Theories

The ‘Good-Enough’ Mother

Winnicott recognised that ‘the ordinary devoted mother’ was not perfect and would, 
therefore, inevitably make mistakes in the care of her infant. What she would then do, 
however, was to make repairs and readjustments in her interaction with the infant.

This idea of the ‘good-enough mother’ has offered solace to parents ever since Winnicott coined the expression.

By making her breast (or bottle) available 
at the right moment, the mother (or mother substitute) enables the infant 
to believe that she (or he) has ‘created 
their own world out of their own need’. 
The baby then experiences an ‘illusion’:

‘I created the breast!’, ‘I created the world!’

In healthy development, the mother, the 
father, and ‘good-enough’ others, will all 
ease the child’s transition and adaptation 
to the reality of the outside world. 
Winnicott describes this growth as 
necessary ‘disillusionment’.

The ‘Transitional Object’

Perhaps Winnicott’s best known idea is his explanation 
of the child’s habit of becoming very attached to a 
favourite blanket or toy. Interaction with this material 
object tends to lessen anxiety and also help the child 
adapt to change. Many parents will testify that what is 
a smelly bit of old blanket to them may become 
something very important to the child. Changing this 
object in any way may cause the child anxiety and 
distress.

Winnicott emphasises that it is not the child’s 
highly-valued article that is (in itself) ‘transitional’, but 
rather that the transitional object represents an 
achievement in development which marks the beginning 
of the infant’s perception of the mother as someone 
outside and separate from him or herself.

The arrival of the transitional object in the child’s 
emotional life is highly significant, because it is a sign 
of ‘personal growth’ and ‘creative living’. In this way, a 
particular blanket, for example, comes to be regarded 
by the child as both an ordinary blanket and as 
something special and almost magical.

Good-enough care of the child involves an adult’s 
understanding and appreciation of this idea.

The ‘False Self’ and the ‘True Self’

Along with his ideas on ‘good-enough’ parenting, Winnicott discusses what he calls 
environmental failure at various stages of the child’s (emotional) development. At the 
earliest stage of infancy, when the child is in a state of ‘absolute dependence’ on the 
mother, such failure can have very serious effects on later development.

He describes the situation of ‘not good-enough mothering’ as one in which the mother 
(consciously or unconsciously) is unable to respond adequately to her infant’s 
spontaneous behaviour (true self), but tends to impose her own wishes and desires 
(e.g. for an ‘ideal’ child). This may lead the infant to an adaptation on the basis of 
’compliance’ (false self) and later, in adulthood, to the loss of a sense of personal 
autonomy and integrity.

However, a degree of false self co-exists with the true self 
in everybody. Like all defences, a sense of falseness can 
be protective of the true self, but it may also become 
’pathologically powerful’ and, at times of stress, lead to 
breakdown and the need for psychotherapeutic help.

The true self is perhaps Winnicott’s most complex idea. 
He describes it as a necessarily hidden, private and 
secret part of the personality. It is connected ‘in the 
person’ with ‘aliveness’ and it is that ‘which gives the 
feeling of real’.

He adds that it has to be found by each person for 
themselves.

The ‘Capacity for Concern’

In the early life of the healthy infant, a very important stage of development is marked by 
the beginning of a ‘capacity for concern’. Between the ages of five months or so and two 
years, children gradually develop a sense of personal responsibility for their actions.

Winnicott says that concern ‘turns up in the baby’s life as a highly sophisticated 
experience’. He means by this that the baby has developed a capacity to experience guilt 
in an infantile way. At this stage, the baby gradually becomes aware of a ‘Me’ as separate 
from a ‘Not Me’, and of the mother as a person with her own needs and moods.

The baby has also become aware of expressing ‘love complicated by hate’ towards the 
mother. As this awareness becomes enriched and refined, it ‘leads to the emergence of 
concern’. The baby’s new capacity to experience primitive ‘guilt’ is linked with ‘the 
damage which is felt to be done to the loved person in states of excitement’.

It is with the mother’s love and care over time that the healthy infant 
is able to discover a ‘personal urge to give, to construct 
and to mend’.

The achievement of concern requires that two aspects of 
the mother come together in the baby’s mind. The first is – the mother’s capacity to accept and tolerate the baby’s 
natural loving and aggressive impulses. The second is the 
mother’s capacity for the general loving care and 
everyday management of the baby.