THE BLOG

Might a Parent Need the Security Blanket as Much as the Child?

06/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Molly Baker Molly Baker is a reporter and writes the blog Playgroup With Sylvia Plath.

It was spring vacation and it happened. One of every mothers worst travel nightmares. No, there was no lurker in the airport bathroom and we survived a week of skiing with all of our bones intact. Even all of our bags and skis made it home.

But we are short one small blue and yellow plaid cotton blanket belonging to my youngest child. Yes, it's his security blanket, his lovey, his transitional object, his wubby, his everything.

After spending 5 nights in a slopeside condominium, he was readying himself for bed at his grandparents' house in Denver. He was crouched in his flannel insect pajamas pulling out the contents of his backpack - a set of colored pencils, a "Beginning Cursive" workbook, wintergreen Lifesavers, iPod headphones, Madlibs vacation edition, neon green swim goggles, and bubblegum.

"Mom, where did you pack Blanket?"

Let's face it. If it was anyone or anything else, I would have immediately launched into my practiced monologue of, "if you want it, you pack it, you carry it." But this was a very young 8-year-old with freckles across the bridge of his nose looking for Blanket, without which he'd never spent a night in his life.

I froze. I had packed the bags and even checked under the beds while the family was on the mountain. But I did not come across his blanket. It must have been left between the sheets over 100 miles away.

"We'll find it. We'll call the hotel and they'll mail it to us at home. Don't worry."

But I am worried. It may not be found, and a replacement is impossible. The blanket was hand-woven by my mother-in-law while I was pregnant. This bears repeating. The blanket was hand-woven by my mother-in-law.

Blanket has traveled with us to 26 states, 11 countries and 3 continents. I say this not to make a pitch for Blanket as a guest star on Lifestyles of The Rich and Famous, but more as plea for leniency in the peer judgment department.

I have safeguarded the two foot square piece of cloth (did I mention that my mother-in-law wove it?) on planes, trains, automobiles, and a camel ride through the Sahara Desert. Yet leave it to one routine trip to my native Colorado to blow my record of perfection into perfect failure.

It is said that over 60% of children develop strong attachments to a blanket, a doll, a stuffed toy or some other object during their first months of infancy.

Credit for the term "security blanket" goes to Charles Schultz and his Peanuts comic strip character Linus van Pelt, whose ever-present blue blanket debuted in 1954.

However, the phenomena of children and their attachment objects was studied and named by British pediatrician and psychologist Donald Winnicott in the early 1950s. He asserted that a "transitional object" stands in as mother for a child fending off separation or anxiety - be it falling to sleep, when mother leaves the room, or going on a trip.

To compensate for this loss or fear, a child will imbue a soft object with the attributes of mother: comfort and safety. As the child "transitions" from an inner world of infancy to a better understanding of self and the external world, the blanket or other object is intimately bound up with the identity of the child.

In our house, this holds true for Thing One and Thing Three. Thing Two, on the other hand, came into this world with a healthy understanding of self, independence, and I'll call you when I need more money attitude.

I remember taking my oldest to his first movie when he was two years old. The film, The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, was reviewed as "perfect family entertainment... lots of nice music, jokes and warmth."

For those of you who may have missed the 1999 release of cinematic mediocrity, the entire plot is Elmo searching for his security blanket which has been sent to faraway Grouchland, a place full of villainous people and creatures.

Hello! That's like running a loop of child abduction films in the maternity ward.

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University, has studied children and their possessions, particularly their special comfort objects. One study gave children the option of putting their belongings into a "magic" copying machine that would make exact duplicates. They would then be allowed to take their original, or the presumably "brand new" copy.

When it came to just any toy, most children selected the duplicate. But when it came to replicating a special comfort object, some participants would not even let their "lovies" be put into the machines, and almost all of the children chose their originals.

Bloom surmises that children believe the favored object has "a hidden and invisible property - an 'essence' - that distinguishes it from everything else."

And this should surprise no one.

As the horse in the nursery explained to The Velveteen Rabbit, "Real isn't how you are made. It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become REAL."

And Blanket was real.

More than any other possession my boy has or will ever have, Blanket was, if the psych field is to be believed, his facsimile of me. And as his mother, I can tell you that Blanket was indeed the closest facsimile of him.

Every parent knows that hiccup of the heart when you hold the threadbare blanket, the shaggy stuffed dog, or the lumpy lop-eared bunny your child has dragged from crawling, to walking, to finally being tossed unceremoniously up the stairs as he heads out to a baseball game.

We may yell at our kids for leaving their shoes or jackets in piles on the floor a thousand times. But as more complicated toys, heavy backpacks and sports equipment are added to those piles, the loved doll, Puppy, bunny, Blanket or Dog-Dog takes on relic status.

In analyzing possessions and what gives us pleasure, Professor Bloom explains, "Everything is either a social being or has been in contact with a social being, and so even the most mundane things have histories. This is their essence."

The first night back in his own room, I suggested to my youngest that he might want to take a stuffed animal to bed with him. As a plush toy connoisseur, he specializes in replicas of endangered species - or at least those "on watch:" bald eagle, tiger, snow leopard, emperor penguin, polar bear, manatee, the clouded leopard, and a giant anteater.

He pulled out the panda Tai Shan from last spring break's trip to Washington D.C. (a trip from which we did return with Blanket).

"I'll try this tonight," he said cheerily as he climbed into his fire engine red sheets. "And maybe tomorrow night I'll pick out a different one to sleep with."

Which is how I came to realize that I am now more desperate for him to get his blanket back than he is. I'm sure any pediatrician would tell me that my child has reached some healthy developmental milestone of self and independence.

But what the doctors have missed is that the "transitional object" goes both ways. Because of their 8-year history together, Blanket is indeed imbued with my son's essence. He has made it REAL. And I want it back.

So for now, I'm counting on Jalva Jiminez of housekeeping to return it to me.

She tells me they are behind 8,000 pounds of laundry. And a small piece of the essence of his childhood and my motherhood is in the laundry pile.

Don't I know it.

YOU MAY LIKE