Face to Face with Children: The Life and Work of Clare Winnicott

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This book presents the life and work of one of the leading British social workers of the 20th century. The wife of Donald Winnicott, an analysand of Melanie Klein, a wartime innovator in helping evacuated children, a teacher and mentor to a generation of British social workers and a gifted psychoanalyst, Clare Winnicott's life encompassed a remarkable richness of relationships and accomplishments.

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1. Clare Winnicott: her life and legacy

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Joel Kanter

We must have clicked at once—Clare was a rebel and so was I— but she was a much cleverer one than me. …. A memory—it was October and I had a new tweed suit that I was longing to wear. So one morning with a chill in the air I put it on, arriving at the office first. When Clare came—wearing a thin summer dress—she stopped short and exclaimed “Gwennie, what on earth are you wearing THAT for?” I protesting, said “well, it is October and getting chilly”. “Don’t be daft”, said Clare, “look at the sun, it’s still summer and I’m going to make it last as long as possible. I’m not shedding my summer dresses ‘til I have to.”

I think I remember that because it says something important to me about Clare. She lived every part of life to the full. She took from life with both hands. No doors were closed to her. She looked in them all and usually found something to enjoy …. the theatre, music, concerts, “Match of the Day”, poetry, Torvill and Dean, Wimbledon …. It was because she took so much from life and enriched herself that she was able to give so much to us her friends and all whom she came in contact……Hers was somehow a very complete life.

 

2. The problem of homeless children (1944)

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D. W. Winnicott and Clare Britton

There have long been orphanages and homes for the destitute child. Some have undoubtedly done good work, but many of them have been content simply to feed and clothe the children and have failed altogether to provide for their emotional needs. It has been found that the institutional child tends to lack something, not only in personal happiness, but also in development of character and in the qualities of citizenship, and there is a growing public awareness of the seriousness of this fact. The war has produced an increasing number of homeless children in Great Britain and still more in the Occupied Countries. All who have a serious interest in the future, therefore, as well as those directly concerned with the welfare of children, must be brought to realize that haphazard methods of dealing with the problem presented by so many homeless children may have serious consequences.

It seems that we are faced with the need to provide “homes” for vast numbers of children at the very moment when we have begun to realize the inadequacies of institutional life. Adoption into normal loving families is probably the happiest solution for the majority, but it is obvious that, in the Occupied countries particularly, a certain proportion of these children will have been so damaged by the unhappiness they have undergone that they will be unable to take their place in a normal home circle, at least until they have been helped to recover by special care and understanding. Also, the placing of children in the right foster-homes is something that must take time, and it is obvious that the children will have to be gathered into centres from which adoption can be organized and supervised. Presumably, therefore, there will be hostels or “homes” for them.

 

3. Children who cannot play (1945)

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Some children cannot play. This sad fact has to be reckoned with by all those who work among them. Their predicament is best understood if we consider what playing means to children who can play.

Like all human activity, play can be regarded as having importance on two levels of experience. There is its personal inner importance to the individual concerned, and there is its importance in relation to the things and people outside the individual. Satisfactory human activity, whether it be called work or play, aims, consciously or unconsciously, at the achievement of harmony between the individual and his environment. Unfortunately, this state of equilibrium is not something which is established once and for all. It has to be constantly maintained and is won and lost over and over again at each stage of development. It can be said, therefore, that the aim of all activity is the satisfaction of inner personal needs within the framework and limits of real life, and that on this achievement well-being and happiness depend.

 

4. Introduction to Deprivation and Delinquency (1984)

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It does not seem an exaggeration to say that the manifestations of deprivation and delinquency in society are as big a threat as that of the nuclear bomb. In fact, there is surely a connection between the two kinds of threat, because as the antisocial element in society rises, so does the destructive potential within society rise to a new danger level. At the present time we are fighting to prevent the danger level rising, and we need to muster all the resources we can for this task. One resource will undoubtedly be the knowledge gained by anyone who has had to come to grips with the problems of deprivation and delinquency by taking responsibility for individual cases. Donald Winnicott was such a person and was precipitated into this position by the Second World War when he became Consultant Psychiatrist to the Government Evacuation Scheme in a reception area in England.

