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Primary Education News
News When it's time for children to leave the teddy bear at home
If Sir Robert Clark could take his faithful teddy bear with him to the front during the second world war, you'd think our children would be allowed to take their favourite toys and comforters to school. But if they're not allowed to, how do you part them from their treasures?
"The only constant, sitting there,
Patient and hairless, is a bear"
From Archibald by John Betjeman
Parachuted into enemy territory and held prisoner during the second world war, Sir Robert Clark, who died this year, was never truly alone in times of trouble. His obituary revealed that the bearlike, 6ft 4in merchant banker kept his teddy bear Falla tucked into his battledress. The former poet laureate Sir John Betjeman also treasured his teddy Archibald Ormsby-Gore and was said to have been holding it when he died.
If such compelling British men could get away with clinging on to childish comforts well into adult life, surely it is all right for me to allow my five-year-old son to take his cherished yellow lion (Li Li) to school? Last term the teachers were cool about comforters. "They're still so little," they chirped, as piggy, bunny and Li Li lined up to start reception. This term has seen change in the climate – the air has cooled, the furry friends have outstayed their welcome. "Perhaps Mummy can keep it on the car seat?" teacher cajoles at the start of each day.
I do understand her point. My son's moth-eaten lion has a peculiar soporific effect; he breathes him in and is instantly tranquillised. Every muscle relaxes, his eyelids flutter and shut and he is wonderfully pacified, but hardly ready to imbibe keywords and Jolly Phonics. I have tried to distract, grab and run but my little one slays me with his doleful eyes, entreating: "What if I get an ouchy in the playground?"
I would have preferred the teacher to have laid down the law from day one. A line in the sand is far better if drawn by someone else. My eldest son dropped his dummy like a stone when warned by our Italian dentist, in a sonorous baritone: "You don't give up your dummy, you look like this …" (pantomiming horrible buck teeth). The first day of big school would have been an ideal cutoff point for Li Li, but that ship has sailed.
My sister-in-law in New York urged us to cut away a little piece of Li Li each day, until our boy got the message. I file that under transatlantic barbarism. It is not, however, quite as horrifying as this revolting solution to the problem, known as Zombie Bear, from Etsy.com. The service is currently suspended, but the idea is that little Jimmy will be so distressed by seeing his teddy's exposed viscera that he will never want to touch a cuddly toy again.
Perhaps I should have laid down some ground rules from the start. I have plenty of friends who insist that "smelly dog" stays in the cot, or that "green piggy" is only for nap time. And so Li Li accompanies us everywhere. He has been trailed through mud, puddles and cow pats; dropped and recovered countless times; handed back to us by supermarket security guards and kindly old ladies; washed, very rarely. He is the most emasculated lion you could imagine, with a shrivelled mane and tuft-less tail.
I credit Li Li with having boosted my son's immune system – he rarely gets sick – thanks to all the micro-organisms he has ingested from Li Li's filthy coat. This is not just idle speculation; a study of germ-free mice, published in Science magazine last year found that exposure to microbes in early life may lower susceptibility to asthma and inflammatory bowel diseases later on. Jeff Leach, founder of the Human Food Project, suggests that the rise in autoimmune diseases in developed countries may be down to our prewashed salads and handwash culture. My husband jokes that Li Li is so clogged with organic matter, from all the sucking, that we could boil him up in a stock pot and live off the broth in the event of a nuclear winter. Perhaps we should bottle it as some sort of pro-phylactic elixir.
Comforter debates rage violently on parenting websites, with some mothers trading diabolical insults – accusations of cruelty abound. Taking a broad view, it seems that most are in favour of ditching dummies, whereas the teddies get to stay, on the grounds that while pacifiers damage teeth, teddies are harmless.
I am not sure when or how the bond between Li Li and my youngest son will be severed, if ever. I suppose it might be a turn-off for prospective girlfriends, although Archibald accompanied Betjeman to Oxford. It was Archie who inspired Evelyn Waugh's intimate pairing of Aloysius and Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited.
My brother ditched his threadbare rabbit at the age of seven when he went to cub camp. Bunny made it as far as the tent flap, but was unceremoniously jettisoned when it emerged that no other boys had brought their teds. I don't particularly remember dropping my own comforter – a muslin square that I called "Ninnor" – although I imagine that thumb-sucking gradually took over. I do, however, remember the feeling of overwhelming comfort, which is partially recaptured when I draw in a lungful of Li Li. I am cast immediately back to childhood, in sweet, Proustian transportation. Like DH Lawrence in Piano, I weep like a child for the past, in the flood of remembrance.
Why would any loving parent be in a hurry to rob their child of such potent relief? The callous, indifferent adult world might be much better faced in the company of a bear or two.
As Betjeman said, in Archibald:
"…if an analyst one day
Of school of Adler, Jung or Freud
Should take this aged bear away,
Then, oh my God, the dreadful void!"