into the study of human affairs. If this happens, and if it is successful, then there is something owing to the devoted mother who laid the foundations, and then to both the fond parents, and then to a succession of minders and teachers, any of whom could have caused a muddle and could have made difficult the child’s ultimate attainment of a scientific attitude. Most of us, alas, have to put at least some of human nature outside the realm of scientific inquiry.

Science and Human Nature

The main burden of this communication is that if what is true and good and natural in human nature and in the management of growing human beings is to be saved from being squashed out by science, it can only come about by an extension of scientific inquiry into the whole field of human nature. I think we are all travelling towards the same thing. To restate it: we want to make it possible for each individual to find and establish his or her own identity in such a solid way that eventually, in the course of time, and in that individual’s own manner, there will be attained a capacity to become a member of society an active, creative member, without loss of personal spontaneity and without loss of that sense of freedom which comes, in health, from within.

Clinical Coda

It may well be that the reader is left with a feeling of bewilderment. There is so much for the infant to go through, and the responsibility of the mothers and fathers and nurses and teachers who provide the environment suitable for the various stages is so great, how shall we ever manage? But it must be remembered that whenever we pause in our work and attempt to make some assessment of our aims, as we have done now, we have an artificial situation.

And so, let us return to the real thing, and conclude with the picture of a rather young baby boy. (It could as well be a girl.) (p. 405)

This baby has been through all the usual things, fist-sucking, finger-sucking, scratching the skin of his belly, pulling at his navel and his penis, and plucking at the wool of the cover. He is about eight months old and he has not yet quite taken up with the usual run of teddies and dolls. But he has found some soft object. He has adopted this object. Eventually there will be a special name for it. It will remain a necessary thing in the child’s life for some years, and in the end will simply fade away like the old soldier. This object is halfway between everything. We know that it came from an aunt. From the infant’s point of view however it is the perfect compromise. It is neither part of the self nor part of the world. Yet it is both. It was conceived of by the infant and yet he could not have produced it, it just came. Its coming showed him what to conceive of. It is at one and the same time subjective and objective. It is at the border between inside and outside. It is both dream and real.

We leave this baby with this object. In his relationship with it he is at peace, in the celtic twilight between a personal or psychic reality and reality that is actual and shared.


1. This theme is developed in ‘Some Thoughts on the Meaning of the Word Democracy’ [CW 3:5:17].

2. John Bowlby, Maternal Care and Mental Health (London: HMSO, 1951); abridged version, edited by Margery Fry, Child Care and the Growth of Love (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1953). James Robertson, Young Children in Hospital (London: Tavistock Publications, 1958). See also two films by James Robertson, A Two-year-old goes to Hospital and Going to Hospital with Mother (Tavistock Child Development Research Unit, 2 Beaumont Street, London, W1).