Dolto, Françoise (1908–1988)

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DOLTO, FRANçOISE (1908–1988)


French psychoanalyst.

Françoise Dolto (née Marette) was born in Paris, where she grew up in a middle-class family. The death of her elder sister due to cancer played a key role in her career choice. From an early age, she aspired to join the medical profession and take care of children, but throughout her youth this ambition met with family resistance. Her mother saw no future for a girl other than in marriage. Françoise turned to dressmaking and decorating china. In 1929 her mother finally agreed to let her study nursing, but Françoise soon began taking medical classes. This is where she met Mark Schlumberger, who had been analyzed and trained in Austria and England and who advised her to read Sigmund Freud. In 1934 she started a series of analyses with René Laforgue, who in turn encouraged her to participate in seminars with Spitz, Nacht, and Loewenstein.

Even before World War II, Dolto had come to believe that a number of the childhood diseases she dealt with had an unconscious psychological origin. She completed her studies at the Paris Faculty of Medicine and graduated in 1939 with a thesis entitled "Psychoanalysis and Pediatrics." In September of the same year, she opened a practice as a general practitioner and pediatrician. In 1942 she married Boris Dolto (1899–1981), a rheumatologist and founder of the French School for Orthopedics and Massage, who enthusiastically adhered to the ideas developed by his wife. The couple had three children: Jean-Chrisostome, who was to become popular as a singer under the name of Carlos; Grégoire, an architect; and Catherine Dolto, a sociologist, physician, and successful author of children's books.

Françoise Dolto was a member of the Freudian School in Paris, and her theories were controversial. Children's psychoanalysis was still in its early stages and was surrounded by criticism, even from other analysts. Dolto reported that one psychoanalyst complained that if the psychoanalysts started dealing with children soon no adults would be seeking treatment and the profession would run out of patients. Yet Dolto remained unshaken in her conviction that human beings communicate with their environment from the very beginning, even in the womb, and that children should be viewed within the dynamic of their personal and family histories.

Although she had planned a career as a pediatrician, Dolto became a psychoanalyst and made a significant contribution to the development of child psychoanalysis. She consulted in several institutions, including the Trousseau Hospital (1940–1978) and the Etienne Marcel Center (1962–1985). A member of the Psychoanalytical Society of Paris since 1938, she followed Jacques Lacan in the famous 1953 rift, which led to the founding of the French Psychoanalytical Society. In 1964 she took part, with Lacan, in setting up the French School for Psychoanalysis, which later became the famous Freudian School of Paris.

She also publicized her thoughts on the world of childhood through radio broadcasts and subsequently in best-selling books. Her status was enhanced by her talent for using the media, and she came to be regarded as France's "favorite grandmother." She spoke and wrote in a language accessible to all, seeking to de-dramatize situations and avoid prescriptive attitudes. (She told anxious parents that being bored in class is a sign of intelligence.) Her success as a communicator encouraged her to retire as a psychoanalyst and devote herself to the shaping and spreading of knowledge as a pedagogue.

In the media, Lacan and Dolto became the public idols of psychoanalysis. Young parents relied on her books, which ran into many reprints. Her views replaced those of the U.S. pediatrician Benjamin Spock, first in France and then throughout Europe, but her success earned her the jealousy, and sometimes the enmity, of fellow psychoanalysts. A famous but controversial clinician, in 1979 she opened the Maison Verte (Green House), which sought to develop early social contact in children by inciting them to speak, play, and de-dramatize their problems. The initiative met with great success, and other Maisons Vertes opened in Europe and throughout the world. In the early twenty-first century, Doltoinspired places continue to spring up, including Maisons Vertes, after-school neighborhood centers where children are cared for, children's hotels, and meeting centers for the children of divorced parents.

A committed Christian, Dolto attempted to reconcile her faith with the practice of psychoanalysis. In 1977 she published L'evangile au risque de la psychanalyse (The gospel at the risk of psychoanalysis). Françoise Dolto died in Paris on 25 August 1988.

See alsoFreud, Sigmund; Lacan, Jacques; Psychoanalysis.


Françoise Dolto, aujourd'hui présente: Actes du colloque de l'Unesco, 14–17 Janvier 1999. Paris, 2000.

Ledoux, Michel H. Introduction à l'œuvre de Françoise Dolto. Paris, 1993.

Sauverzac, Jean-François de. Françoise Dolto: Itinéraire d'une psychanalyste: Essai. Paris, 1993.

ValÉrie Piette