Françoise Dolto

Books Reviewed

Françoise Dolto
La Cause des Enfants
Paris: Laffont, 1985

Françoise Dolto
Psychanalyse et Pédiatrie
Paris: Seuil, 1971

Françoise Dolto
Séminaire de Psychanalyse d’Enfants, Tome 1
Paris: Seuil, 1982

Françoise Dolto
Séminaire de Psychanalyse d’Enfants, Tome 2
Paris: Seuil, 1985
Avec la collaboration de Jean-François Sauverzac

Françoise Dolto
Séminaire de Psychanalyse d’Enfants, Tome 3
Inconscient et destins
Paris: Seuil, 1988

Dr Françoise Marette Dolto (1908-1988) was one of the greatest psychoanalysts of France and one of the most intuitive and successful child therapists worldwide. She originated from a high-class family from Paris and was raised in a strictly Catholic milieu. Her psychological lucidity and mission manifested very early in life.

In her book La Cause des Enfants (1985), she reveals that already at the age of five she could fluently read and write, and told her parents, after having read a number of books about medicine, that she wanted to become une doctoresse pour les enfants (a child doctor). 

After she studied medicine and worked as a nurse, she developed a strong intellectual and practical interest for Sigmund Freud and does a psychoanalysis with René Laforgue (1894-1962), upon which she begins to work with children. She participates in seminars with René Spitz, Sacha Nacht and Rudolf Loewenstein and begins a private practice, next to her continuing work as a hospital psychiatrist.

More and more, her psychoanalytic approach focuses on language, influenced by the powerful ideas of Jacques Lacan (1901-1981), and based upon the power of the spoken word. Hence, Dolto develops a personal therapy style that puts stress on words and syntax. This therapy style is her own unique creation and grants her great freedom in her psychotherapeutic work with predominantly psychotic children.

And it was in this area, the complete and spontaneous healing of psychotic children, children that had been abandoned as incurable by other psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, that Dolto gained fame in France and beyond France, and was in her later years constantly present on radio and TV. 

In fact, Françoise Dolto, at the height of her career, was so famous in France that every schoolboy would know her name, and there was almost no weekend where she did not talk either in TV or in the radio. She had become a sort of national guru on child psychoanalysis and child therapy and her fame was certainly no bluff. The contribution she has given to our understanding of children is unique in world history.

Françoise Dolto is the Einstein of child psychoanalysis—and this is a documented fact, not my own fancy allegation, and if this has not yet penetrated into the Anglo-Saxon world, then it’s neither her fault nor mine, nor the fault of her French publishers, who are, by the way, the most exquisite in the field.

The reason may be that she has been a controversial figure in her profession, with her advocating free child sexuality. However, Dolto reveals also a dark side in her approach to child sexuality, for her attitude toward parents and educators was quite authoritarian, very much reminding of Freud’s own attitude: it was an attitude control, not one of freedom. While she always paid lip service to a permissive educational paradigm, she was not permissive at all in her approach to parents, educators, and the public.

In France, a country where there are virtually hundreds of psychoanalysts in every town, more than in any Anglo-Saxon jurisdiction, Dolto was at her lifetime considered as the ultra right-wing of psychoanalysis, virtually the Christian fundamentalist among her equals.

She was reproached to be dogmatic in her opinions, and not only that. She was denounced by her detractors to have dogmatized psychoanalysis, thereby subtly invalidating the primarily empirical focus of the psychoanalytic science. She was accused to having opened the door, through her paternalistic dogmatism, for the American mainstream control paradigm to take hold in France. 

This is how the political left in France has seen and judged her, and this is one of the reasons why her close professional colleagues situated on the farther left of the political spectrum in France have taken a distance to her once she was famous and lauded by the French government, and overseas.

I think it’s important to know this before reading these book reviews, because most human beings are neither objective, nor are they politically neutral. Dolto surely was politically not neutral at all. She originated from a high-class French family from Paris that was influential on the government, and that was influential upon the mass media, and that was influential on the right-wing of French society in general.

