françoise dolto and the castrated child

Review of:
Dolto, Françoise : ‘Les castrations’ (p. 63-199)
in ‘L’image inconsciente du corps’, Editions du Seuil, Paris 1984.


In the chapter ‘Les castrations’ Dolto describes how, as a consequence of castration, desire has to give up its original goal and to seek new – sublimated – means of expression. Dolto calls this process ‘symbolisation’ (p. 80). Whence the expression: ‘la castration symboligène’. Castration paves the way for sublimation and the ‘symbolic order of human Law’ (p. 82).

Thus, Dolto conceives the term ‘castration’ in a broad sense: she is dealing with ‘ombilical’, ‘oral’, ‘anal’, ‘scopic’ and the ‘first and second genital’ castration. Let us have a look at what Dolto has to tell us about ‘the flowers of castration’ – as she calls the ‘symboligène’ effect of castrations in a poetic outburst.


As far as weaning is concerned, Dolto states in no uncertain terms that ‘this castration elicits the desire for speaking’. Through weaning, the ‘pulsions orales’ are ‘symbolised’ to verbal behaviour (p. 100)

We do not believe our eyes! Is Dolto stating in all seriousness that weaning is the key to speech? The world average for breastfeeding is four years, and a furtive glance in the scarce nurseries in the West where breastfeeding takes longer than a few weeks, shows that ‘postponed’ weaning does not prevent the child from speaking, quite the contrary.

The truth is that infants, in their commerce with the mother, do not only enjoy sucking and the drinking of warm, sweet milk, but above all the embrace of their mother, who mirrors their expressions with her eyes and her face, and echoes their cooing. All this comes to an apogee when the baby smiles and produces its irresistible sounds. When the mother in her turn mirrors the smile and echoes the sounds, this leads to a little orgy of echoing and mirroring. Certainly, some mothers tend to restrict their contact with the child to mere feeding, and nearly look at nor speak to their baby. In that case, an increased need for a broader contact is displaced to drinking. Such displacement could be described as an ‘oralisation’ of the child. It could even be described as a ‘symbolisation’ in the vein of Dolto: is sucking not turned into a ‘symbol’ for looking at the mother’s eyes, dialoguing with her, being cuddled in her arms, you name it, as a consequence of the ‘visual’, ‘auditory’ and ‘tactile’ castration of the child? Were it not for the fact that this ‘symbolisation’ goes in the opposite direction as Dolto’s!

Let us have a closer look. When there is no ‘oralisation’ of the child, there is a many-sided development of the most diverse forms of contact with the child. Weaning does not disturb such many-sided contact, especially not verbal contact: when drinking or eating, the child continues to produce all kinds of sounds before, during and after feeding. Conversely, oralisation retards the development of speech, so that replacing of the oralised need for drinking with the normal more many-sided contact will inevitably lead to more cooing an smiling. But it would be mistaken to describe such reversal of the process of oralisation as ‘weaning’ and the appearance or enhancement of verbal contact as a ‘symbolisation’. The reverse would be more appropriate: we have to deal here with a ‘desymbolisation’ and a return to the normal situation.

How much Dolto threatens to become the victim of her own conception of speaking as a ‘symbolisation’ of sucking, becomes apparent when she advises mothers to put all kinds of inedible objects in the child’s mouth – to ‘orally castrate’ it – and then to pronounce the name of the object. Just echoing the child’s cooing before, during and after feeding will amply do. And when, in addition, the name of all the objects that impress the child is pronounced, it will be all the more inclined to echo the parent in its turn. You really need not put inedible things in the child’s mouth! As evidence for her conception of speaking as a symbolisation of sucking, Dolto triumphantly mentions that it is impossible to speak when you are eating. That would then hold true especially when your mother puts inedible objects in your mouth… But it is simply not true. From the beginning newborn babies are producing sounds when sucking and not even the most delicious bite will prevent anybody from saying ‘mmm!’. Precisely because we cannot stop chewing, ‘mmmm’ is transformed into ‘mjammjam’. And from there to ‘mama’ is only one step. Dolto on the other hand conceives the predilection for two-syllable words as a ‘metaphor’ for the de-doubling of the mother-child dyad…! The only truth about the story that you cannot speak when eating is that an oralised child cannot pronounce its words properly when having a dummy or its thumb in the mouth. And the only truth about the story of the relation between speaking and weaning – apart from the fact that chewing is a pre-adaptation for articulating on the evolutionary level – is the fact that a baby that cannot rely on a dummy of a thumb, tends to restore the pleasant feel of the flow of milk through breathing warm breath over itsr palate when cooing.


A comment on the umbilical, anal and scopic castration* would lead us too far and would needlessly complicate our train of thoughts. But we cannot escape the duty to describe how Dolto conceives the ‘symboligène’ effect of the ‘real’ genital castration. (Dolto calls it the ‘second genital castration’ to distinguish it from the first: the assessment of the difference between boy and girl).

