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Love Objects

The trip to the mall had been a resounding success. We'd managed to find the perfect eleventh-hour present for a baby shower, have a very pleasant lunch, and even buy two pairs of shoes to replace ones that were now too small. All this, and my 2-year-old daughter was still charming and cooperative! I felt pretty pleased with myself as I loaded packages, stroller, balloon (a giveaway with the shoes), and daughter into the car. But as I buckled Austen's seatbelt, panic set in: Oh, no! Where's Butterscotch?

I was terror-stricken. What if he was lost? We raced back to our last stop  -- the shoe store. Luckily, the stuffed bear was right where my trusting little girl had placed him: tucked under a display of fancy footwear, unnoticed and unscathed. "See, Mommy! Here's my best friend," said Austen, hugging the tiny ball of yellow fluff close to her.

The near-crisis ended happily, but the fact that Butterscotch is Austen's best friend is exactly why I was in such a state. Security, or attachment, objects  -- from stuffed animals to soft blankets, like the one Linus carries  -- are extremely important to the children who own them. And it's estimated that more than 60 percent of children in Western cultures have one.

Lynne Cusack writes for numerous national magazines about parenting issues

Comfort Me Elmo

"The major function of security objects is to soothe in times of stress," says Elyse Lehman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at George Mason University. They're also often referred to as transitional objects, because children use them as a bridge to the significant people in their lives when they're separated from them. It's no wonder some kids make a point of never being without theirs. While it used to be believed that a kid who seemed dependent on a stuffed animal or a bit of cloth was destined for adult wimpdom, today the view is quite different. Security objects are seen as playing an important role in a child's development, since they can help them learn the tricky business of self-comforting.

Just what magical comforting powers can a blanket or bunny hold? One theory is that children gravitate to cuddly choices because they seek an experience that feels like being close to their mother. "It's a matter of texture," says Patrick Friman, a clinical psychologist and director of clinical services and research at Father Flanigan's Boys' Home, in Boys Town, NE. "Children are often attracted to silky smooth textures that remind them of their mother's skin and hair."

I noticed early on that Austen would repeatedly trace the loop of the satin bow around Butterscotch's neck with her thumb and forefinger. Friman says this kind of behavior is common. "She's using a very sensitive part of her body to heighten the good feeling," he explains. "Another child may rub a blanket against his face over and over."

Bonnie Gessler, of Los Gatos, CA, says that's the case with her 3-year-old son: "Marc is pretty particular. He rubs the satin binding of his blanket against his face at naptime, bedtime, or when he's upset. In fact, if I mention I have a headache, he'll get 'Blankety' and rub the binding against my forehead."

Going It Alone

Are the estimated 40 percent of children who don't have a security object better adjusted because they can make do without one? Not necessarily. "Some kids use other self-soothing techniques, like rocking back and forth or thumb-sucking," says Lehman. Others may be less in need of a security object because they're in their mother's presence so much of the time.

Temperament also has a lot to do with the use of blankies and bunnies. "Mothers tell us that their children with security objects tend to feel emotions intensely, are persistent, and have relatively long attention spans," says Lehman. "They use words like 'cuddlers' and 'touchy-feely' to describe the children."

A child who doesn't have a security object may simply be less sensitive to upset. As Friman points out, "At as young as two months, there are dramatic differences in how babies recover from stress or pain. Some can't endure it for a second before howling; some barely wince."

Parents needn't worry that their own ability to comfort their child isn't enough. Only a parent will do when stress moves beyond the mild category. Lehman points out that in her research there's no support whatsoever for thinking that a child with a special object is not securely attached to his mother. Instead, children use both Mom or Dad and the security object in what Lehman calls an "attachment system." Either way  -- with or without a cozy comforter  -- kids tend to be equally successful as they grow up, says Lamia Barakat, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Drexel University.

The Chosen

It's no coincidence that if a child finds herself a security object, she'll usually do it toward the end of her first year. This is when she's beginning to walk, the time she begins to take her first steps toward independence.

"Children react to this stage with ambivalence," says Barakat. "They're happy when they're with their parents, but recognize that now there's the possibility of being separated from them, which is scary but exciting too. A favorite blanket or stuffed animal makes it possible to be comfortable with that in-between stage  -- moving away a bit, but not entirely on their own."

How does an object become the chosen one? "Kids choose from objects already in their environment," says Barakat. "It's usually a matter of what's available." Blankets rate high because they're right at a toddler's fingertips  -- in the crib. If you've placed lots of stuffed animals where your child can reach them, you may find that one gets grabbed more often and becomes the favorite.

For some kids, one is not enough. Barakat, for instance, says her 22-month-old daughter requires both a special blanket and a bear at naptime and bedtime. One without the other just won't do.