Although the circumstances in which Winnicott found himself were abnormal because of the war-time, the knowledge gained from the experience has general application because deprived children who become delinquent have basic problems which are manifested in predictable ways, whatever the circumstances. Moreover, the children who became Winnicott’s responsibility were those who needed special provision because they could not settle in ordinary homes. In other words, they were already in trouble in their own homes before the war started. The war was almost incidental to them, except in those cases (not a few) when it was positively beneficial in that it removed them from an intolerable situation and placed them in one where they might, and often did, find help and relief.

 

5. Child care in Oxfordshire: an interview with Alan Cohen (1980)

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Alan Cohen: How did you come into social work then, Mrs Winnicott?

Clare Winnicott: How did I come into it? I suppose through a friend of the family. And in a way my family had always been interested in social work. My father had run a club for unemployed people, my grandfather had been—had taken quite a big part in the social situation where I lived. I think it was in the family.

AC: When was it you first came into social work? Was it during the war or before the war?

CW: Before the war. Before the war I went and worked in YWCA clubs simply because a friend of my mother was in charge of a YWCA centre, and she invited me to go and work in the centre. And I did. Then I went to LSE [London School of Economics] afterwards to take social science. Then I went back into working in the club in South Oates for unemployed miners, unemployed young people in Merthr Tydfil, and I was working there when the war broke out. But I left in order to go and do the Mental Health Course at the LSE, so I was there about a year. Then I went and did the Mental Health Course.

 

6. Casework techniques in the child care services (1955)

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While it is true to say that there are basic techniques by means of which we practise casework in any field in which it is applied, it is, nevertheless, important to realize that techniques are always being altered and improved upon. They are not fixed and final but must remain flexible and capable of adaptation, not only to the needs of individuals, but to the setting in which they are being performed. The most important thing about techniques is their flexibility, for if they lose it and are allowed to harden, they will soon cease to be effective instruments and become weapons for defence or attack in the hands of those who use them. This is always a potential danger in our work.

One of the difficulties about improving casework skills is that the knowledge derived from one experience cannot just be applied as it stands to the next case. This specific knowledge will never be required in just the same form again. It will only be of value in so far as it adds up to something in us, enriches our general understanding of human beings (including ourselves), and increases our confidence in our techniques. In this way a particular experience becomes part of ourselves and part of the professional equipment we take with us as we move on to the next case. The point is that we shall be better people in the new situation—we shall not have just learned a new trick.

 

7. Face to face with children (1963)

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First of all I want to make a comment on the title of this paper: “Face to Face with Children”. The words seem to conjure up a very definite picture of social worker and child confronting each other in an alarmingly direct way. The alarm would, I am sure, be shared at least equally by both parties. In fact, in practice this face to face situation is one which we never let happen. We know that the directness of it constitutes a threat from which any child will either withdraw or defend himself in other ways which put him beyond our reach. In working with children, we devise, or more often improvise on the spur of the moment, all kinds of ways for reducing the tensions inherent in the one-to-one situation.

In case of misunderstanding here, I want to say immediately that I am not suggesting that children cannot make use of direct help, and especially I am not suggesting that they need us to provide for them endless diversions and sidetracks from their personal problems. Other people will provide distractions enough, and children will anyhow find them for themselves. Our task is quite a specific one, and that is to create a situation in which children can be themselves. The social worker is perhaps the only person in the child’s life who represents his real self, and who tires to be in touch with the whole of him, and not just with the part that shows. But the child will only allow this to happen on his own terms and in his own time, and in order to let it happen at all he must have the chance to see the social worker as a real person and to assess his or her attitudes and intentions towards himself.

 

8. Communicating with children—I (1964)

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Suppose that we could agree that a rough definition of communication would be that it is quite simply a matter of giving and taking between people. A moment of communication is a moment of reciprocal exchange. The essential ingredient of communication is, of course, the will and the ability to communicate, and these depend on the individual’s balance of trust and suspicion, which in turn depends on what is stored up in his or her inner world of the unconscious memories of previous communications, including the very earliest, and on his or her ability to use symbols. A symbol is simply something that is allowed to stand for something else. Words and gifts are symbols which have their own accepted meaning, but we who use them give them meaning over and above their literal content by the way in which we select them and use them. Words and other symbols can also be used defensively to hide ourselves and our feelings and to come between us and other people. But this is in itself a form of communication showing that we are unwilling or unable to communicate.

