Transitional objects and other companions of childhood

Seeing as: (1) everything written by Sherry Turkle regarding children and technological objects has a mention of D.W. Winnicott’s theory of “transitional objects,” and (2) that I thought it would be great to have a specific area in which to dive deeper in my Social and Emotional Development of Children doctoral seminar in the Psychology department this fall, I added Winnicott’s Playing and Reality (1971) to my summer reading list.

In the book, Winnicott describes the transitional object as the infant’s first ‘not-me’ possession – often a stuffed animal or soft blanket grasped while the child sucks on his or her finger(s).  Winnicott places emphasis not necessarily on the object used, but on the child’s use of the object.  This object represents experiences external to both the child and the mother (and, at least according to Freud’s theories on object play and bodily excitement, the child’s initial attachment to the mother’s breast).  Winnicott writes, “It is not the object, of course, that is transitional.  The object represents the infant’s transition from a state of being merged with the mother to a state of being the relation to the mother as something outside and separate” (p. 14).  Turkle employs Winnicott to explain the role of objects – technological in some way – that mediate the child’s negotiation of “self” and “other,” as well as the traces of memories that those objects leave in our lives as adults.

In terms of transitional objects’ significance for cognitive development as well, many children’s early attempts at verbal communication, across cultures, manifest as babbling a name for this object.  (For a really interesting recent cross-cultural take on the “companions of childhood” from German researchers see here.)

Object as ‘comforter’ vs. object as ‘soother’

This object may become vital to the young child during transitions or stressful/anxious moments (e.g. traveling, first day of preschool).  The transitional object is an unresolved paradox in a child’s life: it STANDS IN for something, but it also IS NOT that thing.  Winnicott draws a distinction between using an object as a ‘soother’ (against anxiety) and as a ‘comforter’ (against depression).  While the former defines a transitional object, the latter can be the basis of pathologies or addiction, posits Winnicott.

Kai-lan comforts Tolee over his Pandy taking a spin in the washing machine. Courtesy of Nick Jr.

A resilient relationship with the transitional object can be a precursor to resilience in relating to people.  While there’s the old adage of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” maybe there’s something to be said for “what doesn’t destroy your teddy bear makes your future relationships stronger”?  Without the practice of having loved an object to shreds, do people discard relationships with other people instead?  Some special qualities in the relationship between child and object that Winnicott identifies includes (p. 5):

– The infant’s power and agency over the object

– That the object is available to be loved, cuddled, and even mutilated

– The relationships hinges on the object never changing unless the infant is the one changing it (e.g. see an episode of Nick Jr.’s Ni Hao, Kai-lan I worked on, “Pandy’s Puddle,” in which the oft-anxious Tolee experiences separation anxiety when his stuffed panda – appropriately named Pandy – has to go into the washing machine after getting accidentally dropped in a muddy puddle.)

– The item has to make it through this instinctual loving, hating, and aggression process (and rinse/dry cycles, too)

– The object has a rich reality of its own (e.g., warmth, texture, movement)

Fisher Price "iCan" rattle/iphone case. What kind of "transition" does this object support or suppress?

Do these criteria hold true for digital and analog objects in the same ways?  What emotional affordances does a rattle have compared to an iPhone embedded in a rattle?

String, stress, and transitional object

Coincidentally, Winnicott also has a lot to say about string.  He details one example of a non-normal use of a transitional object – in this case, string – from a psychiatric client of his.  In Winnicott’s “drawing squiggles” game in clinical sessions with young clients who lack verbal mastery to express themselves, the boy identifies all lines as a “lasso,” “whip” or “string in a knot.”  At home, the boy strings together chairs and tables in the house and precariously ties them to the fireplace.  In one extreme, he also winds string around his younger sister’s neck. Winnicott explains the boy’s perversion of the use of string with his mother’s postpartum depression and subsequent absence from the home during treatment.  Winnicott postulates on the meaning of string for the boy:

String can be looked upon as an extension of all other techniques of communication.  String joins, just as it also helps in the wrapping up of objects and in the holding of unintegrated material.  In this respect, string has a symbolic meaning for everyone; an exaggeration of the use of string can easily belong to the beginning of a sense of insecurity or the idea of a lack of communication (p. 19).

Interesting to think of string as feeding pathology in one case, and as a form of therapy in another case (in my earlier post regarding the girl working through her parents’ divorce in a class on knot tying.)