Where You Fit In

Parents often play a large part in the ongoing relationship between the security object and their child. Many parents reserve its use for naps and bedtime, or insist it never leave the house. If the boundaries are set early, most kids are quick to accept them. Interestingly, if Mom and Dad say Fluffy the Pig can't go to preschool, children often go along with that and then take a substitute off the classroom shelf if they really need it while they're at school.

Most parents wisely try to keep the security object in a certain place so their child can easily find it when upset. Says Lehman, "When asked what makes their inanimate friend special, children respond with answers like 'It's always there for me' and 'When I need it I can go and get it myself.' " This puts them in control of their own soothing.

Mom and Dad also influence the child-object relationship by their own interaction with the security object. "When parents acknowledge and include the security object, it makes the child feel good about the choice he's made," Friman says. "Inhibiting access, saying things like 'No, Bunny can't eat your food,' or not letting Bunny come to the table can undermine the positive effect."

In my case, I couldn't help but acknowledge Butterscotch's importance to Austen and include him in our lives. The power he has to comfort her and make her smile by his sheer presence makes me his second-biggest fan.

Losing It

My own fondness for Butterscotch helps explain why I was so upset at our close encounter with catastrophe at the mall. "Had you actually lost Butterscotch," Friman reassured me, "Austen would have recovered emotionally faster than you." My adult memories are more potent than hers, and, says Friman, "kids live in the present. Children's day-to-day experiences are more vivid; they have more going on to make up for the loss."

So what can you expect if your child loses her treasured possession? "It will be very upsetting for her for at least three to four days," says Friman. "Just be there for her. Respond to her questions and be honest. But don't feed the upset. It will diminish over time."

"Most children are very resilient," adds Lehman. "Many will find a similar object to use, taking care of the problem themselves. Others will use the opportunity to start managing without help. They'll say things like, 'I really don't need him anymore. I'm a big boy now.'"

Is it smart to have an identical security object on hand as replacement insurance? Probably not. "Eventually any stuffed animal or blankie takes on its own texture and smell because of how the child handles it," Friman says. "A pristine item is completely different. The child sees it's not the real thing."

Ellen Kaufman, of Hillsdale, NJ, knows this all too well. Her son Benjamin lost his cherished Raggedy Ann not long before his second birthday, while the family was visiting Las Vegas. "Ben didn't sleep for the next three nights. When we got home, I raced off and bought three of them. I handed Ben a new doll, feeling like a hero. He threw her to the floor and shouted, 'Not my Raggy!'"

Often, when a security object gets particularly tattered, a child will be satisfied with just a piece of it. Some kids wear down their blankets to smaller and smaller fragments, until all that's left is a tiny corner.

If you can't bear the thought of your child cozying up with a ragged remnant or decrepit clump of fur, you might try the double-up strategy, though this usually requires both luck and foresight. Barbara Fredrickson, of Frankfort, IL, says she was grateful that she had another identical blanket when her 15-month-old daughter first showed a preference for its twin. "From the beginning, I'd give her one while the other was in the wash. Because they've worn down at the same pace, Elizabeth doesn't seem to notice a difference."

Every once in a while Butterscotch gets hurled to the ground. How can Austen treat her beloved this way? "Throwing it down or giving it a time-out is a no-risk way to handle frustration or aggression," says Lehman. "The bear won't complain. He'll always be there for her." Similarly, some kids deliberately leave their security object at a friend's house, knowing they'll be able to get it back. They're practicing being without it.

Love 'Em and Leave 'Em

Kids do eventually give up their security object for good, but there's no one age when children let go. "Most children will give them up on their own when life starts to really fill up  -- usually around the start of elementary school," says Friman. Parents might be anxious for the relationship to end, knowing it's a cruel world out there and other kids could tease them. But don't force a breakup. Rather, Friman suggests, "work on localizing the behavior  -- keeping the security object in the house, eventually just in the privacy of the bedroom." When should you begin? Friman puts it this way: "At the age when, if your child knew all her friends were making fun of her, she wouldn't want the ridicule." But the fact is, lots of children decide for themselves when the timing's right.

The point when children are comfortable leaving their security object at home marks the development of maturation. They begin to have a circle of friends who can fill the need their plush companion once met. And like adults, they begin to rely more on their memories and reassuring thoughts to cope with the trials of daily life.

So the next time you rescue your daughter's irreplaceable lamb from an untimely demise or stitch a tattered ear back on your son's threadbare bear, be grateful the creature is a part of your child's life. Butterscotch has taught Austen problem-solving and relationship-building skills. And before its work is done, that little scrap of fabric and stuffing will accompany her to the dawn of independence.

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