 

9. Communicating with children—II (1977)

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The social work task in relation to children is, as we are well aware, a formidable one—formidable in terms of the wide statu tory responsibilities laid on the social services: to promote the welfare of children so as to prevent their reception into care or appearance before a juvenile court, to take action to protect children from physical or mental suffering, and to provide suitable personal care for each child whose family cannot do so. Daunting as these fundamental practical tasks are, even more formidable is the emotional task laid on social workers who have to face the children themselves, in the difficult circumstances that bring them to the notice of the department. The uncertainty conflict and anguish has to be met and understood by the social workers if the child is to have the chance to salvage anything of value for the future. If the pain in the situation is not recognized and shared, it cannot be experienced and worked through, and there is then no alternative to the building up of resentment which can last a lifetime, and waste a life, and lead many to prisons or mental hospitals.

 

10. The “rescue motive” in social work (1955–56)

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July 1955: (Comment by CCQR Editor: “Miss Britton wrote in a paper reviewed elsewhere, “The rescue motive is to be avoided in social work” [chapter 6, this volume]). Our reviewer writes, “Perhaps one day she will tell us [what the motive in child-care work should be].” Miss Britton sends us the following brief comment.”)

Dear Sir,—It is certain that the rescue motive was of prime importance to the pioneers in child care as in other fields. Our debt to them is great. But the point is that motives grow up just as people do, and the motive of the past is not appropriate to the present.

Child care has now reached a stage at which the rescue motive hampers. There is no longer a need to collect funds or mobilize public opinion. The rescuer is not suited to the more delicate work of modern child care which demands of the worker a more direct, straight-forward drive, one that is close to that of parents who care for their own children.

Rescuers can always be found a place, but the time is past in child care for their kind of enthusiasm. The present issue is confused by their need to save rather than to find and foster what is good in a situation.

 

11. The development of insight (1959)

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I found the reading of last year’s report on the Conference on Personality Development a stimulating experience, because the wealth and range of the ideas put forward, quite apart from their own intrinsic value, revealed the new orientation to professional education which is gradually taking place in the fields of education and social work by the increasing application of dynamic psychology not only to what we teach, but also to how we teach.

The report on last year’s Conference had another effect on me, however. As a speaker at this year’s Conference I wondered what on earth there was still left to say. Insight was mentioned many times last year, and Paul Halmos (1958) stated that in the teaching of personality development the first aim is that students shall acquire insight. Others supported this view in words or by implication.

I see my task as an attempt to separate out and examine at close range some of the meanings of this word insight and its development. In doing this I shall assume that members of the Conference are familiar with what was said last year on this subject.

 

12. Development towards self-awareness (1964)

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There is room for all kinds of people in the world, and we find that some have a high degree of self-awareness, and some do not. This state of affairs is all right: it makes for interest and variety between people, but for those who are involved in social work and similar professions which deal with people as individuals, some self-awareness is essential.

Self-awareness implies awareness of others and vice versa. In fact, these two things are two sides of the same coin. When we first become aware of another person, we at that moment become an aware self aware of the other person as distinct from ourselves. And so it is all through life, as we learn about other people, we automatically learn more about ourselves. Those who want to understand other people therefore have to be prepared to understand themselves.

There is no doubt that some people go into social work or become psychologists or psychiatrists or psycho-analysts in order to find out about themselves or to solve their own problems, although they may not, of course, be aware of this in the early stages. There must be many people who have slipped over into social work (e.g. from administrative), and for these there must come a moment when they stop to consider whether or not they like the increase in self-awareness that social work entails. I would rather warn people off social work than push them into it because of the self-awareness that it involves them in, and self-awareness can be painful. If this comes unexpectedly, the result may be an attempt on the part of the person concerned to make social work into an elaborate form of administration in order to avoid the painfulness of awareness.

 

13. D.W.W.: a reflection (1978)

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The editors of this book have invited me to write something of a personal nature about the man whose observations and experience led to the concept of transitional objects and phenomena. In attempting to do this, I shall need to select only those aspects of his life and personality that are relevant to the book. It could seem therefore as if these concepts arose naturally and easily out of D.W.W.’s own way of life. In one sense this is true; but it is only half the story. The rest concerns the periods of doubt, uncertainty, and confusion out of which form and meaning eventually emerged.

What was it about D.W.W. that made the exploration of this transitional area inevitable and made his use of it clinically productive? I suggest that answers to these questions have to be looked for not simply in a study of the development of his ideas as he went along, but essentially in the kind of personality that was functioning behind them. He could be excited by other people’s ideas but could use them and build on them only after they had been through the refinery of his own experience. By that time, unfortunately, he had often forgotten the source, and he could, and did, alienate some people by his lack of acknowledgement.

