The right to bear

I was seven when Greenie was taken away. It was thrown into the fire. I wasn’t home to witness it.

Greenie was a slip of soft fabric, torn from a baby sleeping bag during an accident involving the wheels of a toy stroller and over-zealous tugging from my brother. It had some kind of 70s pattern in a forest green, and piping on the edges. I remember the incident with the toy stroller wheels — I must have been no more than three. Already I was carrying Greenie everywhere and its decreased size didn’t end that. Every night it came to my bed, scrunched up against my face, soothed me with familiar scent and softness.

By the time I went to school Greenie was relegated to the bedroom. I still slept each night with it in my bed, stroking the soft cotton between my fingers. Sometimes it went through the washing machine and I was far beyond crying beneath the clothes line but I kept a close eye to make sure that Greenie came back.

Then I went away, to visit my mother. Greenie was exiled from my suitcase: ‘you’re seven years old, a big girl now!’ It made sense, especially with the promise that it’d be there when I got back, and off I went to the airport and another state and my other family, without it.

I think I slept okay. I was allowed to leave the light on, there.

They thought I would forget. They thought that when I bounded up the steps to the house, and deposited all my cigarette-scented clothes to be washed as I did after every visit to my mother, the last thing I would be thinking of was a scrap of torn fabric, the left-overs from babyhood.

Actually it was the first thing. I looked, and then I asked, and then they stalled. It was only the next morning after a tearful bedtime that my stepmother finally snapped ‘I burned it’ and I knew it was true.

I’m certainly not angry about this story now and I don’t blame anyone. I’m not writing this out of anger, or for pity. Seven is old to have a comforter; or was, then. Seven is not old enough to have the right to control one’s environment; or was not, then, in that house. But it’s old enough to feel betrayed and to lose trust and I did, then.

It’s not ‘babyish’ to find ways to self-soothe and to cultivate feelings of security: it’s human, and it’s smart. It’s not wrong to form attachments and dependencies and when it’s people and things that do not harm us, it’s actually desirable to do so. There is no prize for growing up the fastest, especially when growing up means shedding, or hiding, human vulnerabilities.

Bean has a special teddy. Teddy goes to bed with her, and he also accompanies her through much of her day. She puts him in the toy stroller and takes him for walks. She plays doctor when he’s ‘sick’. She pretends he’s a baby and sings lullabies. Sometimes she pretends he is another child she knows and they play together. He’s soothing comforter and imaginary friend both. Teddy’s also an ice-breaker: I don’t think he holds her back from interacting with people but rather facilitates it. Strangers will often be introduced to Teddy first – if they show an interest in him, it deflects from her while she stands back and warms to them. Teddy holds her hand and leads her into conversations. And a lot of the time, he lies forgotten on the floor.

The child care centre Bean attends is a warm place. We are very happy there: it feels safe and she’s rarely eager to leave at the end of the day. But they want to take away Teddy. They want to dictate that Bean learn new ways to soothe herself, new ways to interact. They want to decide how she does these things, rather than allowing her own strategies to prevail. And it makes me angry not only because I want to protect her from feeling any of the things I felt when Greenie met its end but also because I think it’s disrespectful. It’s a needless assertion of adult privilege.

Bean is only two but she is a person. To protect the health and safety of her (and others around her), we “control” her through age-appropriate direction, teaching and boundary-setting. To encourage her to show courtesy and consideration (social acceptability) we do the same. It’s called parenting. But her Teddy is not dangerous. Her Teddy is not unacceptable, or offensive, or unhealthy, or unreasonable, or hurtful, or even particularly inconvenient. That adults commonly attempt to control even how much time a child spends holding a particular object is a clear example of how little importance we place on treating children as people.

Brideshead Revisted: Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) his teddy bear Aloysius and Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons)

I obviously suspect that Bean will come to rely far less on Teddy as she passes through toddler-hood, just as almost all other children begin to cast off their comfort objects as they develop other strategies of moving through the world. But were she to keep her Teddy close by her side even into adulthood? It would be seen as quaint, and perhaps frowned upon, but it would still not hurt anybody. As such, it’d be considered a personal choice that she had the right to make for herself. Why not respect the (safe, age-appropriate) choices she is making now? She’s only doing her job; she’s learning to be who she is.

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34 Comments

Filed under Motherhood and Parenting, Musings, Reflections and Rantings

34 responses to “The right to bear

  1. Just so. If she wants her teddy with her, then why ever not let her have it?

  2. I have a friend who still has the satin pillow that was her comfort as a kid. She doesn’t take it to work with her, but so what if it’s still in her room or bed?

