Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham, Infants Without Families, 1944

Source: Courtesy of the Freud Museum, London

Anna Freud with Dorothy Burlingham and Grete Bibring, an emigré psychoanalyst and the first woman to be named full professor at Harvard Medical School, 1950

Source: Available through the National Library of Medicine,

Anna Freud at work

It is recognized among workers in education and in child psychology that children who have spent their entire lives in institutions present a type of their own and differ in various respects from children who develop under the conditions of family life. . . . Superficial observation of children of this kind leaves a conflicting picture. They resemble, so far as outward appearances are concerned, children of middle-class families: they are well developed physically, properly nourished, decently dressed, have acquired clean habits and decent table manners, and can adapt themselves to rules and regulations. So far as character development is concerned, they often prove—to everyone’s despair and despite many efforts—not far above the standard of destitute or neglected children. This shows up especially after they have left the institutions.

It is because of these failures of development that in recent years thoughtful educationists have more and more turned against the whole idea of residential nurseries as such. And have devised methods of boarding out orphaned or destitute children with foster families, (etc.). But since all efforts of this kind will probably not be able to do away altogether with the need for residential homes for infants, it remains a question of interest how far failures of the kind described are inherent in the nature of such institutions as distinct from family life, and how far they could be obviated if the former were ready and able to change their methods.

Careful comparison of our own residential children with children of the same ages who live with their own families has taught us some interesting facts. Advantages and disadvantages vary to an astonishing degree according to the periods of development. . . .

In our former chapters we tried to establish one main fact: that small infants in a residential nursery, though they develop community reactions and enjoy the companionship of children of their own age, search further for objects towards whom they can direct all their emotional interests which they would normally direct toward their parents. We have described how the grown-ups of the nursery are turned into parent-substitutes. It is our next task to discuss how far these emotional relationships satisfy the natural desires of the child and how far they are destined to fail in this respect. . . .


1. Visitors to all residential war nurseries, ours not excepted, will notice that single children often run up to them and, in spite of their being complete strangers, show off their shoes, their dresses or other articles of clothing. This behavior is only shown by children who are emotionally starved and unattached.

2. Paul, two, came to us as a completely homeless and unattached child. At first he would claim everybody’s attention with his only word “hello” and an empty smile with which he greeted friends and strangers alike. At the age of three, he would still show off to everybody minute objects (buttons, little sticks, tiny pieces of material) which he picked up wherever he went. He was not really interested in these objects, they only served to draw attention to himself.

3. Bob, another homeless child, who had never lived with his own mother, went through a period of exhibitionism at the age of three. He displayed his genitals indiscriminately in front of everybody. . . .

Early instinctive wishes have to be taken seriously, not because their fulfillment or refusal causes momentary happiness or unhappiness; but because they are the moving powers which urge the child’s development from primitive self-interest and self-indulgence toward an attachment and consequently adaptation to the grown-up world. . . .

To sum up once more:
The infant who shares his bodily pleasures with its mother learns in this way to love an object in the outer world and not merely himself. . . .

The normal and healthy growth of the human personality depends on the circumstances of the child’s first attachments and on the fate of the instinctual forces (sex, aggression, and their derivatives), which find expression in these early and all-important relationships. . . .

Since we are used to seeing these developments happen under the influence of the Oedipal complex, i.e. the relationship to the parental figures, it is of great interest to us to investigate what happens when the whole family constellation is completely absent; how the child reacts to the lack of emotional response; how it substitutes for it by phantasy activity; and how the inner forces which control, transform or repress the instincts, will contrive to work under these circumstances.

Residential Nurseries offer excellent opportunities for detailed and unbroken observation of child-development. If these opportunities were made use of widely, much valuable material about the emotional and educational response at these early ages might be collected and applied to the upbringing of other children who are lucky enough to live under more normal circumstances.


Source: Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham, Infants Without Families: The Case For and Against Residential Nurseries (New York: International University Press, 1944), 11-12, 65, 81, 99-100, 128.

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
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