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(p. 93) On Security 

(p. 93) On Security
(p. 93) On Security

Donald W. Winnicott

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Originally published in The family and individual development (pp. 30–33). London: Tavistock, 1965. Also published in C. Winnicott, C. Bollas, M. Davis, & R. Shepherd (Eds.), Talking to parents (pp. 87–93, as ‘Security’). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993; and Winnicott on the child (pp. 155–159, as ‘Security’). Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2002. Broadcast 18 April 1960, as ‘Too much security?’ I. Benzie (Producer), Parents and children. Network Three. London: British Broadcasting Corporation (see the broadcast list [CW 12:3:2]). The original broadcast recording is available at [CW 12:3:3].

Whenever an attempt is made to state the basic needs of infants and of children, we hear the words ‘what children need is security’. Sometimes we may feel this is sensible and at other times we may feel doubtful. It may be asked, what does the word ‘security’ mean? Certainly parents who are overprotective cause distress in their children just as parents who can’t be reliable make their children muddled and frightened. Evidently then it is possible for parents to give too much security, and yet we know that children do need to feel secure. How can we sort this out?

Parents who can manage to keep a home together do in fact provide something that is immensely important to their children, and naturally when a home breaks up there are casualties among the children. But if we are just simply told that children need security, you would feel that something must be missing in this statement. Children find in security a sort of challenge, a challenge to them to prove that they can break out. The extreme of the idea that security is good would be that a happy place to grow up in would be a prison. This would be absurd. Of course there can be freedom of the spirit anywhere, even in a prison. The poet Lovelace wrote:

  • Stone walls do not a prison make,
  • Nor iron bars a cage

(p. 94) implying that there is more to be thought of than the actual fact of being held fast. But people must live freely in order to live imaginatively. Freedom is an essential element, something that brings out the best in people. Nevertheless we have to admit that there are some who can’t live in freedom because they fear both themselves and the world.

To sort out these ideas, I think we must consider the developing infant, child, adolescent, adult, and trace the evolution not only of individual persons but also of what is needed of the environment by these individuals as they evolve. Certainly it is a sign of healthy growth when children begin to be able to enjoy the freedom that can increasingly be given to them. What are we aiming at in bringing up children? We hope that each child will gradually acquire a sense of security. There must build up inside each child a belief in something; not only something that is good but also something that is reliable and durable or that recovers after having been hurt or after being allowed to perish. The question is, how does this building up of a sense of security take place? What leads to this satisfactory state of affairs, in which the child has confidence in the people around and in things? What brings out the quality we call self-confidence? Is the important thing an innate or personal factor or is it moral teaching? Must there be an example that is to be copied? Is an external environmental provision necessary to produce the desired effect?

We could review the stages of emotional development through which every child must pass in order to become a healthy and eventually an adult person. This would take a long time but it could be done. In the course of this review we could talk of the innate processes of growth in the individual and the way (necessarily very complex) in which human beings become persons in their own right. Here, however, I want to refer to the environmental provision, the part we play and the part that society plays in relation to us. It is the surroundings that make it possible for each child to grow, and without adequate environmental reliability the personal growth of a child can’t take place, or such growth must be distorted. And as no two children are exactly alike, we are required to adapt specifically to each child’s needs. This means that whoever is caring for a child must know that child and must work on the basis of a personal living relationship with that child, not on the basis of something learnt and applied mechanically. Being reliably present and consistent to ourselves we provide the stability which is not rigid but which is alive and human, and this makes the infant feel secure. It is this in relation to which the infant can grow and which the infant can absorb and copy.

