Donald Winnicott and the need to be idle

A thought on the gaps in life, coinciding with the release of part 4 of the Introduction to Psychotherapy course with the Idler Academy, focusing on the work of Donald Winnicott.

The British psychotherapist, Donald Winnicott, became a prominent public intellectual after the Second World War. He spoke on the radio about how to raise children, coining a phrase that has since become almost a commonplace: the “good enough” parent.

His point is that children need a parent who is there for them much or even most of the time, but they don’t need a parent who is there for them all of the time. If Mum or Dad did anxiously hover, 24×7, the child would never find the opportunities to make its own mistakes, take its own risks, fail in its own way, and so might never grow up.

Winnicott is at the opposite end of the parenting advice scale from the “Gina Ford approach”, which argues that every moment of every day must be scheduled and enforced. Winnicott was convinced that the child needs time to do nothing, to play about, to idle. He’d go so far as to say that is a child’s inalienable right.

The reason is that, without such reverie, the child can’t learn who they are. It’s in the gaps of life that we fall back on ourselves and see what’s there. Life’s pauses are crucial for the development of our personality. It’s why the greatest artists are often the most committed dawdlers, and genius is so closely associated with acres of time apparently wasted. Einstein would have remained an unknown if his job in the patent office hadn’t given him the space to daydream about what it might be like to travel on a beam of light.

It’s a principle that has massive implications way beyond parenting. In fact, it speaks to a situation that has today turned into something of a crisis because, since Winnicott’s death in 1971, our society has evolved less and less opportunities for such unstructured time. Nowadays, it’s not only children whose every moment is tasked with a goal, be that school, homework, practice-time, screen-time. Many adults, too, can treat life as one long agenda or packed timetable or busy meeting.
So, here are two other areas in which Winnicott’s insights directly matter: social media and education.

Take social media. There is clearly a lot of good that online communication brings. It keeps people in touch, it feeds curiosity, it offers informative streamed courses. But there is a risk with its, now, ubiquitous availability. It might mean that we never have time offline, when we’re drifting, when we’re bored, when we’re alone.

Again, that’s so important because it’s then that we must resource ourselves without distraction or input. It’s then that we find out about ourselves, our agitations, our imaginations, our fears. It can be hard. But then, according to Winnicott, the times that are hard are the times that we develop, so long as they don’t become traumatic. Social media risks taking such growth points away.

The second area is education. Winnicott’s principle applies here too. He felt that students, be they children or adults, need copious opportunities to create ideas and values for themselves. It’s not that they’ll create many idiosyncratic or novel ideas and values, if at all. Not everyone is an Einstein. But everyone does need the chance to make ideas and values their own, so that they can be possessed and loved.

An education, therefore, that works by attempting to inject ideas and values into people, or that so schedules education according to examinations that the student is only ever learning for the next test, is denied the chance to become themselves. Winnicott argued that too tightly a controlled approach to education steals the chance truly to become educated. It will produce robots rather than souls, cogs rather than people.

So today, consider the wisdom of Donald Winnicott. And put it into practice. In fact, I invite you to do so having read this. Do nothing for a moment. Consider whether Winnicott is right by your lights. Allow your own self, in a pause, to bubble up. It might be the most important and illuminating thing you do today.

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