    There may be an argument regarding social appropriateness of comforters in certain circumstances (like taking them to school, for example – but even then, if it stays in the bag, do we really care?), but a two year old with a teddy? How can that be a problem?

    I had an imaginary friend when I was a kid, and I was a little upset when he went to America and never came back. But I’ve kept my memories of him. I don’t see why Teddy shouldn’t be granted the same leave to go or stay, as he thinks is warranted by his relationship with Bean.

  3. Bri

    I had a little red bear called (originally) Red Bear. I took that thing to bed with me until I was well into my teens. It didn’t do me or anyone else any harm. How are you going to deal with the daycare centre about this?

    • I spoke to one of the carers this morning – she told me that she’s been asked to encourage Bean to keep Teddy in her locker except for nap times. I asked her not to do that, and she’s okay with it. But the other carer in Bean’s room is more senior and I think this is coming from her and the centre director, so I’ll be talking to her today or making an appointment and if that doesn’t go well I’ll write to the centre director. Sigh. I’ve not had to do anything like this before… all part of the parenthood gig I suppose.

  4. I’m so sorry about what happened to you with Greenie. That is a very sad story. The adults in your life thought they were doing the right thing. They probably weren’t, but they were trying their best with the understandings they had. Obviously you’ve forgiven them, and that’s to your credit. The story brought tears to my eyes.

    I’m sorry the people you are trusting your child to do not trust you and Bean to know what’s best for her. I hope they relent and support Bean and her friend.

    I have many personal anecdotes involving children and “comfort” objects or behaviors that were accepted tenderly by the grownups in their life and how beautifully and naturally the children grew out of these (in every case; I’m sure there are exceptions but they are rare). I have many other stories about how adults interfered in dictatorial ways and children remember feelings of shame, fear, anger, bewilderment, etc. I read somewhere, “A child can grow out of a need only when it is met.” I have found this works so well with my children. I wish I’d have known this when I was younger and I bought way more into control and “modeling” my children.

    Good luck, and thank you for this post.

  5. lilacsigil

    It’s horrible, the way that education is so often directed towards conformity rather than learning. I was a weird and self-contained kid, and I’m perpetually glad that my parents supported that rather than forcing me to “grow up” at any particular moment.

  6. “There is no prize for growing up the fastest, especially when growing up means shedding, or hiding, human vulnerabilities”

    Gosh that is so true, yet independence from such an early age is seen as success. “Good” babies and toddlers are those who are most self-reliant…and I think it’s sad.

  7. Jan

    Great piece and I agree with you 100%. Your Bean is 2 years old for goodness sake, can we not let our children be children anymore. Hope you are able to make them understand.

  8. Graham

    At some point in her life, perhaps lamentably, she will feel a need to “fit in” with her peers. Individuals will let go of comfort objects, and form attachments to new sources of comfort and infatuation at their own rate, based on their own decision, influenced by their peers of what is appropriate and what is not.

  9. sannanina

    Reading this reminded me of two things. First, I worked in a home for mentally retarded women a few years back where we had stuffed animals for “decoration purposes”. I was told by my supervisor (who was also the group manager) that some of the women would like to carry those stuffed animals around with them – however, since our women were adults she did not deem that appropriate and did not allow it. I thought that this was completely ridiculous. Our women were hardly ever treated like adults, yet they were expected to behave adults, and more specifically, to behave according to a definition of “adult” that was imposed on them. These women had very little control over their lives in the first place: They got up when they were told to get up, they ate what they were told eat, they wore the clothes they were told to wear, and they went to bed when they were told to go to bed. Granted, their disabilities made them incapable or only capable to a restricted degree of making those decisions. But why did we have to take away their choices in areas where giving them a choice could not possibly do any real harm and on the other hand could do a lot of good by respecting their personhood?

    Also, when I was in college and in the middle of a bad depressive episode the student counselor there gave me a stuffed elephant to keep me company when I was alone and felt especially bad. I still have the elephant, and for a long time I also took that elephant to bed with me. I am single, and when I am not feeling well the lonely evenings including bedtime are a really hard time for me. The elephant was a reminder that there were people that cared, and it also became a familiar and comforting object in itself. If a stuffed animal can help me to manage my anxiety and depression and go to sleep, why the hell should I not use it for that purpose? (Fortunately, my family didn’t even blink whenever I showed up for a visit together with my elephant – in fact, my mum and my sister generally greeted him by saying something along the lines of “Oh, there you are, I haven’t seen you in a while!”).