Nostalgia and transitional objects

To a baby, the transitional object comes neither purely from within or purely from without.  It is a means for experiencing, of the child putting out “a sample of dream potential” (p. 51).  Over years though, the transitional object out of necessity becomes relegated to limbo/liminal state.  The possession loses meaning as the child has many more experiences, expanding his or her cultural field.

... and lots-o'-levels on which this is interesting

I discussed object presence and absence, and a child’s navigation of paradoxes of positive and negative space in an earlier post.  Winnicott links this memory of the object absence to the concept of nostalgia, or the “precarious hold that a person may have on the inner representation of a lost object” (p. 23).

I think one of the most brilliant and interesting uses of nostalgia of late was last year’s Toy Story 3 viral YouTube campaign of a fake vintage 80s commercial (which are very popular as a genre on YouTube) for a stuffed bear called Lots-o-Huggin’ Bear.  The toy did not exist in the 80s, though the style of the commercial – for both US and Japanese audiences – mirrors the era, including the shoddy VHS-digital video transfer style.  It creates the pang of nostalgia for an item that resembles, though does not replicate, an item the Toy Story 3 audience may have had a child.  What takes this lesson in transitional objects to another level of convergence culture is that the stuffed animal version of the TS3 character of “Lotso” was widely available for sale as a product bound with the movie’s release.  I think it is particularly meta when popular texts about transitional objects (e.g. Woody from Toy Story or Winnie the Pooh – no relation to Winnicott) produce commercially available transitional objects that then feature the transitional objects within the text.

Transitional objects, new technology, and parent/child interactions

To what extent can Winnicott’s theories of transitional objects and transitional phenomena be projected onto new objects that the child encounters after infancy?  Winnicott would probably be horrified to see caregivers distracted by their own digital devices, their faces mirroring the content on their Blackberries instead of the look on their child’s face (though, certainly being absorbed in an analog magazine or a book in say, the 1960s, could shape communication in a way similar to digital devices).  In thinking about primary caregiver attachment in the digital age, reactions about artificial or cyborg “mother replacements” tend to edge towards hysteric and panic (See this gem of a Slate article, entitled “iMama: My son is mistaking a smartphone for his mother”).

While Lacan focused on the infant’s relationships to mirrors, Winnicott was more interested in the mother’s face as a mirror of the child, or of the child’s face as a mirror of the mother.  How might the home video of the child or a YouTube video of another baby be a sort of mirror as well (something I discussed in my talk at DML this past March)?  This issue of visually “mirroring” and cognitive/social/emotional development is also fascinating in terms of better understanding the role of objects and technology in the lives of blind and visually impaired children, which Winnicott mentions (p. 111) and then never returns to.

One last note: how rooted in Western/imperial culture is Winnicott’s theory?  In cultures with different child rearing practices, ones that are more collective in their physical nurturing of infants, or in which there are no teddy bears or plastic pacifiers, does this same child-mother-illusion-transitional object relationship hold true?


Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and reality. London: Tavistock Publications.

5 responses to “Transitional objects and other companions of childhood

  1. Pingback: “Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.”* – Julia Upton

  2. I’ve been thinking a lot about transitional objects as a means to creating a new identity/entrance into a different reality.
    Cinema works similarly in the way we become the images we see on the screen, letting us temporarily become someone else or enter a new reality in the safety of the “mother”.

  3. Myth in the Barthes sense really.

  4. Great post Meryl! I’m also getting interested in nostalgia and digital objects as a form of “identity work.” Nostalgia can be beneficial to identity development, rather than basing it always on negative implications of nostalgia that scholars draw on, such as how the 1950s was a pretty terrible time in many ways and terrifying for many Americans (non-whites, LGBT, women), but we mythologize it as being safe and familiar. For the most part I am a Mead/Simmel kind of guy but the more I think about it, identity seems to need these internal cultural reservoirs to draw from for creative activities. Maybe the somethingawful 80s parodies and goofy, entirely sincere children’s shows inspired from that time like yo gabba gabba or homestar runner fit the bill? Interesting and unrelated: “homesickness” originally meant wistful feelings for one’s homeland… before homes became so central to our family life, and now it literally means being wistful for our home. Maybe you’ve inspired me to do a blog post on nostalgia tonight :)

    • Looking forward to reading whatever comes through your blog pipeline next, Andrew! The homesickness/identity work component is really interesting – when you throw “mythologize” in there, my mind goes right to Odysseus. Being “homesick” is sometimes about that physical structure, but also about the people and objects wherein, or the neighborhood without.

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