When we offer security we do two things at once. On the one hand because of our help the child is safe from the unexpected, from innumerable unwelcome intrusions and from a world that is not yet known or understood. And also, on the other hand, the child is protected by us from his or her own impulses and from the effects that these impulses might produce. I need hardly remind you that very young infants need care absolutely and can’t get (p. 95) on on their own. They need to be held, to be moved, to be cleaned up, to be fed, and to be kept at the right temperature and to be protected from draughts and bangs. They need their impulses to be met and they need us to make sense of their spontaneity. There is not much difficulty at this early stage because in most cases each infant has a mother, and the mother at this time concerns herself almost entirely with her infant’s needs. At this stage the infant is secure. When a mother succeeds in this thing that she does at the beginning the result is a child whose difficulties really do belong not to the impingements of the world but to life and to the conflict that goes with live feelings. In the most satisfactory circumstances, then, in the security of infant care that is good enough, the infant starts living a personal and individual life.

Very soon infants begin to be able to defend themselves against insecurity, but in the first weeks and months they are but feebly established as persons and so if unsupported they become distorted in their development when untoward things happen. The infant that has known security at this early stage begins to carry around an expectation that he or she won’t be let down. Frustrations—well, yes, these are inevitable; but being let down,—well, no! All this is pretty straightforward.

The question we are concerned with here is, what happens when a sense of security becomes established in the child? I want to say this. There then follows one long struggle against security, that is to say, security that is provided in the environment. The mother, after the initial period of protection, gradually lets the world in, and the individual small child now pounces on every new opportunity for free expression and for impulsive action. This war against security and controls continues throughout childhood; yet the controls go on being necessary. The parents continue to be ready with a disciplinary framework, with the stone walls and iron bars, but insofar as they know what each child is like, and insofar as they are concerned with the evolution of their children as persons, they welcome defiance. They continue to function as custodians of the peace but they expect lawlessness and even revolution. Fortunately in most cases relief is obtained both for the children and for the parents through the life of imagination and play, and by cultural experiences. In time and in health children become able to retain a sense of security in the face of manifest insecurity, as for instance when a parent is ill or dies or when someone misbehaves or when a home for some reason or other breaks up.

The Need to Test Security Measures

Children need to go on finding out whether they still can rely on their parents, and this testing may continue till the children are themselves ready to provide secure conditions for their own children and after. Adolescents quite characteristically make tests of all security measures and of all rules (p. 96) and regulations and disciplines. So it usually happens that children do accept security as a basic assumption. They believe in good early mothering and fathering because they’ve had it. They carry with them a sense of security and this is constantly being reinforced by their tests of their parents and of their family and of their school teachers and of their friends and of all sorts of people they meet. Having found the locks and bolts securely fastened, they proceed to unlock them, and to break them open; they burst out. And again and again they burst out. Or else they curl up in bed and play blue jazz records and feel futile.

Why do adolescents especially make such tests? Don’t you think it’s because they’re meeting frighteningly new and strong feelings in themselves, and they wish to know that the external controls are still there? But at the same time they must prove that they can break through these controls and establish themselves as themselves. Healthy children do need people to go on being in control, but the disciplines must be provided by persons who can be loved and hated, defied and depended on; mechanical controls are of no use, nor can fear be a good motive for compliance. It’s always a living relationship between persons that gives the necessary elbow room which true growth needs. True growth carries the child or adolescent on to an adult sense of responsibility, especially a responsibility for the provision of secure conditions for the small children of a new generation. Isn’t it possible to see all this going on in the works of creative artists of all kinds? They do something very valuable for us, because they are constantly creating new forms and breaking through these forms only to create new ones. Artists enable us to keep alive, when the experiences of real life often threaten to destroy our sense of being really alive and real in a living way. Artists of all people best remind us that the struggle between our impulses and the sense of security (both of which are vital to us) is an eternal struggle and one that goes on inside each one of us as long as our life lasts.

In health then children develop enough belief in themselves and in other people to hate external controls of all kinds; controls have changed over into self-control. In self-control the conflict has been worked through within the person in advance. So I see it this way: good conditions in the early stages lead to a sense of security, and a sense of security leads on to self-control, and when self-control is a fact, then security that is imposed is an insult.