Dolto describes the effect of the second genital castration in two ways. On the one hand she mentions a shift from aggression with the penis (in plays with guns, swards and the like) to ‘manual activity, intellectual activity and activity of the whole body, playful and earnest’ (p. 189). Somewhat further she writes that ‘the urethral-anal desire to master the body of the other – something like the rut of the animals’ is replaced with ‘the giving of life, brought about through a choice out of love…’ and also through a ‘feeling of responsibility between the lovers that are transformed into begetters, and commit themselves to care for the child until it is grown up’ (p. 189). Dolto stresses that such symbolisation is ‘humanising’: ‘through such symbolisation the son is initiated in human life’ (p. 189). The raping animal versus the caring husband….

Also to such description of ‘humanising symbolisation’ we have many an objection. To begin with, what we said above on occasion of speaking also holds true of motor and intellectual abilities: we are dealing with abilities that develop autonomously and according to their own logic. We really need not wait until the penile aggression is curtailed for the child to become handy and inquisitive. And also here rather the converse is true – as Freud already revealed when analysing sexual curiosity: it is only when children are not told what it is all about with the penis that they become ‘ pistolised’ or ‘canonised’….**

And it is totally mistaken to maintain that the – urethrally-anally distorted – desire to beget would be ‘beastly’ and only ‘giving life out of love’ and ‘responsible care’ ‘human’. Human is longing for reproduction, to engage in an enduring bond sustained through (as a rule infertile) copulation, to economically help each other in physically and spiritually raising up the children. The human child has the propensity to learn all the required abilities. As far as fertility is concerned, it soon discovers that it is not yet fertile and that it will have to await genital maturity. It also discovers that it will have to develop all kinds of prowess in order to impress his future beloved, just like his father and his mother did a long time ago. In attendance of fertile maturity, it engages itself with all the more fervour in acquiring all the abilities that will turn it into a desirable partner. To discover that one has still a lot to learn before being able to become an astronaut is even more ‘castrating’ than to discover that one has first to genitally mature. Nothing prevents the child from starting the process of learning here and now. But in order to become fertile, only waiting helps. That is why the interest of the child is shifting from fertility to other domains, where adulthood can be reached step by step and by one’s own endeavour. But that does not mean that the desire to develop non-fertile abilities would be a ‘symbolisation’, let alone a ‘humanising’ of the desire to become fertile. It only means that the desire to become an adult – lover, father and astronaut – is now turning to what is within reach. Or to phrase it differently: when it cannot make children, the child tries to do its utmost to become an astronaut in anticipation….***

When interpreting motor and intellectual abilities as ‘symbolisations’ of fertility, one is all too easily caught in another trap: the conception of fertility as the ‘beastly’ that has to be ‘humanised’ or ‘symbolised’, and of all the other abilities as ‘human’. From the quotations above it appears that Dolto equals fertilisation (as ‘l’agression pénienne’) with the pure fertile rut of animals. Human, on the other hand, is ‘giving life out of love’ and ‘responsible care for the children’. She objects to the way in which the rut of animals is all too readily described in terms of desire and love ‘as if it were about humans’ (p. 175). Also here, Dolto completely misses the mark. She does a grave injustice not only to many an animal that really does more that fertilise during rut, but also to the desire for begetting children. For the latter has to be ‘castrated’ to bring the ‘higher’ human potential to further development. Is human sexuality not something more then ‘mere reproduction’?’ Is man not really man as soon as he knows to elevate himself - with Plato - above fertility? When – under the augurs of Christianity – he becomes a priest or – under the augures of capitalism – a career animal?

How firmly this mistaken view of a shift from purely fertile – beastly – to non-fertile – human – sexuality is established, is evidenced by the fact that the desire for incest of the child is all too often conceived as a desire for intercourse, if not for a genital continuation of the oral delights. In fact, the desire for incest is the desire for making children with the father or the mother. And what the child experiences as a prohibition on incest is not at all the taboo on intercourse with the parents, but the assessment of its inability to procreate. It is not the father who imposes the taboo on incest, but nature. Thus, the question is not to ‘castrate’ the child’s genital desire for its mother. Just like the oralisation of the contact with the mother, also such sexualising of the desire to become an adult has to be remedied – or better still: one should prevent it from happening. Only then can you explain to the child that it is not mature yet and that it just has to await its maturity. And in expectance….

Dolto’s whole ‘symbolisation’ and ‘humanisation’ comes down to castrating the beast in the child in view of its humanisation. It seems that Enlightment has not yet completely driven out the Middle Ages…


To characterise the developmental stages of the child as ‘oral’ or ‘anal’ is all too justified: after all, feeding and changing the baby’s nappy are the last form of contact that a parent can obliterate. But one should never forget that in so doing, one threatens to articulate development in terms of its displaced unfolding. Whoever calls the contact between mother and child ‘oral’ just like that, legitimates what he is supposed to analyse. And in that trap psychoanalysis has all too often been caught. From the first beginnings psychoanalysis has been mesmerised by a fetishism of phases. Already Abraham tries to account for biting next to sucking and from urinating next to defecating. With him, that resulted in the introduction of an oral-sadistic and a urethral phase. Others maintain that the usual phasing does not justice to other ‘partial drives’. Next to voyeurism and exhibitionism (the scopic drive – ‘pulsion’), already thematised through Freud, there is also the ‘tactile drive’, the ‘olfactory’, the ‘erotic use’ of breathing, the auditory pleasure at singing and speaking, you name it. Why should those ‘pulsions’ not be allowed to claim their appropriate ‘stage’? The most famous example of such ‘phase fetishism’ is the introduction of the ‘mirror phase’ through Lacan, provided with the corresponding ‘scopic castration’ with Dolto****.

