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Problems of Management: Training Babies 

Problems of Management: Training Babies
(p. 241) Original Broadcast Scripts

Robert Adès

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date: 10 July 2020

Problems of Management: Training Babies

The broadcast script of the eighth talk in the series How’s the Baby? BBC Home Service, I. Benzie (producer). Wednesday 23 November 1949, 9.30–9.45 a.m.
This talk was published as ‘The Innate Morality of the Baby’ in The Child and the Family (1957) and rewritten for republication in The Child, the Family and the Outside World (1964) [CW 3:4:30]. Minor alterations between the broadcast script and the publication in 1957 have been noted in square brackets. Winnicott can be heard reading this chapter in the audio material at [CW 12:3:3]. See [CW 12:Introduction].

The ordinary thing would be to say that this talk is about ‘training’. This word ‘training’ certainly brings to your mind the sort of thing that I want to go into today, which is the business of how to get your baby to become nice and clean and good and obedient, sociable, moral and everything. I was going to say happy, too, but you can’t teach a child to be happy.

This word ‘training’ always seems to me to be something that belongs to the care of dogs. Dogs do need to be trained. I suppose we can learn something from dogs in that if you know your own mind your dog is happier than if you didn’t, and children, too, like you to have your own ideas about things. But a dog doesn’t have to grow up eventually into a human being, so when we come to your baby we have to start again and the best thing is to see how far we can leave out the word ‘training’ altogether.

I have several things to get out of the way before I can get down to what I really want to say. There’s the matter of your own standards. Eventually your child has either to accept your standards or else rebel against them. Your standards are deeply founded and you would be lost without them.

[But standards vary.] In one block standards are different in the different flats, because one family values physical strength or manual labour, and another puts value on cleverness, and another on cleanliness. It would be absurd for anyone to ask you to alter your standards just because you have a baby.

(p. 250) Another thing we have to remember is that everyone was a baby once and the way in which your parents brought you up is stored away somewhere in you, perhaps even remembered, and it isn’t easy to be free from the tendency either to repeat exactly what your parents did to you, or (if an extreme attitude was adopted by them) to go to the other extreme. I am talking chiefly to parents who have standards which are not too rigid and for whom the words love and hate are more important than words like good, clean, beautiful, bad, and ugly.

And another thing I must get out of the way—I must admit that there are bound to be some children, even in the best homes, who are not developing quite satisfactorily. With a child who is in difficulties you may have to do what you rightly feel isn’t good, and adopt firm training methods which definitely cramp the spontaneity of the child, simply to make life bearable. This just can’t be helped, and it would be a good idea on some other occasion to discuss the management of those children who are in too much of a mess to be allowed to develop along their own lines. At present, however, I’m discussing the early stages and what an ordinary good mother does with her infant or little child who is developing satisfactorily.

Your baby is tremendously dependent on you, at the beginning almost entirely dependent on you, but this doesn’t mean that the baby is dependent on you for feeling good or bad. Ideas of good and bad turn up in every infant from inside. The dependence has to do with the setting that you provide to make possible the full development of the infant into a little child and of the little child into an older child.

If I can take for granted all this about the setting you provide (bodily care, reliable behavior, active adaptation to the baby’s needs, fun, etc.). I can then go on to say that there are innate tendencies in every infant towards morality and towards all the different kinds of standards of behaviour which you yourselves value. If these tendencies can be found in the infant, isn’t it worthwhile waiting for them? Eventually the child will be able to adopt your standards, (in fact, your standards may prove to be too low, like when you teach him to say ‘ta’ when he doesn’t feel gratified); but it is a complex matter, this process of development from the impulsiveness and the claim to control everyone and everything to an ability to conform. I can’t tell you how complex it is. It takes time. Only if you feel it’s worthwhile will you allow space and time for what has to happen.

I am still talking about infants, but it is so very difficult to describe what is happening in the first months in infant terms. To make it easier, let’s look now at a boy of five or six making a picture. I shall pretend he is conscious of what is going on, though he isn’t really. He’s making a picture. What does he do? He knows the impulse to scribble and to make a mess. That’s not a picture. These primitive pleasures have to be kept fresh but at the same time he wants to express ideas, and also to express them in such a way that they may possibly be (p. 251) understood. Let’s look just as he makes his first picture. If he achieves a picture he has found a series of controls that satisfy him. First of all there’s a piece of paper of a particular size and shape which he accepts. Then he hopes to use a certain amount of skill that has come of practice. Then he knows that the picture when it’s finished must have balance—you know, the tree on either side of the house. This is an expression of the fairness which he needs and probably gets from the parents. The points of interest must balance, and so must the lights and shades and the colour scheme. The interest of the picture must be spread over the whole paper and yet there must be a central theme which knits the whole thing together. Within this system of accepted, indeed self-imposed, controls he tries to express an idea, and to keep some of the freshness of this feeling that belonged to the idea when it was born. It almost takes my breath away to describe all this, yet your children get to it quite naturally if you give them half a chance.

