How do you build a better world? There are so many well-known, urgent places you might start: malaria, carbon emissions, tax evasion, the drug trade, soil erosion, water pollution… Donald Winnicott deserves his place in history because of the dramatic simplicity of his approach. He proposed that the happiness of the human race depended ultimately not so much on external political issues, but on the way parents bring up their children. Born in 1896, Winnicott was Britain’s first medically-trained child psychoanalyst. Although he had no children of his own, he played a crucial and devoted role in public education around child-rearing, delivering some 600 talks on the BBC, tirelessly lecturing around the country and authoring 15 books, among which the bestselling collection of essays, Home is Where We Start From. It was rather strange that Winnicott should even have been English given that his country was notorious, then as now, for its lack of tenderness and its resistance to introspection. And yet Winnicott’s brand of psychoanalysis was, on closer inspection, peculiarly English. There was a characteristic English modesty about what he saw as the point of child psychoanalysis. His famous radio series was simply titled The Ordinary Devoted Mother and Her Baby. He wanted to help people to be, in his famous formulation, good enough parents; not brilliant or perfect ones (as other nations might have wished), but just OK. So what would it take, in his eyes, to encourage the ‘good enough’ parent? Winnicott put forward a number of suggestions: Winnicott begins by impressing on his audience how psychologically fragile an infant is. It doesn’t understand itself, it doesn’t know where it is, it is struggling to stay alive, it has no way of grasping when the next feed will come, it can’t communicate with itself or others. Winnicott’s work never loses sight of this, and he therefore repeatedly insists that it is those around the infant who have to adapt so as to do everything to interpret the child’s needs and not impose demands for which the child is not ready. For example, Winnicott knew what violence, what hate there could be in a healthy infant. Referring to what happens if a parent forgets a feed, he cautioned: ‘If you fail him, it must feel to him as if the wild beasts would gobble him up.’ But though the infant might sometimes want to kill and destroy, it is vital for the parents to allow rage to expend itself, and for them not in any way to be threatened or moralistic about ‘bad’ behaviour: ‘If a baby cries in a state of rage … and yet the people round him remain calm and unhurt, this experience greatly strengthens his ability to see that what he feels to be true is not necessarily real.’ Parents are delighted when infants and children follow their rules. Such children are called good. Winnicott was very scared of ‘good’ children. He believed that they were the children of parents who could not tolerate too much bad behaviour and demanded compliance too early and too strictly. This would lead, in Winnicott’s formulation, to the emergence of a False Self – a persona that would be outwardly compliant, outwardly good, but was suppressing its vital instincts. In Winnicott’s scheme, adults who can’t be creative, who are somehow a little dead inside, are almost always the children of parents who have not been able to tolerate defiance, parents who have made their offspring ‘good’ way before their time, thereby killing their capacity to be properly good, properly generous and kind. Every failure of the environment forces a child to adapt prematurely. For example, if the parents are too chaotic, the child quickly tries to over-think the situation. Its rational faculties are over-stimulated (it may, in later life, try to be an intellectual). A parent who is depressed might unwittingly force the child to be too cheerful – giving it no time to process its own melancholy feelings. Winnicott saw the dangers in a child who, in his words, has to ‘look after mother’s mood’. Winnicott had a special hatred for ‘people who are always jogging babies up and down on their knees trying to produce a giggle.’ This was merely their way of warding off their own sadness, by demanding laughter from a baby who might have very different things on its mind. The primordial act of parental health for Winnicott is simply to be able to tune out of oneself for a time in the name of empathising with the ways and needs of a small, mysterious, beautiful fragile person whose unique otherness must be acknowledged and respected in full measure. Many of the parents Winnicott saw were worn down by their labours. Winnicott tried to bolster them by reminding them of the utmost importance of what they were doing. They were, in their own way, as significant to the nation as the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Winnicott called parenting: ‘the only real basis for a healthy society, and the only factory for the democratic tendency in a country’s social system.’ In his descriptions of what parents should do for their children, Winnicott was in effect referring to a term which he rarely mentioned directly: love. We often imagine love to be about a magical intuitive ‘connection’ with someone. But, in Winnicott’s writings, we get a different picture. It’s about a surrender of the ego, a putting aside of one’s own needs and assumptions, for the sake of close, attentive listening to another, whose mystery one respects, along with a commitment not to get offended, not to retaliate, when something ‘bad’ emerges, as it often does when one is close to someone, child or adult. Since Winnicott’s death, we’ve collectively grown a little better at parenting. But only a little. We may spend more time with our children, we know in theory that they matter a lot, but we’re arguably still failing at the part Winnicott focused on: ADAPTATION We still routinely fail to suppress our own needs or stifle our own demands when we’re with a child. We’re still learning how to love our children – and that, Winnicott would argue, is why the world is still full of the walking-wounded, people of outward ‘success’ and respectability who are nevertheless not quite ‘real’ inside and inflict their wounds on others. We’ve a way to go until we are fully ‘good enough.’ It’s a task – Winnicott would have insisted – that’s in its own way as important as any other.