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Gabel, S. (2001). Life and Death in the Nursery: A Soft Sell for Hard Lessons. J. Amer. Acad. Psychoanal., 29(2):265-280.

(2001). Journal of American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 29(2):265-280

Life and Death in the Nursery: A Soft Sell for Hard Lessons

Stewart Gabel, M.D.*


The birth of an infant provides parents with unique personal experiences that are unlike the wealth of other experiences they will have over the course of their lives. The rapidly developing affective bonds felt by parents during the first weeks and months of the infant's life rest on a reciprocity that is weighted heavily toward the parents' own projections, expectations, and experiences, given the limited emotional and behavioral repertoires of infants at this stage compared to the more differentiated responses of the older child.

For many adults, these early months and years are times of optimism for the child's future, onto which is projected hopes, fantasies, and positive expectations of what life will bring. These fantasies and optimistic possibilities often are shared by adults and caretakers in the society generally, whether or not the adults are of immediate relationship to the child. The “blank slate” that in many respects is represented by the newborn child or toddler, onto whom a future can he projected or imagined, but not usually seen or foretold directly, therefore provides an extremely rich palate for painting the adult's own hopes, expectations, anxieties, and fantasies.

These attitudes, feelings and emotions, while often exaggeratedly positive, also may be negative and foreboding, or ambivalent and cautious, as they express the adult's internal evaluation and expectations of what life has held for that adult and what life will hold for that child or for children generally.

Fairy tales, myths, and certain children's stories often provide a vehicle for adults to express, frequently in symbolic or metaphoric terms, their views, hopes, fears, and expectations in a manner that catches the interests of the relatively older child.

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