INK Article: Fluffy Friends

“I remember when I first got him,” recounts D. Garret, an eighth-grader. “It was a trip to the zoo with my grandmother on the East Coast. Once I got him, he was glued to me until I got home, and pretty much until I was ten or so.” Garret is referring to a half-pound white stuffed rabbit: Mr. BunBun.

“I had been wanting a stuffed-animal,” he recounts, “every time I went to a zoo. I would run to the souvenir shop and look for one, but every time there was something off. None of them were right for me.” That was until he locked eyes with the bunny on the shelf.

Garret is like a lot of us: a child in a grown body who retains memories of an animal composed of synthetic fur and cotton-polyester stuffing. In fact, finding someone who didn’t spend childhood with a best friend who was dragged around by a limb and painfully ripped away for an occasional washing would be difficult.

“I have to say, I was scarily dedicated to my Duck, Duckie-Dog,” says C. Kerr, a junior. “I was never the kid who took him everywhere or had him glued to me,” he says. “He would sit on my bed most of the time, and that would be where I would play and talk to him. In fact,” he admits, “that’s where he was until recently.”

Allan Gonsher, a child play therapist, believes “children often express emotions and thoughts while playing with dolls that they might not be able to convey using words.”  These stuffed friends fill large shoes for their generally small size. Most children regard them as playmates, confidants, adventure buddies and, above all, their rock.

“I remember when I would get upset, I would go to my stuffies and cry with them,” says junior L. Kaplan. “I felt like they always understood my feelings and could comfort me.”

Kaplan’s feeling of comfort is a key reason children latch onto their “stuffies” in the first place, and one reason parents encourage the connection. The chemical reason, however, is Oxytocin. Also known as the cuddle hormone, Oxytocin is stimulated by human touch, creating a hormonal comfort.

The instant connection between children and their stuffed friends has not gone unnoticed. The Toy Industry Association alone represents 500 companies within the United States brainstorming and testing the next best-buddy to hit the shelves. In 2008 alone the U.S. toy industry exported $1.554 billion dollars worth of play-time products and imported $22,820 billion worth to the stores, $19.08 billion of which was consumed by shoppers. In her book, Plush Endeavors: An Analysis of the Modern American Soft-Toy Industry, Margaret Walsh states that, “In terms of demand, soft-toy, or ‘plush’ production, provides insights into impulse buying about a variety of income groups, and it suggests the volatile nature of American consumer interest in low-value, disposable commodities.” Although Walsh may be correct in seeing the toy industry in a less than fluffy light, the clear love of plushies is hard to ignore.

“I have had her since forever,” smiles L. Saldavia, a senior, gently lifting a cloud-soft plush baby named Pinky (that functions also as a dinner napkin-sized blanket), out of a paper bag carefully placed close to her locker. As a small girl, the blanket was, in Saldavia’s mind, the holy grail of security. Now, at eighteen, it may be one eighth her size, but it retains its meaning. “I love her,” she states, hugging the doll tight enough to demonstrate her affection, but gentle enough not to harm the delicate toy.

The range of stuffed toys is hard to encompass. The market has grown in an attempt to make that perfect toy. The largest money-makers however are media-culture favorites. Since the 1980’s, when a large surge for your favorite Care Bear or Smurf turned rampant, production has risen, and kids are not complaining.

Whether the stuffed toy is a Disney cartoon character, or home-made and acquired at a county fair, the psychological aspect remains the same. The social skills and relationship building that develop from such a simple toy are ones we carry throughout our lives. “The ways we communicate and bond with toys as a child help define the base for our future development,” notes Gonsher.

Although babies, bunnies, and ducks are the best of friends when we’re young, it is part of the maturation process to break away. Once the need for stuffed buddies has ended, moving on can be easy or painful.

“I guess it just happened naturally,” says Kerr. “I don’t remember when I didn’t need Duckie anymore; all I know is now he sits on my desk, and it has been a long time since I picked him up.” For many kids around the age of ten, human friends begin to take priority over plush ones, and usually it’s not long until the synthetic companions rest in the back of a closet, the corner of a room, or sometimes the bottom of a box destined for Goodwill.

But not everyone lets go. According to a study recorded by Travelodge, 25% of grown men who travel bring along a stuffed and plushy companion. For most, however, their travel pal was no longer a best friend. More often, it was a reminder of home or a loved one: something to provide comfort in a foreign place.

Hanging onto stuffed animals as you become an adult, however, no longer offers the same developmental benefits. In some cases, it can be a sign of unhealthy attachment and often a tendency to accumulate things and not let go.  Stuffed animals follow their owners to college dorms where, according to Dr. Christopher Peterson for Psychology Today, “About 80% of the females had brought some whereas fewer than 10% of the males had done so.” However, a recent National Express survey found that males missed the comfort of home more than females because females feel their stuffed animals remind them of home, and make college more cozy.

Although keeping masses of childhood friends on stand-by may not be the most healthy way to manage an aging relationship with them, some alternatives are considered healthy. Stuffed animals serve as gifts and reminders of love for many adults. Valentine’s Day teddy bears haul in millions of dollars each year, most of which is accumulated the day before the holiday. These gifts however, tend to not last a lifetime. Once the attachment to the animal has faded, there is often little reason to hold on to it.

Whether it is a childhood companion, a comfort of home or a display of affection, stuffed animals play a surprising role in our lives. They have been relied on for everything from support and comfort to communication and education. No matter how short or long a time these fluffy guys are in our life, they leave their foot- or paw- print in our development and in our memories.

The love and attachment placed in simple creature comforts has created a multi-billion dollar industry and a beyond-childhood culture. The bond someone has with that special fluffy friend is one rarely broken by anything but time.

Image credited to illuminasa

Article “Fluffy Friends: Our Childhood Companions Stay with Us Long After We’ve Grown” by Analise Pappastergiou published in INK Volume 8, Issue 6 on April 19, 2012.