Before unpacking Winnicott’s theory, let me give an example. It’s unique to our household, but I guarantee that any readers who have had two-year-olds in their care will recognize this behavior. The other night, our daughter’s grandparents picker her up from school and brought her home to play with her. (Have you read my tribute to our parents?) She had a lovely time with them, and when she sat down to color in her book with some crayons, they took the opportunity to leave. Our little girl looked up just in time to see them slipping out the front door. In great distress, she went running and screaming after them, only to collide with the closed door, unable to open it and chase her grandparents down the driveway. I tried to coax her back to her coloring book, to assure that, ahem, her daddy was still here to play with her. But to no avail. In anger and frustration, she took her crayon and scribbled a bright orange blob all over the white front door before throwing her crayon across the foyer.
Clearly, this did not make me happy. I restrained myself, dear readers; I did not yell or curse. Well, I didn’t curse out loud. I did say, “Look what you did.” (Is that shaming? Was that terrible of me? Perhaps I should ponder that some more…) I went and got a wet paper towel and some cleaning spray and came back to wash the door. Turns out brightly colored wax is adheres quite strongly to white paint. So it took a decent bit of scrubbing and squirting to get the door clean. In the meantime, my little girl stood beside me, crying anxiously and pointing to the orange squiggle on the door. At one point, she took a wadded up towel and daubed it against the door as if she would clean it up for me. She stopped crying once I got it clean, and she patted her hand gently on the newly whitened spot where her angry handiwork had once stood.
Freud made a great deal about the child’s development of “fusion” or “ambivalence” of what he termed the “erotic drive” and the “aggressive drive.” Without going too far away from the shores of familiar experience, this means that the infant experiences objects with both the “erotic drive” – the desire to seek an object for its fulfillment of a need (and not completely in a sexual manner) – and the “aggressive drive” – the desire to enact her will on an object by destroying or damaging it. Initially, infants act this out on toys that they throw out of their crib. Infants learn to trust that they do not have ultimate power for destruction when they play the maddening game of throwing their toy into the floor every time you hand it back to them. Eventually, they learn to hold both of these drives for the same object. And if you are Winnicott, or any other object-relations developmental theorist, then the primary object for all children is the mother. In this blog, because I’m kind of a goofy liberal who believes that gender roles should not define and confine us and I want to elevate the role of fatherhood beyond its typical low status as an emotionally distant position of financial support, then I will refer to “parent” where Winnicott would refer to “mother.”
So the child learns to experience both feelings of longing to be comforted by and to act out aggression against the parent. And damn, toddlers do this well. One minute they’re running across the daycare, screaming your name with glee as they cling to your leg; the next minute they’re wailing and slapping you for buckling them into their car seat. You know what I mean. They don’t even necessarily need to be angry; I’ve had my daughter smack me across the face just to see what will happen. This is the aggressive drive at work, but of course the erotic drive is still at work when she wants to snuggle up to me as I rock her good night.
In order for the child to experience both of these drives with one object, it is necessary for the child to develop a sense of “me” and “not-me” about the world. This comes a little later in development, when the child realizes that she is separate from the parent, that the parent is his or her own ego-self and independent from the child. The parent becomes a “whole object” in and of itself.
It is here that Winnicott proposes an interesting duality in the child’s experience of the parent: he describes the “object-parent” and the “environment-parent.” The object-parent is the immediate presentation of the parent who holds (or withholds) the meeting of a need or desire; the environment-parent is the idea of a consistent parent who safely holds the infant regardless of the child of the child’s actions. Winnicott states, “What the infant does at the height of id-tension and the use thus made of the object seems to me very different from the use the infant makes of the mother as part of the total environment.” Here, “id-tension” is the aggressive expression of a thwarted desire and “the use thus made of the object” is the destructive act. Or, more concretely put: “id-tension” is my daughter’s wish that her grandparents stay all night long, and the use she thus made against the object-parent was to angrily scribble her crayon against the door. This is different from the use of the parent as “part of the total environment.” Or trusting that a) Grandmom and Granddad are not gone from existence forever and b) I am still safe with Daddy. It is the environment-parent that “receives all that can be called affection and sensuous co-existence,” while the object-parent “becomes the target for excited experience backed by crude instinct-tension.” In my example, the object-parent is quite literally the front door through which her grandparents left, and coloring destructively on it is the aggressive act. It is also, by extension, an attack upon me for letting them go.
