Did you ever have a cuddly friend of some description when you were little? Do you remember its name? Or, even better, do you have it still?
I’d bet good money that you can answer yes to at least two of those questions, possibly three. In researching this blog, I’ve done a non-scientific study of friends, acquaintances and work colleagues and had a 99% recurring response saying yes to all three.
Some respondents admit that, while they still have the cuddly, it’s hidden away from plain sight in some corner of the attic. I find it interesting that they still know exactly where the once-beloved is, so the link has not gone entirely. Others proudly keep the cuddly toy(s) on display. There’s no embarrassment there. The soft toy remains part of the family.
I began thinking of this when reading about Prince Andrew’s collection of teddies and the fury he is reported to have shown to staff when they were not set up in the way he’d left them. There was a story told about a maid sent upstairs to draw his curtains (we’re talking Andrew as an adult here) and she inadvertently moved them out of position.
We have two issues here. One would concern – and perhaps be concerned by – an adult male having someone drawing his curtains for him. But let’s park that. We know the rich are different.
What particularly interests me in Andrew’s case is that he has such a collection of teddies, and treasures them still. Some people might suggest a large part of him remains a small child or, at least, attached to those he loved as a child.
In the world of psychology, the description of a cuddly animal is more austere. It goes by the phrase “transitional object”. It was first used by the much-admired paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott as a way of explaining how a baby begins the difficult transition from baby as extension of mother and baby as individual and separate person.
The baby, of course, has no idea of this. To begin with, it is of its mother, it has no stand-alone self. But, as it grows and develops, the separation begins and the baby starts to develop its own sense of separateness. We all do it – or, ideally, we are all programmed to do it – but, even so, it must be a very hard and frightening time.
Imagine the “perfect” set up where the mother caters for her baby’s every need. She is for ever on hand to feed, change, comfort and love. And then, as the baby begins to grasp that h/she is not an extension of that all-loving parent, there is increased reason for insecurity and uncertainty. The baby’s unconscious thought process must be fearing the worst and wondering what happens now?
And this is where the transitional (TO) object comes in. The baby is given something soft and reassuring to cuddle. An object that belongs just to him or her. It doesn’t have to be a cuddly creature, by the way, (although it usually is); it could be a piece of cloth or some other soft item intended purely for this baby. Gradually, the cuddly takes on a scent and feel that the baby will take comfort from, knowing the object is entirely its own. That means, when the baby is left without its primary carer – as it must be even if only for a short time – the TO is there to provide reassurance. And as the baby grows and matures into a toddler and then a small, speaking child, the TO continues to provide the comfort it always has.
Most nursery schools nowadays encourage new pupils to bring in their favourite cuddly and that’s a very positive sign when you consider it wasn’t always like this. Even 20 years ago, children going to nursery were encouraged to “leave teddy behind, he’ll be waiting for you when you get back”.
Again, I imagine it was meant for the best and the worry about a worse-case scenario of the child losing that treasured possession. Still, I’m glad rules have changed.
I believe the TO is a vital part of each transitional journey. The change from being a big cog in a small environment (home) to a small cog in an ever-changing environment (nursery) needs to be handled with care. The TO is a loving reminder of the attachment between the family and the child. Even though the parent is absent, the replacement TO helps keep the child feeling safe.
The conversation about a child feeling secure cannot be left without mention of John Bowlby, with whom Winnicott worked, and his theory on attachment which he split into categories – secure, anxious, avoidant, disorganised.
If all the ducks are in a row, the child should develop a secure attachment. If not, there may be trouble ahead.
I’m reminded of Brideshead Revisited and Aloysius, the bear belonging to Lord Sebastian Flyte, the central figure of the book. Although a young adult, Sebastian keeps his bear with him at all time, as a comfort against the troubles he has with his family. The bear’s lovable qualities remained with Sebastian as a substitute for the loving family he might have wanted.
I’m relieved to report not all tales end as sadly as that. I have recently been to visit a successful and contented lady recovering in a nursing home after a fall. She is in her 90s and has lived her life surrounded by love and external acclaim. She says she has been lucky and very happy.
I noticed, when I stood up to leave, that in pride of place on her pillow was a delightfully aged cuddly toy. I asked her about it. “Oh, that’s …” she said, naming him with a wide and joyful smile. “He’s been with me longer than I can remember. He comes with me everywhere.”
I found that strangely comforting. No awkwardness, no embarrassment, just pure acknowledgement of the importance of her beloved companion. My lady’s transitional object is her lifelong and permanent friend.