To be filed under: Psychology
As I mentioned in the Six Random Things About Me post, I have been providing voices to my son's stuffed animals for years. Here's small taste featuring Ninja Servo, Pengy, Old Dumpy, Space Jammenstein III, and Bunny:
Each one has their own unique character, personality, histories, and even flaws. I've actually come to love them over the years because they've become part of the family, as much as any dog, cat or "real" pet. I imagine that to Jim Henson, Kermit and the other muppets weren't just fabric and stuffing, but were part of the fabric of his life. I'm sure he cared for them more than just inanimate things*.
Years ago I was told that stuffed animals are "transitional self objects" for children. There's been some significant** psychological work about this idea. The ups and downs, fears and frustrations are projected onto imaginary friends as the child moves from one developmental stage in life to the next.
Some critical lessons have been learned from my son's collection of stuffed animals (together known as "the kids".)
When a new "kid" is added to the bed, there's always a great lesson about the importance of inclusion and acceptance of new people. This is how it typically goes, the new stuffed animal shows up and all of the other kids say things like, "Hey! Who's that new chump? What the heck is he doing here?" My son and I have to introduce the new stuffed animal to the rest, there typically follows a form of hazing and teasing (which we discourage but the kids do it anyway.) Eventually the new animal becomes part of the kids and is accepted.
The kids have also helped my son develop a sense of responsibility and learn how to wield power properly. You see, my son is the Chief. He's in charge of the kids. At times one of the kids tries to become chief, a form of coup detat. And when they win the seat of power, they immediately try to force the other kids to do push ups, or fetch them snacks. Inevitably, one of the stuffed animals in power become tyrannical and makes the other kids do stuff they don't want to, often with ever increasingly unreasonable demands. My son eventually resumes the position of Chief and restores "peace to the galaxy". Life with the kids is goofy but there are gems of moral lessons embedded within. I suspect that children often feel out of control because their lives are entirely at the mercy of others. Having a passel of transitional self objects to boss around must take some of the edge off.
Curiously, my son's "kids" have the ability to transmogrify, which is a form of teleportation. Each one of them is able to place themselves into other inanimate objects or people. When my son and I are backpacking, for example, Bunny sometimes transmogrifies into Kai's backpack and joins the conversation for a while. This is outstanding for me on long trips because we have the benefit of enjoying their fun without the physical weight added. Transitional self objects are quite light, you see. Excellent travel companions***.
A number of years ago, my son and I tried to explain to his stuffed animals that they are transitional self objects. Pengy didn't get it, he'd rather eat some pickled hearing. Bunny insisted that he wasn't any kind of object but a real bunny. The rest of the stuffed animals also piped up in term, rejecting the idea. We commonly have debates about who is real and who is not. Usually the "kids" win this argument by saying, "Well, if we're not real, then how is it possible that we're talking?" They have a point.
My son has two Dumpy's. Old Dumpy and New Dumpy. Old Dumpy is shown in the video--he's been hugged and loved so much that his stuffing is falling out and is tattered. New Dumpy was added to the family later, and so is in better shape. Last night, New Dumpy told me (from my son's mouth) that he was sad. It took some some prodding and questioning, but eventually New Dumpy said that it was because he missed the other kids that live in the other house. [I recently went through a divorce.] Me and my son agreed that it was a sad thing and tried to comfort Dumpy the best we could. An amazing conversation followed among the three of us. Opening up and sharing some of the hardships. My son suggested that the two Dumpys switch houses for a while and everybody thought that was a good idea.
As my son is going through a difficult transition, I'm thankful that Bunny, Pengy, the Dumpys, Nigel, Space Jam, Beuford and the other 25 stuffed animals are with him, if even split between two houses.
My son looking over my should and reading this just said, "Perhaps we are the transitional self objects and the kids are the 'real' ones."
Some profound "real" dynamic is a work in this imaginary world.
The Fine Print
* At least I sincerely hope so. Because otherwise I'm alone in my affection for some stuffed animals and am on some thin ice.
**Who am I kidding? I don't know if the work is significant or not. I just Googled "transitional self object" and copied the first URL I saw for a seemingly scholarly journal with a website that didn't offer to transfer $1.5M USD into my bank account from Nigeria.
*** Unless you have inhibitions about doing penguin or monkey voices in public.