And that leads us to a far more drastic form of fetishism. The term ‘desire for incest’ is justified in so far as it poignantly describes the child’s desire to become an adult: just like the father, it wants to make a child with the mother. The concomitant term ‘castration’ is equally justified in so far as it equally poignantly describes how the child experiences the assessment of its infertility. It is the merit of psychoanalysis to have shown how all kinds of strange behaviour of children are determined by the desire for incest and castration anxiety. But psychoanalysis has neglected to further analyse these ‘deeper’ complexes as symbols themselves. To the effect that - just like with the fetishism of phases – the displaced (or symbolised) phenomena are treated on equal terms as the ‘original’ ones. Every distinction between the ‘symbolic’ and the ‘literal’ evaporates. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Freud’s fatal confusing of the ‘symbolic’ incest of the child and the ‘literal’ - fertile - incest of adults that want to preserve privileges within the family (such as the pharaohs, the Inca or the incestuous farmers scorned by Luther) or the wide-spread – voluntary or imposed – incest of the excluded. The confusion comes to its apogee in the construction of the myth of the incestuous primeval father as the phylogenetic prefiguration of the oedipal child.

A similar confusion of the ‘symbolic’ and the ‘literal’ lies at the roots of the fetishism of phases. To make matters worse, Dolto also applies the symbolic term ‘castration’ to the equally symbolic anal and oral phase: what leads to impossible terms like ‘oral’ and ‘anal’ ‘castration’ – not to mention ‘umbilical’, ‘scopic’ and ‘genital’ castration! Fetishism raised to the square! In fact rather common phenomena such as cutting the umbilical chord, weaning, becoming independent – falling asleep alone, putting on ones own clothes, doing one’s shoelaces – and accepting that there are children and adults, men and women, and that one is not yet fertile. What Dolto calls ‘castration’, is no more that the gentle but determined pressure with which every right-minded parent induces the child to assume every task that comes within its reach – or the lashing out of the mother chimp to her young that tries to prolong the oral delights. And the ‘symboligenic effect of castration’ is no more than the fact that the child assumes its task on ever more domains. How little such ‘symboligenic castration’ is ‘humanising’ is apparent from the fact that also the little chimp that is weaned assumes its adulthood – without becoming ‘human’ therefore. To call the gentle or brutal pressure with which animal and human parents try to regain their freedom ‘castration’, reminds me too much of the hidden sadism in the saying ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. The child – in essence only an adult in spe – as the beast that has to be castrated. It is no coincidence that Dolto speaks of ‘symbolisation’ and ‘humanisation’ as ‘les fleurs de la castration’. Did Baudelaire not talk of ‘les fleurs du mal’?

Our objection to such fetishism raised to the square is not only that is misleading from a theoretical point of view and that it has a rather sadistic overtone, but that it sounds intolerably pedantic in the first place. Go tell the women next door that she rather had ‘anally castrated’ her spoilt child! Referring to the lashing out of a mother chimp would be far more effective… Through developing an esoteric language, psychoanalysts only mimic the doctors that used to hide their impotence behind their Latin. While bereaving themselves of the understanding of the obvious, they create in the layman a feeling that something truly fundamental is escaping him…


That does not prevent the lecture of Dolto’s works to be very fascinating – as long as you know to look through the theoretical errors. Again and again, this devoted primal mother demonstrates an astonishing understanding of the child. That results in winged words such as the one on the speechless child, the infans: ‘From the beginning of life, every child is in the state of speech.’ And she explains herself: ‘The child cannot yet speak with words, but it understands words, and it is continuously looking for communication with the other, except when it sleeps… and even when it sleeps, talking does not disturb it’.

And does your heart not beat faster when reading: ‘Il faut dire les mots vrais’ ‘One should speak true words’ – which is still something other than ‘speaking the truth’. Truly a statement that leaves a lasting impression! Especially since Dolto is not talking about adults or adolescents, even not about a child or a toddler, but about the speechless ‘infant’! And is she right! How it is that infants understand those true words, is a question with which we will deal elsewhere.

Thus, it is not on castration, but on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that the flowers of truth are blooming.

© Stefan Beyst, September 2002 (translation august 2003.

** a more subtle version of the development is sketched in ‘The robot’.
*** see ‘The robot’ ‘Winners and losers’
****: For an alternative approach: see 'The mirror'

 facebookshare facebookvolg    twitter

image of the week: