Hal is now two and his teddy bear has become an important participant at bedtime reading sessions. His father, Roger Mills, explores.
Hal turned two just after Christmas, and with his birthday, almost as if cued by it, there has been a change. One of his numerous presents was a rather fine teddy bear, and ‘bear’ as he instantly became known, has become a much needed companion. The audience for Hal’s bedtime reading session has expanded as a result. He sits with me or Jo and bear, all three of us looking at whatever books we are reading that night. If for some reason bear has got left behind in the bathroom, or downstairs, the book can’t be started until bear has been found and settled down with us. Jo and I are already panicking about what would happen if bear really got lost, and we are contemplating getting a duplicate bear to be hidden away in a cupboard if just such a disaster should happen.
Everyone knows, of course, that small children form passionate relationships with soft toys. But as a new parent it has been fascinating to watch. Because one of the striking things about this phenomenon is that it doesn’t happen when children are really small. When Hal was born he was given large numbers of soft toys. For all of his two years he had had a cot full of bears and rabbits and puppies. But beyond their occasional usefulness as a soft missile, he has never seemed to care about any of them. It is only with the arrival of bear that a connection has been forged, and watching him with bear it is obvious that Hal has some pretty deep feelings about him. You see it in his upset when bear gets forgotten, but you see it too in the way that he hugs bear, clings to him, and, I would say, clearly expresses love for him.
The great pediatrician and psychoanalytic writer Donald Winnicott offers what for me is the most persuasive account of the soft toy phenomenon. Winnicott’s term for these adored toys – ‘transitional objects’ – is hopelessly dry and academic for something so intensely emotional, but his ideas about their purpose are no less convincing for it. In a small child’s development, so the theory goes, a stage is reached where they become acutely aware of mother as a separate person. The trouble with separate people is that you are all too aware that they can go away. One of the painful prices paid for a small child’s growing intelligence and understanding of the world, then, is that the world starts to feel less safe. The child starts to feel the potentiality of being alone more acutely.
This is where bear comes in. Winnicott says that the transitional object stands as a symbol of being connected with mother, the wonderful feeling that the child now realises could be lost. It isn’t so much that the bear is a symbol of mum, but that hugging bear evokes the feeling of being with mum that makes him so powerfully reassuring. This certainly seems to be right on the button in Hal’s case. At the same time as bear entered his life he had started to be noticeably more clingy with Jo. These days he sometimes insists that it is Jo that reads him his bedtime story; and I won’t do. And it is obvious that bear softens the edge of missing mum. On one occasion recently, when Jo was out shopping and I was in charge, I saw him clasp bear in his arms and actually say ‘Mamma’ to him. It seems that the audience for book at bedtime is going to be Hal plus bear for quite some time to come.
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.