I know that the Anglo-Saxon reader has no idea of this, and that’s why I have to emphasize it, while I would not need to say a word here to a French audience.

I interviewed Françoise Dolto in 1986, after having visited La Maison Verte in Paris, a center she had created for parents and children, that mainly served to prepare children for greater lapses of time away from their parents and the early kindergarten experience. From there I went to her apartment at 260, rue Saint-Jacques, near the Panthéon, Paris.

After a short introduction of myself, I told Françoise Dolto about my work with children, and also my strong emotional attraction for children. And she replied that she found it very beneficial for children to be able to project their oedipal desires on other adults than their parents, and parents should be thankful to educators or generally other adults who are willing to accept children’s erotic love transfer upon them. For this would greatly reduce the incidence of incest within the family.

An interesting correspondence followed-up to our meeting. In her book La Cause des Enfants (1985), p. 29, Françoise Dolto writes:

In the nuclear family of today, especially in the town, the tensions and conflicts are much more explosive if they remain under the surface. Today, the number of persons the child is in contact with is more restricted than before. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the child could transfer his or her incestuous desires on other women who found it funny to play sexual games with small boys and young people that they were not the mother of. (Translation mine)

And further, in Psychanalyse et Pédiatrie (1971), p. 63:

All those who study behavior problems, functional organic troubles, the educators, the doctors in the true sense of the term, must have notions about the role of libidinal life and know that sexual education is the grain for the social adaptation of the individual.

No other mental health professional was ever so outspoken about the function of the educator as a target for the oedipal child’s sexual wishes. While she, as a strictly Catholic believer and defendant of mainstream culture of course held any kind of sexual interaction between educator and student as forbidden and damaging to the child’s healthy sexual growth, she encouraged educators to talk desire (parler désir) with the children they cared for, so that desire becomes verbalized and thus coded in culture.

And she found the projection of the child’s gerontophilic desires upon educators something natural and healthy, and even necessary in today’s highly oedipal consumer culture. In her first seminar on child psychoanalysis, Séminaire de Psychanalyse d’Enfants (1982), Tome 1, p. 98, she told her participants this:

Children constitute themselves finally in a homosexual relationship. Archaic drives continue to be heterosexual or homosexual, with the father or with the mother depending on the sex of the child, but the genital drives are lived only with teachers because only with them the child can bring about a fruit within a relationship of culture and knowledge. (Translation mine)

In 2002, Gallimard Publishers from Paris wrote to me, after the correspondence I have had with F. Dolto was found by Dolto’s heirs. In the letter I was asked for my permission to publish the correspondence in a retrospective reader about Dolto. I also was asked what in fact had triggered the exchanges and what had been the main subjects?

I gave my permission for publication and revealed that the main topic of our correspondence had been the question if children’s gerontophilic emotions could be projected upon adults other than their parents and how sexual attraction of educators toward the children they care for was to be qualified from a psychoanalytic point of view? In addition, our discussion had been about Alice Miller’s idea that the child should be protected from any premature sexual experience, and that to grant children sexual freedom would end up in more abuse. Dolto did not share Alice Miller’s ideas and told me in our interview that she found Miller’s child-abuse activism ‘clearly against Freud.’

Last not least, I should reveal here that in our interview, Dr. Dolto has also emphasized that adult-child sexual desire, thus pedophilic desire, should be coded socially and legally as the present situation brings about chaotic encounters between adults who yield to the sexual pressure and then act out in ways that hurt and traumatize the child. As this problem of course exists also within the educational relationship, Françoise Dolto required for child care workers in her institution that they all be psychoanalyzed.

This gave me the idea to draft a special vocational training for child care workers, as a future add-on to teacher’s vocational training. The focus in this training should be to render conscious all pedoemotive wishes and desires, all sexual projections of educators upon certain children in their care. As those desires, as long as they are not rendered conscious, can lead to sadistic behavior that would have negative effects upon children, it is in my view an urgent agenda to include emotional awareness training in the vocational training of pre-school teachers, nurses, and child care workers.

Our correspondence is now published in this volume by Gallimard Publishers in Paris.

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