Many years ago, while my sister was recovering
from surgery, I moved in with her family for a couple of weeks so I could
look after her young children. One day, after dropping off the two boys at
their preschool, I took the 18-month-old girl for a ride around town.
Once we finished errands we drove over to the local library where they had a
"Moms and Tots Drop-In Center." I placed little Anna on the floor and
watched as she quickly became engrossed in the many toys they had available.
I then sat down in a comfortable chair and began perusing the parenting
books and magazines displayed on a nearby table.
A few minutes later, the woman supervising the program, whose picture could
have been placed next to the definition of "grandmother" in the dictionary,
walked over to Anna, yanked the pacifier out of her mouth, and said, "You
tell your Daddy that you don't need this anymore!" She turned to me, shoved
the pacifier into my hand, and gave me a look that was filled with as much
disgust and disdain as her soft, round face could muster.
I resisted the urge to tell her that if she ever again laid a hand on the
child without permission, she would be pulling back a bloody stump. Instead,
I calmly placed the pacifier back in Anna's mouth and explained, "She might
not need it any more, but her mother does."
This story illustrates the two key concerns parents have about their child's
use of a pacifier, security blanket, or other such item. At what age does
the child's attachment to the object become inappropriate? And why does the
child become attached to the object in the first place?
Let's start with the second question. The answer is simple. Pacifiers,
security blankets, and other such items are stress reducers. It feels good
to suck on the rubber nipple, to rub the soft material across one's cheek,
etc., and that good feeling has a wonderfully calming effect. Of course,
that spawns a side question. Why does a young child need a stress reducer?
The fact of the matter is that we all need stress reducers in our lives. We
tend to think of stress in terms of major problems, such as being under a
tight deadline at work, going through a messy divorce, being diagnosed with
a serious illness, etc. But life is filled with all sorts of small
stress-inducing events and requirements that add up over the course of the
Consequently, we all find ways to soothe ourselves. We may find a quiet
place to meditate, go for a workout at the gym, imbibe a martini, sneak
outside for a cigarette, or pay a visit to our therapist. And at the end of
the day, when we need to relax so we can fall asleep, we may watch an
entertaining television show, read an interesting book, or spend quality
time with our significant other.
Although we tend to envy young children for their "worry-free" lives, that
envy may be misplaced. When you are small, the world can be rather
intimidating. And when your physical and mental abilities are not fully
developed, it is hard to deal with all the easy-for-adults challenges that
you are faced with on a daily basis. As a result, while young children don't
have to worry about appeasing the boss or paying the mortgage, they do
suffer their fair share of stress.
However, their options for reducing stress are not particularly numerous.
Since the aforementioned outlets are not available to them, they are
relegated to sucking on a pacifier, rubbing a blanket across their cheeks,
hugging a stuffed animal, or perhaps engaging in masturbation.
Which brings us to the issue of appropriateness. Not all outlets are
considered appropriate, and some can even be unhealthy in the long run. For
example, there is no doubt that alcohol and tobacco do the stress-reducing
trick, but they also can cause a lot of collateral damage. And public sexual
activity, whether masturbatory or participatory, tends to be frowned upon.
While pediatric dentists may have concerns about excessive thumb or pacifier
sucking, most of the outlets chosen by young children tend to be reasonably
harmless. But are they appropriate? I think most parents and bystanders are
alarmed and/or embarrassed by a little one rubbing private parts in public.
However, when it comes to pacifiers and security blankets, I don't think
there are any universal standards, and the tolerance levels of individuals
can vary widely.
Most mothers and fathers tend to be pretty tolerant, particularly if they
are busy and stressed themselves. It is much easier to put up with the
pacifier or security blanket than to deal with a stressed-out kid. Usually,
parents become inclined to do something only when the disgusted gazes and
disdainful comments of relatives, friends, and perfect strangers become
impossible to avoid and start to make them doubt their performance as
Regrettably, this often results in quick and drastic action involving
criticism of the child and/or forced removal of the pacifier or security
blanket. The child's attachment to the item then becomes a major "issue" and
the source of continuous power struggles. This is not simply unpleasant, it
is also unproductive as it generates considerably more stress for everyone.
Therefore, while it may be difficult to put up with the withering stares and
searing statements, it is wise for parents to relax and be patient. Of
course, they should consider taking steps to help reduce their child's
stress levels themselves. Instead of working overtime to ensure that college
tuition money will be in the bank, perhaps a little more time with their
little one at this time might be a better investment. And instead of
spending hours on the Internet planning a future family vacation, perhaps
giving the little one a little more immediate attention might be more
But parents can not and should not expect that they will be able to
eliminate their child's stress entirely. What they can and should do is wait
for the child to reach developmental levels where other stress-reducing
alternatives become possible, and then encourage the child to pursue those.
Keep in mind that things as simple as acknowledging your feelings and
talking about them, getting some exercise by riding your bike around the
block, reading a fascinating story, or even creating a delightful daydream,
is largely beyond the capacity of a two or three-year-old.
Now once these outlets do become developmentally available, there is no
guarantee a child will take advantage of them. And some kids remain
steadfastly addicted to "infantile" activities throughout the preschool
years. Again, this may be difficult to endure, but being too forceful
typically does nothing more than make matters worse. So again, parents need
to be a bit more patient and wait for another round of developmental
Preschoolers are extremely egocentric. They are largely oblivious to and
unconcerned about the attitudes and opinions of their peers. As they emerge
from this period, things change, and they become aware of and sensitive to
what other kids are thinking and saying about them. Therefore, at this
point, attachment to their pacifier or security blanket may no longer be
quite so attractive as it now generates more stress than it reduces.
Consequently, they become considerably more inspired and inclined to seek
out and accept other more socially acceptable alternatives.
Listening to the tongue-clucking of your mother-in-law may be annoying at
best and possibly despair and self-doubt-inducing at worst. On the other
hand, noticing that there are no kids sucking pacifiers on the elementary
school bus and that security blankets are rarely seen at sleep overs or
summer camp should give you the courage and confidence to go easy on your
child and yourself and let your child's development solve the problem in
proper fashion and in due time.
Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D., is executive director of The Epicenter Inc.,
"The Education for Parenthood Information Center," a family advisory and
advocacy agency located in Lindenhurst, Illinois. His e-mail address is