Whose toy is that, and are transitional objects okay?

Did you or your child have a favorite toy or comfort object?

Apparently my big brother had a favorite. It was a teddy bear he called Ruby. Here’s a picture of my brother holding Ruby, me squeezing a cat, and my sister with her cute smile between us.

Me, my sister, and my big brother (with Ruby)

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned Ruby the teddy bear was actually given to me when I was a baby and my brother claimed it as his own. Oh, the injustice!

My daughters had a few favorite objects. There was Miss Moo Cow for the oldest daughter, Buddy Bear for the youngest, and the baby quilts from my mom for all three girls. Our second daughter loved “Dolly.” No fancy name, just Dolly.

Dolly was a soft, pink, and thankfully washable cloth toy. At nap time or bedtime Dolly was clutched in our daughter’s little fist and pressed against her cheek while she sucked the two middle fingers of her right hand.

At nine months old, snuggling with Dolly

For over two years our daughter took Dolly almost everywhere she went. She held Dolly on her lap as she recited stories from her favorite books, pretended to feed her, and played games with her. She would ask Dolly what video she wanted to watch and then say “okay” to Dolly’s choice. She often told me that Dolly wanted juice or pretzels, which Dolly then shared with her. She would tell Dolly to be quiet if someone else was asleep. Sometimes in order to get our daughter to take a nap we’d tell her that Dolly was tired and needed to rest.

When our daughter was feeling sick, Dolly was close by — maybe perched on top of her head. She offered her Dolly to others if they were sick or sad, and (as gently as a one-year-old was able) sometimes placed Dolly on top of her crying infant sister.

Comfort when sick

After years of adventures Dolly became faded and a little gray and rather droopy. With each washing I wondered if the material would just disintegrate. The stuffing was already visible through the very thin fabric, and all that was left of the bonnet were a few fine shreds. Once in a local grocery store our daughter called out excitedly, “Look, Mommy! That man has a Dolly just like mine!” I glanced where she was pointing and saw a store employee with a dingy rag that flopped back and forth as he wiped a counter. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it wasn’t a doll.

Our daughter cherished her Dolly and said, “I love my Dolly for the whole life!”

But on a day trip when she was three years old, the unthinkable happened. We were driving home after a busy day, and where was Dolly? We searched the car, but no Dolly. Although our daughter was very tired, sleep didn’t come easily. She moved her right hand to her mouth preparing to suck on her middle fingers, but without Dolly those fingers lost their comfort value. She looked at her hand, lowered it to her side, and never sucked her fingers again.

I tried phoning the places we had been on our day trip, but no one had found a little cloth Dolly. I went to two stores that night looking for a replacement Dolly, but none could be found. It was a restless night, with our daughter waking several times and crying “I want my Dolly.”

Our 4-year-old daughter kept a clown toy on her bed that was about the same size as Dolly and was made of soft cloth. At nap time the next day she offered the clown as a comfort toy to her sister to take the place of Dolly and to “keep forever as long as it helps you.” The 3-year-old accepted her sister’s unselfish gift, tucked the soft clown against her cheek, and was able to fall asleep.

Substitute comfort toy, and no fingers in the mouth

Although the clown was a useful substitute, it never had the same place in our daughter’s heart as her beloved Dolly. When she was much older we gave our daughter a nostalgic gift of a new Dolly that was the same brand, color, and size as her old one. The new Dolly is tucked away in a closet, and I expect that someday our daughter will share her with someone else who needs comfort.

I learned that transitional objects are usually chosen when a child is between eight and twelve months old. They are not a sign of insecurity or weakness, but are part of the emotional support system of children and help make the transition from dependence to independence. Parents or caregivers should not try to prevent a child from forming attachments to objects. They are a healthy part of childhood and should be embraced and even encouraged.

A child’s use of a transitional object may help in the development of social skills and interpersonal relationships. Our daughter had lots of opportunities to practice empathy, attention to the needs of others, and commitment to a relationship through her attachment to Dolly. All of those character traits continue into her adulthood. She is a fiercely independent and compassionate woman with a huge capacity for love.

In rereading notes and looking at old photos this week, I realized that Dolly had actually been a baby gift to our oldest child, not to the daughter who loved her for years. Okay, I don’t feel bad now for my brother claiming Ruby. I’m glad my brother had a comfort toy, and the bear was well-loved.

In a world where everyone seems to be larger and louder than yourself, it is very comforting to have a small, quiet companion.

Peter Gray

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