Some children—and adults—become particularly attached to objects, and that's okay.
It's perfectly normal for young kids to develop a bond with inanimate objects— usually soft items like blankets and stuffed animals. Object attachment begins in the first year of life, but gets really strong in the second year, when security items help a child get through the challenges of stranger anxiety, separation anxiety, fear of the dark, and other scary experiences of toddlerdom. This attachment typically fades by school age, but may linger longer for some kids, especially when they're going through stressful times.
Then there's our youngest child, Sam. Even when he was in middle school, Sam felt true anguish each time we had to dispose of something significant in our house. This wasn't simply an issue of a security blanket, but a bond to every object in our house. The white living room sleeper sofa, for example, had become so stained over the years that we finally had to replace it. However, before setting it on the curb for large item trash pickup day, we had to negotiate with Sam for a special burrito dinner and explain that the sofa doesn't have feelings and won't be sad. And maybe someone would see the sofa on the curb and take it home for his or her own family. Even then, we moved the sofa when he was at school so he wouldn't have to witness our abandoning it. Imagine his distress when Babbitt, our pet rabbit became unmanageable and we had to give him away to a nearby farm. Really, Sam, we promise, Babbitt went to a farm where he has lots of friends and plenty of room to play.
Sam is now in his early 20s and a well-adjusted, productive adult, but he's still strongly attached to his possessions. He travels everywhere with his high school baseball mitt in his suitcase, both for good luck and in the event he stumbles on a game that needs a spare pitcher or shortstop. Why has his attachment phase of childhood lasted well past its normal expiration date? It's his sense of loyalty, and it's genetic—he gets it from me.
My 1994 Honda Accord needs to go. Objectively, I know that's true. It drove me to work for most of my professional life, despite rough Colorado winters and the potholes winter leaves behind for the summer. Now, however, it leaks a variety of different colored fluids on our garage floor, and the ignition key falls out while I'm driving (it just keeps driving without the key). We didn't replace its oil pan gasket because the cost exceeded the Blue Book value of the car, and didn't replace the trim on the side of the car when it fell off. Only the driver's seat has airbags, so I don't take passengers very often. That car has taken much better care of me than I have taken of it—but my car has been loyal to me, and if I could pack it in a suitcase and travel with it, like Sam's baseball mitt, I surely would.
As I confront separation from my Honda, I'm reminded of the advice I've given parents over the years who wanted to help their child separate from a security object: Do it gradually and gently. There's no urgency, and most kids begin to separate on their own once they get past those scary periods of their younger years. You can begin weaning your child from her beloved blankie by restricting it to the house and car only, and then just the house. Explain that keeping it at home will protect it from getting dirty or lost. Then tell her that she needs to keep it in her room, and finally, only on her bed—or the bookshelf where it may reside, unneeded but safe, for years. If there's a crisis, and your child needs to bring her special object with her somewhere, just let her—there's plenty of time to restart the separation process and still finish before she leaves for college.
Similarly, I have been gradually and gently weaning myself from my Honda by driving our other car when I do errands. In my logical brain, I don't believe inanimate objects have feelings—just like we told Sam about the sofa. Yet, in my emotional brain, I think my old Honda knows what's coming. When I do drive it now, it still starts with gusto, happy to be needed for yet another task, and I still give it a little love pat on the dashboard when we arrive home safely.
But I've decided that my wife will have to be the one to drive it away for its final journey. Hopefully to a farm where it will have lots of friends and plenty of room to play.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is the author of four books for parents and families, including No Regrets Parenting and 940 Saturdays. He is also a Parents advisor and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at noregretsparenting.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).