The Meaning of Things – Good Parenting


Dear Dr. Debbie,

When my daughter was one and two, she would carry a tote bag or other container around the house and put objects into it as she played.

Later I might find interesting things placed in interesting places – such as a puzzle piece from the toy shelf in a pot in the kitchen. Now that she’s three, and more verbal about what she’s doing, she often insists on bringing what appear to be random things in the car with us when we go out. I can usually convince her to leave them in the car so they don’t get lost at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, or a friend’s house. So far nothing important has disappeared for long, although we recently discovered a whole walnut and a very dried up apple that must’ve been in the car a few weeks. But I’m wondering if there’s a deeper meaning to this behavior than what she says as she does it: “I just need it, Mommy.”


Dear Curious,

Very young children are very concrete thinkers. Their real experiences with real objects, including people, give them a foundation for understanding the world.

Simple Carrying
Walking on two feet is a major physical milestone for a child. Once walking becomes fairly steady, a child is able to walk and carry something at the same time. To her, this is amazing. To ancient humans it was game changing. Your daughter proved she could be efficient at this task by using a container so she could convey more than one object from one place to another. Further advancement in her conquest of transportation! Our human ancestors solved many challenges of survival by carrying objects in clay pots, straw baskets, and the “travois” (a cloth or fur covering a triangular frame of sticks). The simple answer as to why a toddler may transport a particular object to a particular place is probably “because she can.”

Long before your daughter can connect abstract ideas, such as how child development often mirrors human evolution, she is finding ways to relate physical objects to one another. She uses concrete objects in her study of physical attributes such as shape. She concludes from first-hand experience that round things go together: a walnut, an apple, a golf ball, and a globe all look about the same from any angle and they all can roll. Since she is a concrete thinker she naturally makes a physical collection of all the spheres she can find so she can quite literally see them in the same group. Other physical attributes to study include color, size, and texture. More complex thinking helps her to see how objects can fit a category of function (things we wear), ownership (Daddy’s stuff), or simply “things I like” and to use this as the defining theme for putting several objects in the same place at the same time. Next time you’re driving with her, enjoy some conversation about the connections among her assemblage of the things she needs to take with her.

A child’s ability to pretend usually begins before her second birthday. Often she imitates her beloved caregiver – to care for a baby doll, to use a telephone (which could be anything that can be held in one hand), or to cook. Perhaps she was pretending the puzzle piece was some kind of food that needed to go into a pot. She has probably seen you gather: ingredients for a stew, important papers, dirty dishes to load in the dishwasher, toys to put away, etc. When she gathers things before leaving the house, she may be imitating your behavior as you gather what may seem to her to be random objects. You may even have used the words, “I need . . . the library books . . . our pool membership card . . . your sweater for later . . . that coupon for yogurt . . . some snacks and water . . .” as you herd her toward the door.

A young child is demonstrating her ability to love when she insists on taking an object with her, the same as she sometimes finds it difficult to be separated from you. While she is young, and concrete in her thinking, her attachment relationships are supported with regular physical contact. Long separations are difficult; even a day-long separation from a beloved parent can be stressful. Besides her parents, a long-term “attachment object” could be a shabby stuffed animal or a tattered baby blanket. Such items are fairly common among toddlers and many preschoolers (and some older children) providing dependable comfort. It’s a calamity if no one knows where her beloved “Bunny Bunny” is at bedtime. She can also have a similarly passionate, although temporary, attachment to the walnut and apple she was just playing with. When your daughter insists on taking “random” items along with her on a car ride, your consent acknowledges and supports her feelings of (albeit momentary) attachment.

Over the years your daughter will hold on to her ability to sustain loving feelings, both short-term and long-term, toward a varied assortment of objects, ideas, actions, and people. Her loyal affections may pass through an array of enduring treasures – a seashell from a family vacation, an outgrown team jersey, a piece of jewelry bequeathed by a departed relative. Her attachment to you, of course, will endure, even as she gives her heart to a best friend, a romantic interest, and perhaps some day to a child of her own. For now, taking a couple of random objects for a ride in the car will keep her in good practice.

Dr. Debbie

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