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Giving Up the Blankie — Good Parenting

Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Headshot2011Giving Up the Blankie — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

At what age should we take “blankie” away from our daughter? She’s a happy kindergartner who has done well in all areas of leaving babyhood behind except this one. As parents, is it up to us to encourage or force her to move on from using blankie as a security crutch?

Forward Looking Mom

Don’t miss last week’s column Is hot saucing Ok? — Good Parenting

Dear Forward Looking,

A security object or ritual is so-named because of the comfort it provides. It is something a young child turns to for relieving the discomfort of boredom, fatigue, or anxiety. I have known of a variety of soft objects that have served this purpose — stuffed animal, remnant of mom’s nightgown, cloth diaper or a piece of a receiving blanket. Rituals can also provide the comfort a young child needs to reduce her stress level — thumb sucking, hair twirling or belly-button digging, as the child prefers.

Unfortunately, there are self-soothing behaviors that make other people uncomfortable. I even heard of a pediatrician taking away a child’s pacifier for reasons incomprehensible to the child. Children shouldn’t be forced to give up a comfort habit to suit someone else. If your daughter is just using her blankie in the car and at home, it really isn’t anybody else’s business. Both nose-picking and masturbation, however, while common among preschoolers, need to be directed toward privacy. That’s just the way it is. Adults, by the way, have comfort objects and rituals as well, however, a lifetime of socialization experiences have taught us how to behave in ways that are socially acceptable.

Around the age of 4, a child’s brain develops the capacity to imagine what someone else might be thinking about her. This is when cooperative play emerges, wherein two to four children share ideas about how their play scene will be carried out. Cooperation is used to build a city out of blocks, or to act out a pretend tea party. It becomes important for a child to behave in ways that her playmates approve of in order for their collaboration to work. Usually this is the age by which diapers, bottles, pacifiers, crying when Mommy leaves, crawling into a parent’s lap and the comfort blankie fade into disuse. This is not to say that she doesn’t have moments of boredom, fatigue, or anxiety. It’s just that she gets better at managing her emotional needs and can act more maturely in front of her peers than she needs to when they’re not around. As we grow up, our social awareness widens such that we learn general standards of behavior that will allow us to effectively “play with” co-workers, in-laws, potential clients at a dinner party, strangers in the check-out line and many others. We behave appropriately in order to get our needs met. We learn to take our comforts when it’s socially safe.

Most of this learning happens naturally as children chide or ostracize peers who “act like a baby” when they play together. Your decision to assist with this process should be based on whether you think that a continuing relationship with blankie is harming your daughter. If you are trying to prevent her from being embarrassed or teased by her friends, you may be underestimating both her and her playmates’ social skills. Peers may be tough on you, but your true friends have your best interests at heart.

Is it possible that your daughter has more pressing sources of stress impacting her life than the desire to keep up with (real or imagined) peer standards? Change, high expectations, or the threat of danger can raise one’s anxiety level. For example, the upset of adding a sibling to the family often arouses stronger attachments to objects and behaviors of her own babyhood. School itself can be a major stress for today’s kindergartener. Her blankie could be inducing the calm she seeks after a day of stand-in-line, wait-your-turn, raise-your-hand and sound-out-the-word.

Life is full of trials. An internalized attachment to our protective caregivers can carry us through. This shield of security is tangibly represented in beloved objects, treasured photos or the reassuring values in oft-repeated family stories.

There are practical reasons for maintaining a child’s comfort objects and rituals, perhaps modifying them if necessary. For example, your daughter’s blankie, or a pocket-sized piece of it, could come in handy for that first overnight stay away from the family or an out of the ordinary medical visit. You could also “transfer power” from a babyish behavior or object to one more suitable for her stage of life. She might appreciate a heart-shaped charm bracelet to carry as a symbol of the everlasting connection between you. Or you might help her to memorize an uplifting poem or prayer to “carry in her heart.” A special object or parent-to-child message often accompanies a child to sleep-away camp or to college or further into her grown-up life. In essence, the amulet or mantra reminds her of the parental love that surrounded her when life’s journey first began.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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