Now, as a child matures, she becomes capable of concern: “Concern turns up in the baby’s life as a highly sophisticated experience in the coming-together in the infant’s mind of the object-mother and the environment-mother.” You see, before a child develops this sophisticated inner experience, the feeling that comes from acting aggressively against the object-parent is far more frightening. Winnicott refers to it as guilt, but I would clarify it as “anxiety,” specifically the anxiety that she, the infant, has destroyed the object-parent and will no longer find her needs satisfied. Or, more bluntly put, if I bite my mother, she will leave me and I will starve to death. If I act aggressively against the object-parent, I will destroy it and with it my means of having my desires met. But a shift takes place when the child learns to trust the environment-parent.
See, over time, the child learns to trust that the parental protection of the overall environment will hold. (This, of course, is assuming the safe, supportive, loving household. Plenty of children do not have an environment they can trust.) The object-parent survives the aggressive action, and the environment-parent continues to provide a loving, supportive presence. This can evidence itself in splitting between parents. When I refuse to give my daughter a cookie, she might hit my leg, then run and cry into her mother’s arms. I represent the object-parent, which she acts against, and her mother represents the environment-parent, who still loves her despite her actions. And given this trust and the sense of having a unique ego-self in the world, the toddler learns something that is in many ways life-changing: she can contribute something positive to the environment. Just as she can act destructively, she can also act constructively by contributing to the holding environment: “The infant experiences anxiety, because if he consumes the mother he will lose her, but this anxiety becomes modified by the fact that the baby has a contribution to make to the environment-mother. There is a growing confidence that there will be opportunity for contributing-in, for giving to the environment-mother, a confidence which makes the infant able to hold the anxiety.”
Trusting this ability actually allows her to inhabit her destructive side more confidently. Yay! More acting out! But this is a good thing. My little girl can allow herself to feel her feelings of frustration and anger because she believes she can contribute to the environment for good. So her tears beside me as I cleaned the door were not about her frustration over the departure of her grandparents; it was an expression of anxiety regarding the damage she’d done to the door. She wanted to contribute by helping me clean it. And then once it was clean, she touched the door to reassure herself that the damage had been contained and that the environment was still trustworthy. Winnicott says: “When confidence in this benign cycle and in the expectation of opportunity is established, the sense of guilt in relation to the id-drives becomes further modified, and we then need a more positive term, such as ‘concern.’ The infant is now becoming able to be concerned, to take responsibility for his own instinctual impulses and the functions that belong to them… But in the developmental process, it was the opportunity to contribute that enabled concern to be within the child’s capacity.”
At heart, it’s always good as parents to see our child respond to their hurtful, destructive actions with a sense of remorse. Helping us pick up the mess they’ve made, crying at the realization that they’ve hurt us, patting us softly on the arm where they’ve just hit us; all of these things warms our hearts and gives us hope that our toddler is not indeed a heartless hellion bent on mindless destruction. In some sense, what does it matter how an object-relations perspective explains it? It matters to me because it reassures me that I am doing something right. My little girl would not have developed the capacity for concern if I and my spouse had not been providing a constant, consistent environment of safety and support. When she acts out – when she throws the crayons, hits us on the arm – she is testing the environment because she knows it’s safe. So, to all you parents with willful toddlers: deep breaths. Watch for that capacity for concern. Your child will learn to contribute constructively even as she kicks and scratches and acts out. She is doing her job, and you are doing yours.