  10. You’re awesome. And you’re right.

    Incidentally, I still sleep with the bear I’ve had since I was about three. It feels comfortable to me and helps me get into going-to-sleep mode; during the day, he lives on my bedside table. I didn’t sleep with him during much of my dating years because I was trying so very hard to be acceptably grown-up and womanly and therefore sexy. (You know, right along with pretending I only have sexy underwear and hiding tampons waaaay in the back of the bathroom cabinet and all that rot.) But Rainbow Bear got to come back to bed for keeps when I finally met a partner who thinks I’m amazing as-is; that’s the one I decided to parent with (thank heavens–and not just because he has an enlightened attitude toward bear companions).

  11. That is so sad about Greenie. I just love how adults hypocritically snatch things away from children because they’re “too old” for them, yet they themselves indulge in many comforts that are expensive or detrimental to health. I like to eat chocolate when I’ve had a bad day. It’s probably not the best thing for me, but at least I’m not smoking or drinking alcohol. I wonder how the person in charge of this daycare comforts herself on a hard day.

  12. WhenI was 3 or 4 I had a doll that was the same size as me. It was my most prized possession. (I named her Emily). But after awhile she got too dirty and her hair too messy and my mom threw her away in the outside garbage, with me crying and pleading. Yes, I think adults think they are doing the right thing, but I feel that taught me that my feelings didn’t matter to her. That’s how I experienced it, anyway. (Though I should report she never did that to another doll, despite how dirty they got).

    As far as the situation at the child care center, this type of thing seems like trying to deal with behavior rather than meeting needs. If adults focused on making her feel safe, secure, and confident, probably her need for the bear would naturally decrease. (Not saying that she has a bad environment that isn’t meeting her needs, but she’s still pretty young. I’m thinking with the right environment, her need for the bear will lessen as she gets older). Hope this makes sense and that I didn’t put my foot in my mouth too much. :P You sound like a great mother! Really!

  13. My 7 year old has a soft toy lamb that she still clings to. Mostly she just wants it in her bed at night but when she is feeling worried about something the lamb goes everywhere with her and that includes school. Her teachers understand that it is an anxiety thing and helps her keep calm so they don’t mind. She is encouraged to put Lambie on the teachers desk where she can still see it but not play with it but they don’t force her. I like that.

    There has been lots of clinging to Lambie recently because her best friend is moving interstate. No-one has denied her, right now she needs that comfort.

    I hope your daughters childcare centre can be as reasonable and understanding, especially as she is still so very young.

  14. I was in the hospital for a burst appendix when I was about 20. My godmother gave me a teddy bear then; I slept with it regularly until my daughter was born 27 months ago. It then felt really weird to have a baby and a bear in bed with me… but the bear still rests beside my bed, despite my daughter’s occasional attempts to play with it.

    If your 2yo needs her friend, then she needs her friend!

  15. Riddlemethis

    I still have the bear given me on the day of my birth. I’m 40. He lives is my wardrobe and is threadbare, eyeless, held together with the 10 ‘suits’ my mother sewed onto him in desperate acts of preservation, fashioned from scraps of fabric, over the years into my teens when he still shared my bed.

    My children, 8 & 5, both have lovies (a rabbit & Teddy) respectively. They sleep together every night and travel to & frm school/kinder every day. Sometimes they go to school or kinder, or on other outings, as mood and health dictate. The children’s relationship and reliance on these objects evolves over time, but the lessons they’ve helped them to learn are clear and important. Most importantly that they need never be alone!

    It is outrageous that the childcare centre would expect Bean to give up her bear. It is demonstrably a conduit for her to practice and participate in healthy socialisation. She and bear sound like a wonderful, healthy, dynamic duo!

  16. Aww. The bit about Greenie was so sad. My daughter is twelve (thirteen in December) and she still has her lovey- a pink bear named “Pinky” she has had since the day she was born. She still sleeps with him, and has gone through stages where she needs him, and stages where she leaves him forgotten under her bed.

    I am content to let her have her bear. If she needs him then she SHOULD have him with her.

    I have a cousin who has a special blanket (also green) she even took to college with her. I think she still keeps it on a chair in her room. She is a 28 year old woman with a very successful and happy life. Her lovey didn’t mess her up at all.

  17. Emerson

    Right on! I’m 66 and still have my bunny!