Of course, as I said, he doesn’t know all those things in a way that would make it possible for him to talk about them. Still less does the infant know what is going on within him.

The baby is rather like this older boy only first of all it’s much more obscure. The pictures don’t actually get painted, in fact they aren’t of course pictures at all but they are little tiny contributions to society which only the mother of the baby is sensitive enough to appreciate. A smile can contain all this, or a clumsy gesture of the arms, or a sucking noise indicating readiness for a feed. Perhaps there is a whimpering noise by which the sensitive mother knows that if she comes quickly she may be able to personally attend to a notion which otherwise just becomes a wasted mess. This is the very beginning of co-operation and social sense and is worth all the trouble it involves. How many children who wet the bed for some years after they could get out and save a lot of washing, are going back in the night to their infancy, trying to go over their experiences again, trying to find and correct something that was missing. The thing missing in that case was the mother’s sensitive attention to signals of excitement or distress which would have enabled her to make personal and good what otherwise had to be wasted because there was no one there to participate in what happened.

The problem is: in order eventually to have a clean and dry child are you to train your baby to be clean, or are you to accept the dirtiness, not mind about it, and be contented sometimes to catch these moments which turn up in which the baby is beginning to be able to communicate with you, and is beginning to be able to let you know how to adapt with success to the baby’s changing needs? You will judge according to your own inclination and according to what kind of infant you are landed with. But the first method is not so rich or rewarding as the second.

By the first method you feel your aim to implant goodness and a sense of right and wrong. But the baby is left without firm roots to the good behaviour. (p. 252) [Over] here [are] the baby’s spontaneity and capacity to make a contribution to society, and [over] there, quite separately, are the world’s demands. It’s like inviting the baby to split into two halves. By the second method the innate tendencies towards morality are being allowed. Because of the mother’s sensitive behaviour [replaced with ‘ways’], which belongs to the fact of her love, the roots of the infant’s personal moral sense are preserved. The fact is the baby hates to waste an experience, and much prefers to wait and bear frustration of primitive pleasures if waiting adds the warmth of a personal relationship. Only all this doesn’t become clear until you have acted in the sensitive way you love to act over a period of some months [, or years].

The mother who easily feels these things and who has the courage to act according to her feelings is actually going to have an easier time later on. She ‘spoils’ her infant at the beginning, except that we don’t call it ‘spoiling’ then because it’s natural and valuable at the beginning.

And then what happens? I would say that the infant builds up within the self the idea of a mother, a mother just like you. This inside mother is then a human being who (like the infant) feels it’s a happy achievement to get and experience within the orbit of a human relationship. When this happens the infant is no longer completely dependent on you and your way of going to meet whatever turns up.

Because of these things building up within the infant, the mother becomes gradually released from the need to be so terribly sensitive. One could say that the infant comes to have a capacity to dream about a mother, and her loving care. A new thing happens now, for instead of presenting the mother in a crude way with a smile or a motion the baby wants to tell the mother about the dreams. The mother has to be able to be imaginative for the baby to get this across because a little playing can mean so much and who but the mother can hope to understand? But the infant will let the mother know that the dreams can be happy or frightening or sad long before talking brings the ability to tell what has been dreamed in words.

If I use again our little boy artist that I used to illustrate my meaning earlier, we see that he has gone a stage further. He is long past scribbling, and he has now got beyond drawing a picture; now he has the picture (or dream) within himself before actually attempting to put it on to paper. He now chooses the paper according to the picture he has in mind.

Very soon, therefore, if the mother has been able to be as sensitive as the infant at the beginning, she finds that the primitive gratifications which the baby needs are being experienced in the baby’s own rapidly developing inner world, and therefore there is less and less dependence on her exact adaptation to the infant’s needs in real life. There is less and less need in the baby, then, for actual greediness and actual messing and actual control over things.

So, civilisation has started again inside a new human being. In actual practice, then, when all goes well, you will be neither training nor neglecting your (p. 253) infant. You will be providing a reliable setting in which the infant can sooner or later discover an interest in co-operating with you, an interest in seeing your point of view, liking to do what you like, and being pleased to adopt your ideas of right and wrong. Such an infant will soon be playing the part of good mother with a doll. Don’t be surprised if you find the doll being severely punished for making a mess. Little children are fiercely moral. It’s for you to catch on to their primitive morality and to tone it down gradually to the humanity that comes from mutual understanding.