Winnicott on Behavior Management


“For Behaviour Therapy (I give it capitals to make it into a Thing that can be killed) is an easy way out. All that is necessary is for therapists to be agreed on a morality. It is wicked to suck the thumb, it is wicked to wet the bed, it is wicked to mess and to steal and to break windows. It is wicked to defy parents, to criticise school regulations, to see faults in university curricula, to hate the prospect of a life at the conveyor belt, or to boggle at a life ruled by computers. It is open to anyone to have a personal list of good or bad, and for a company of behaviourists with more or less identical moral systems to get together and set about producing symptomatic cures.

There will be failures, but there will be many successes, and there will be children going about saying, “I’m so glad I don’t wet the bed any more thanks to…an electric bell apparatus, or some other ‘response-shaper’.” All that is necessary is for the therapist to exploit the fact that human beings are a kind of animal with a neurophysiology like that of rats or frogs. What is left out is this, that human beings, even those with intelligence of quite low grades, are not just animals. They have a great deal that animals do not have at all. I personally would think of Behaviour Therapy as an insult even to the higher apes, and I would include cats.

It is sad that there are not enough case-workers, and that there never will be. It is a far sadder thing to think that Miss Holder’s last paragraph should perhaps be used by those responsible for Children’s Departments to justify handling this “economic and sensible procedure” to the child-care officers, a procedure designed to make naughty clients good.

Obviously, I am trying my hand at response-shaping. I want to kill Behaviour Therapy by ridicule. Its naivety should do the trick. If not, then there must be a war – and the war will be a political one, as between the dictatorships and democracy.”


Winnicott, D. W., originally published in Child Care News, Issue 87, June 1969.


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