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The meaning of objects of significance in residential programmes for young persons in South Africa

Lesiba Molepo


Many young persons live under difficult circumstances. Various factors, including the HIV/ AIDS pandemic, exacerbate the need to move them to alternative placements. The new and the unknown can be frightening and there are strategies that young people, and even adults, use to cope with transition. There are a variety of objects that young people take with them into residential programmes and some of these objects serve as transitional objects. While not all objects of significance may be transitional objects, the literature on transitional objects offers us some insight into the possible importance of personal possessions for children and youth in care. Fulcher (2005) describes the value of the transitional object as a comfort and reassurance for young persons across the divides of life. In describing some transitional objects for children Deri (1978:51) mentions that at first it may be a thumb or a fist, later a piece of soft material found near the crib, even later a soft stuffed animal and eventually any toy which can fulfil the function of a good transitional object. Transitional objects come in different forms.

Below are types of objects that have been identified

Items not allowed in residential facilities
Some transitional objects fall into the category of those items not allowed in a residential care programme. In some cases, even if the objects are allowed in, the young people are not allowed to keep the objects with them all the time. Deri (1978:50) reported a patient saying: “They never gave me things I wanted when I really wanted them. By the time I got it, it didn’t matter to me anymore”. It should be remembered that young persons might be bringing in these “dangerous objects” because of their difficult and sometime rough and violent past. They may therefore see some objects as a genuine form of protection. Manyathi (2005:40) believes that if life gave her a raw deal most of the time, she would see the world as the worst place to be. It is advisable if a suspected transitional object falls into the category of dangerous items, that caregivers should discuss their concern with the owner and reach an agreement about where to keep it and how to use it.

Teddy bears
The possession and use of teddy bears came out strongly during interviews with children and youth regarding objects. The teddy bears were being used for comfort purposes. Flew, cited by Flarsheim (1978:507), refers to the teddy bear as the “paradigm transitional object” but the important point remains: it is not the teddy bear that is transitional but rather the meaning of the object to the developing child.

Photos as memorabilia
Mayman, cited by Fowler (1999:218-219),  proposes that early memories are reconstructions that express the person’s psychological truths rather than historical facts, and they function as a source of projective material. The picture a child decides to display always contains an announcement with emotional content, and having no picture can be a statement as well (Weiner, 1991:91). Photos can be used to help strike up a conversation between children and caregivers. Whether what is said in such conversations is real or imagined is not important. Some of the images may actually be an expression of a person’s desires. What is important is what the owner has to say about his or her own photos.

Pieces of crockery are items that we use everyday. We therefore expect them to be used, washed and put away. In some instances people share crockery in a way that expresses their love and togetherness. Kydd (2004) expressed love for the young person who was in their care by stating that “we like him so much, too, that we eat at the same table and use the same crockery and cutlery”.

In a residential care programme, and in most households, it is usually expected that whoever is made responsible for certain chores on any particular day completes all tasks associated with those chores. This includes washing crockery and utensils used by others. However, if items such as crockery are used as transitional objects, it may be that the owner will not want to allow certain people to handle those items.

Childhood items
Some young people prefer holding on to childhood objects, such as their dummies. This might be as a result of both good or bad childhood experiences. Fowler (1999:218) states that early childhood memories are considered psychological reconstructions organised around unconscious object relations that are projected into the structure and content of early memories. One should not be surprised by the existence of  such “childish” objects. One should rather note that a need for a specific object or a behaviour pattern that started at a very early stage may reappear later when deprivation threatens (Winnicott, 2000:153).

Essential to establishing meaningful contacts with children or youth is the worker’s recognition and assurance of “private turf” for each youngster, acknowledging the significance of an individual’s personal possessions (Maier 2000), including clothing. Some of the items mentioned by children who were interviewed were clothing. Such items may have links with childhood memories. If they do, young persons may hold onto those objects for a long time and the clothing is usually kept in a particular (and sometimes strange) way.

Objects of traditional significance
Some objects, for example a beaded necklace, may have cultural and/or traditional significance and are likely to be subjectively viewed by owners. If one suspects that an object might have cultural significance, it is advisable to ask someone who comes from a similar cultural background about the item, rather than discarding it. Throwing objects of cultural significance away may be equated to stripping someone of his or her cultural heritage.

Summary: Significant recommendations

Time and timing
It is not up to anybody else to decide when the transitional objects should be used; the initiative will come from the owner of the object. Others can only join in once the use has begun.

Consistency of the object
Different objects are significant at different times. The observer should allow the owner to hold on to whatever they deem important at that particular moment. Some people possess a variety of objects that are of significance. Even if one is aware of the existence of other, perhaps more favoured, objects of significance it is not helpful to suggest that the owner turn to that particular object.

Protect others against humiliation and embarrassment
Objects of significance by nature are subjective phenomena. Some people are likely to be surprised by the existence as well as the use of such objects. Endeavour to protect persons who possess and use such objects from being ridiculed by others.


This feature: Molepo, L. (2009). The meaning of objects of significance in residential programmes for young persons in South Africa. Child and Youth Care Work, 27, 4. pp. 10-11.