  18. I absolutely think a child should be able to hold onto their bear or doll or whatever they need to for comfort until they are ready to move on. My brother was very attached to his bear and has so many photos of him and “Fluffy” who went everywhere with him. He still has him and the fond memories that accompany him. It’s not like these loveys are a burden. It’s barely even comparable to being attached to a parent who can’t always be there. I ran a daycare for 5 years and told families that special stuffies were welcome if they helped with transition. And for many kids, if they hadn’t had them they would not have had as much fun or trusted me. Daycare providers want to be the ones the child attaches to but stuffies don’t replace human beings, they compliment us, and when we allow for these things the children trust and love us more.

  19. Sam

    My 11 year old son still has a bear called “Little One” Little one still shares the bed with him most nights. I was quite surprised recently when my son went on school camp, I asked him if he was taking little one with him. He said No to begin with, but when I double checked his bag on the morning of camp I found little one tucked away down the bottom.

    On return from camp, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that all the other boys in his cabin had their teddies/comforters with them. If it makes him happy, then I am a happy mum

  20. ClaireEmily

    Such a sad story about Greenie. Have you ever read The Velveteen Rabbit? I loved that as a child, it is about a beloved toy rabbit who gets thrown out and it is a beautiful story.

    My daughter (3) takes her monkey everywhere and childcare are very supportive of this. All the other children and parents know monkey, he is part of the team. I would talk to the main carer as I think they are being stupid and not taking your daughter’s best interest to heart. I think your analysis was spot on.

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  22. Jennifer Hurrell

    Just a suggestion – we found that Sarah loved Piglet, and had similar suggestions from childcare – but part of their concern, we found out, was that other children were taking Piglet and they were worried about germs.
    Anyway, we negotiated that Piglet come in in the morning and greet everyone, and then sit in a lovely sling on Sarah’s hook in the room, and only come out to cuddle at nap time. Eventually, it was a progressive process, but she eventually was very happy with the arrangement, and childcare backed off.
    Now, Piglet is still there every night – actually they both are as Sarah found her replacement Piglet (I like the ideas of snuggly toys so much, I bought a back up for both kids once they chose their snuggy) and now lugs two around – age 5. Nicholas sleeps with his 2 Pooh Bears at the age of 8 – but then I took Raggedy Anne with me to Uni!!!
    Good luck with it all, it is something which we as parents have to be insistent about sometimes.

  23. I had doubts when I was still reading my 12yo a bedtime story. It wasn’t my mind having doubts but my upbringing-instinct, the ‘should’ that earlier generations shouts in your head while you act on the ‘must’ in your heart. (Oops, a bit more poetic than I intended!) Anyway, given that he was a fairly anti-book boy, it gave him more literature than he would otherwise have experienced, and tbh I probably would never have got to the end of Lord of the Rings otherwise, nor appreciated its beautiful language. I wonder how far into his teens we’d have gone on with the reading aloud if I hadn’t become too ill to do it for a long time.

    Btw, I still have not only my ‘main’ babyhood bear, retired to a sleeping bag for reason of threadbearness, but also several other furry companions – made by my gran, which is my excuse(!) – and the only problem I can think of with such comforting things would be for an isolated child who used them to hide behind, metaphorically or literally. As far as I know most don’t. I feel giving them up should work just like baby-led weaning. Telling a child they ought not to want their cuddly person is like telling an adult they ought to be confident without any nerves on a first day at work.

  24. Great post. So many interesting aspects here!

    A related one is that of dummies / pacifiers. At some point, I figured we would have to wean our little one off her dummy. I guess I never questioned why (although I am aware of the crooked teeth development issue as she gets older, but that’s a little way off).

    My main conclusion from this is to consider what the motivation is behind an action. Does it actually help the child? Does it even help me? Or is it what is “expected”?

    Lying to a child about returning their cherished object and then burning (!) it instead is an extreme act from an adult with some issues. Could they have felt threatened by it somehow?

    • The burning sounds worse than it was – when you have a woodfire going all winter, and no garbage collection service, it’s a handy way to dispose of small non-plasticky things. No ritual sacrifices necessary!

      The dummy issue is definitely similar. Parents all seem to handle that differently but I’ve never known a kid to NOT outgrow a dummy so they all seem to be gotten rid of one way or another! And yeah, sometimes it’s more about the parents. I think that’s ok – I don’t pretend everything in life can be child-centred, or should be. But from a kid POV I’m sure growing up at one’s own pace is the gold standard. But maybe losing one source of comfort, where others are available, doesn’t have to be a great drama.

