Françoise Dolto (1908–1988), born Marette, was the fourth of seven children – two girls, five boys – in a conventional, well-to-do family in France. At a very early age, Françoise was sensitive to the misunderstandings, misconceptions, and everything left unsaid between people in her little world, especially between adults and children. As a way
of coping, she developed skills of observation that would later serve her clinical practice.
By the age of eight, she expressed the need to create a channel of communication between parents and children by saying that she wanted to become
a “doctor of

When Françoise was only twelve, her elder sister, Jacqueline, died of cancer. The loss
of Jacqueline, their mother’s favorite, was a tragic event for everyone in the family,
but most especially for little Françoise, who was led to understand that, had there been
a choice, she would have been the one to die instead. Françoise also felt partly responsible for Jacqueline’s death herself, because she hadn’t prayed enough to save her sister. This ordeal triggered a maturation that later reinforced Françoise’s desire
to become a psychoanalyst

Throughout her childhood, Françoise felt misunderstood
by her mother, who saw marriage as her only future—higher education and a profession seemed counterproductive to that goal. Unable to remain inactive, Françoise not only decided to learn to sew, but she also successfully entered poster-making contests. She was forbidden to take these activities any further, however. She then began dabbling in ceramics, but the repetitive nature of the task discouraged her. All her life, however, Françoise retained an artistic inclination and produced sculptures, drawings, and watercolors. In 1929,
her mother finally allowed Françoise to study nursing,
in the hope it would dissuade her from wanting to become a doctor. Françoise nevertheless stuck to her plan.

She waited until her younger brother, Philippe, was ready, and then they entered medical school together, ultimately enabling Françoise to begin practicing as a family doctor and pediatrician on September 1, 1939.

Having broken off an engagement – arranged by her parents – when she began her medical studies, Françoise started displaying neurotic symptoms linked to a dreadful feeling of guilt, which led her to seek psychoanalytical help. Little by little, her successful psychoanalysis
(from 1934 to 1937) by René Laforgue, her admission
to the Psychoanalytical Society of Paris, and her hospital work (where she encountered disturbed children),
enabled Françoise Marette to fulfill her early wish
to become a “doctor of child-rearing” and to evolve into
the psychoanalyst so renowned today..

Her psychoanalytical mentors were Lowenstein,
Spitz, and Garma and – when it came to child analysis – Morgenstern and Leuba. Later, Françoise Dolto
became one of the founding members of the French Psychoanalytical Society (from which she would subsequently resign, along with Jacques Lacan, during
a schism). In 1964, Dolto was one of the founding members, with Lacan once more, of the Freudian
School of Paris..

In 1942, Françoise married Boris Ivanovitch Dolto,
a doctor who specialized in rhumatology and who founded the French School of Orthopedics and Massage. Boris
was as revolutionary and innovating as Françoise,
and is said to have made a major contribution to the field of physiotherapy. Opened-minded and modern, Boris enthusiastically shared his wife’s intellectual career,
just as Françoise enthused over her husband’s discoveries. Their joint analyses of the links between body and psychology were extremely enriching for
both of them. The couple had three children.

Alongside her private practice at home, where she received many adults, Françoise Dolto worked primarily
in four medical institutions where she treated children: the Ney Polyclinic (where she had been recruited by Jenny Aubry), the Claude Bernard Center, the Trousseau Hospital (1940 to 1978), and the Etienne Marcel Center (1962 to 1985).

Starting in 1967, Dolto answered live questions from listeners, both adults and children, on Europe One radio station. She did so anonymously, known only as “Dr. X.” The radio show attracted many listeners, yet Dolto put
an end to the experiment in 1969, mainly because dialogue was seriously disrupted by the constraints
of a live broadcast and by commercials. In 1976, she agreed to do a program on France Inter radio station, called “When the Baby Shows Up,” on the condition that she would reply to listeners’ letters, which allowed her
to respond much more fully. The program was a great hit and was the origin of her fame among the general public
in France..

In 1978, this media success induced Dolto to retire from her psychoanalytic practice—transference effects related to her fame seemed to alter the nature of her work in
a way that seemed incompatible with her professional ethics. The issue of ethics in therapeutic practice was also crucial to Dolto. She henceforth devoted herself primarily to prevention and training rather than cure,
by conducting individual and group supervision, and by publishing, lecturing, and making radio and television broadcasts.

In 1979, accompanied by a small team, Dolto founded the Maison Verte, a “nurture center” for the social education of infants from birth to three or four years old. It is a place where the child, accompanied by one or both parents or grandparent(s), will find a professional team of three, one of whom is a psychoanalyst. A Maison Verte is a place for talking, playing, and reducing tension, even as constructive prohibitions are inculcated. The success of this approach has led to the spread of Maisons Vertes, and a great many now exist in most countries in Europe (especially France, see: Maison Verte) and in Latin America

During this period, however, Dolto was particularly keen to continue her psychoanalytical practice first at the Etienne Marcel Center and later among children placed with the social services (work that she performed up to her death). She felt that the very young age and situation of such children shielded them from her notoriety. As at the Trousseau Hospital, Dolto’s sessions were conducted
in the presence of other psychoanalysts who formed an active group to whom the child could turn. Dolto greatly valued this method of training, simultaneously theoretical and clinical, even though she always stressed the fact that she didn’t want to establish a “school” and that she had no students in the strict sense of the term. Psychoanalytical work with tiny children, including
new-borns, was extremely important to Dolto because
she saw it as a means of preventing later problems.
Prior to her death, she strongly militated for the continuation of this type of work.

As a Freudian, Dolto developed innovative theories and clinical practices that have deepened and extended our knowledge of human nature, notably by stressing the importance of remaining alert to unique features of child development that she labeled “archaic.” Along the way, Dolto elaborated a concept crucial to her thinking, namely “the unconscious ../image of the body.” Within this theoretical framework, she also developed the notion
of “symbol-generating castrations” as a necessary stage in the growth of the child.

Nowadays, many institutions inspired by Dolto’s philosophy are springing up in France and the rest of
the world: nurture centers of the Maison Verte type, neighborhood day-care facilities that take children after school, special hotels for children, places where children can meet with divorced parents experiencing social problems or conflicts, mother-and-child rooms in hospitals, and therapeutic centers for mother and newborn where fathers are obviously welcome (Dolto also stressed the fact a child’s development occurs within a very early triangulation between its mother and its father).

All these institutions reflect Dolto’s constant concern
to undertake preventive care, based on everything she learned about suffering from the children and adults in therapy. One little-known effort, for instance, was Dolto’s campaign to teach sign language to hearing-impaired children at a very early age. Hundreds of places have
now been named after Françoise Dolto—streets, squares, parks, toy libraries, day-care centers, kindergartens, schools, and so on.

Françoise Dolto was both psychoanalyst and concerned citizen – her work has undeniably contributed, along with the work of many others, to the profound changes in the way children are now perceived by psychoanalysts and
by society as a whole.

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