 

14. D. W. Winnicott: his life and work (1982)

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I thought I’d like to talk about the work that [Donald] and I did together in Oxfordshire during the war working with evacuees. But when I came down to it, I thought I wanted to say things first of all about things that influenced him and made him sort of the person he was in the end: things that influenced him, that changed him, made things different, and that showed the sort of person he was.

I thought I’d like to say first of all something about the main influences in his life. The thing that influenced him first of all, of course, is home, which was a very stable, loving home: religious, but not oppressively religious. They all went to the Methodist church down the road, the whole family. But it didn’t matter if you didn’t go, and there was no kind of pressure on religion like there could be in some homes.

Donald, as soon as he began to go to church, was always allowed the privilege of walking home from church with his father. This he valued very much indeed. He had his father to himself for this walk home even as a toddler upwards, and they discussed life in general.

 

15. Early observations on object relations theory (1943)

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I‘m terribly sorry—but I simply must say some things to you—in continuation of part of our discussion. At least, I must write it— doesn’t matter nearly so much that you read it. About the existance [sic] of “good” etc. To make it clear to myself I must sum up a bit first:—

1. The ultimate “good” thing—the experience in which the inner good world unites with the good in the world of reality through some relationship—as you said for a baby this happens when the inner good mother unites with the real mother.

2. It is only possible to attain this experience, of the existance [sic] of the inner good world—because only in this way can the belief in the goodness be sustained through periods of doubt in the reality situation—you said that for the baby it means that a relationship with the real mother is only possible because of the existance [sic] of the inside good mother.

3. So far so good (?)—Now the importance of these experiences is that they are the only proof there is that one is good oneself. In these moments one is entirely good & entirely safe.

 

16. A personal tribute: Dr Lois Munro (1974)

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I first met Dr Munro at a garden party given by Dugmore and Elizabeth Hunter in the summer of 1956. I remember this meeting with the precision with which one remembers an important encounter. At the time I was just recovering from meningitis, and this was the first time I had ventured into any kind of social gathering. Here were people eating and drinking and enjoying themselves, and the sun was shining. It seemed strange to be part of this scene after the life and death struggle in the curtained isolation of the hospital bed.

Many people spoke to me at the garden party, and I to them, but Dr Munro communicated on a different level. She seemed to emerge from the general background and to metaphorically hold out a hand and pull me into the party and into the present. She spoke in a straightforward way about illness, my illness, about life as a patient in hospital, and the dependence that serious illness imposes. She also spoke about how it feels to be back in the world again where time and conventions operate, after being at the back of beyond where there is no time and nothing matters but the next breath. These were her words, and the impact was immediate. A bridge had been made between two worlds. On the way home from the party, Donald told me that Dr Munro herself had been seriously ill in the recent past, and there had been uncertainty as to the outcome. Her reaching out to me at the party not only helped at the time, but it taught me an important lesson: that people who have been through an intense personal experience absolutely need to have this fact acknowledged—naturally and explicitly— if social relationships are to be re-established and maintained in any way that is meaningful. The incident showed Dr Munro’s warmth and humanity, and her courageous lack of fear at the human predicament. There was something direct and authentic about her personality; this gave her a strength which was easily communicated to others and which we shall always associate with her.

 

17. Fear of breakdown: a clinical example (1980)

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The case I shall describe in this paper brought alive for me the theory put forward in Winnicott’s (1974) paper “Fear of break down”. The case also illustrates the use of the false-self defence organization (Winnicott, 1960) as a means of survival, and the use of the transitional object (Winnicott, 1953) in the process of recovery.

It will be appreciated that in a short communication only the milestones in the progress of treatment can be described. Each milestone represents a new level of ego development and integration. What must of necessity be left out of this presentation is the detail of the hard work and often bitter agony that preceded each move forward. However, throughout the long periods of pain and despair I never felt out of touch with this patient’s ruthless drive for survival, whatever the cost. It was this that gave the analysis a powerful momentum from the beginning. Previously this drive had maintained the patient’s defences against disintegration—but these defences were no longer holding, and the drive for survival had to be invested elsewhere. In the early stages of the treatment I often felt that the patient might not survive. In her aimless wandering about London, she could easily have met with a fatal accident.

 

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