  25. I had a little cotton pillow with a frilly pillowcase on it. AKA “Little Pilly”. I toted that thing everywhere until it literally disintergrated.

    It wasn’t so much about security as texture.

    I still have a texture fixation. I can’t leave anything alone that has a texture that appeals to me, and I am VERY picky with textures when it comes to bedding, clothing and food!

    It has never hurt me. I’m not damaged because I have always had to have textures that I find pleasing or appealing around me, particularly while sleeping.

    If you’re happy with Bean having her Teddy, then no-one else has the right to say otherwise.

  26. I know I am late to the party, but I really love this post. My mother threw away my favourite bear when I was 12. I never fully forgave her for that. She didn’t ask me. She just did it. And I was mad as a cut snake because if she had asked, I could have told her how much this bear meant to me. When you spoke about Greenie, I felt that hurt and betrayal too.

    My husband still has the stuffed dog his Dad brought home for a work trip when he was 5. Poochie lives in our cupboard and whenever the dreaded man flu appears, so too does Poochie. (And my husband should be the poster child for knuckle dragging, real-men-don’t-eat-quiche, neanderthal men. He’d be horrified and probably ask for a divorce if he knew I typed this out loud on the internets!)

    All three of my kids still have their special toys. I have mended them several times. Re-stuffed and laundered them so often it’s amazing they are still huggable! The kids range from 15-8yrs. And when we move, (which is often) those stuffed toys are never packed in boxes. They come with us. In the car. And every stop we do a toy check. They might forget a shoe, or a pair knickers, but they never leave their toy behind.

    It seems ludicrous to me to demand a child of any age give up their favourite snuggie. They are lasting connections to a time we felt safe. They symbolise warmth and love. They are not just stuffed animals, blankies, dummies or bits of cloth or plastic. They mean something. They mean something because they are loved by that child. We expect children to respect our belongings. Why should they, if we can’t respect theirs?

    (I only just found your blog and I am enjoying your views immensely. )

  27. C.E.

    The fact that you still remember your precious object, and still feel saddened thinking about it attests to the fact that while we may “outgrow” these comforters and eventually accept that they are gone, they leave a lasting impression on us.

    In a world of turmoil and sadness that someone, anyone would take away anything that is a comfort to someone is cruel. The very fact that we can as humans find acceptably safe ways to comfort ourselves is remarkable, and should be encouraged, not discouraged.

    Why do kids need to grow up so very fast? Is there not enough time of being a grown up anymore that we feel the need to have them enter it way before needed?

    I, myself, still to this day sleep with a teddy bear. I am fully aware it is not a real living being. It is a comfort item, something that reminds me of the safety of home. He travels with me everywhere, and I could not possibly care less if someone looks at me funny on the plane because he is sitting on my lap. That is their problem, having nothing to do with me.

    Given so many humans turn into miserable ill-adjusted adults… I say leave the poor kids alone and allow them to grow up on their own time schedule, because they will. Eventually the teddy bear carried everywhere all the time turns into a new best friend they met in school, and then talking on the phone with friends every night, and then dating… It all happens so fast, without help from well meaning adults.

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  29. Ewan

    Your original post brought tears to my eyes. I still have the panda I got when I was two: it now perches above the bed in my 34-year-old’s bedroom and, when all is really dark in my head, will be cuddled still. My partner’s pigs nestle alongside it, and I get jealous if one of our kids asks for it to be brought down.

    Don’t take the teddy away! If nothing else, if my son is anything to judge from, it will become a focus of play soon, and a real insight into the person bean wishes to be.

    Oddly, have just been talking to a friend who tells me his son is mandated by the French state pre-school system to have a teddy for comfort, even though he isn’t that interested in one yet…

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  32. I spent several months in a mental ward, not so long ago; it was truly boring and hellish. Two of the things that most helped me cope were my Knuckles the Echidna plushie and my little Squall Leonhart plastic doll. I bought baby clothes and tried to adjust them by means of very inexpert sewing to fit Knux, and I made a cardboard box into a bedroom for Squall. He had a felt carpet and a bed made out of a matchbox and a tiny photo frame with a picture of Rinoa. :)

    The other commenters on this post all seem to be telling similar stories to mine; not the same story exactly, but all stories conveying the same message. I wonder how many other stories are out there, just…unheard? I will gladly support the right to bear!

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