Treasured Possessions and Their Meanings in Adolescent Males and Females

Article excerpt

Research over the past 40 years has established that the attachments which infants and young children develop to certain soft, cuddly objects (e.g., blankets or teddy bears) serve important developmental functions. These objects are thought to symbolize the mother or certain characteristics of mothering in her absence by functioning as a source of comfort and security, and they appear to facilitate exploration of the social and physical environments. In addition, these objects are thought to foster independence, individuation, persistence, and attention in young children (e.g,., Boniface & Graham, 1979; Garrison & Earls, 1982; Passman, 1976, 1977; Winnicott, 1953). Despite these findings regarding the early years of life, there has been little investigation of the role of treasured objects after the early childhood years. The purpose of this descriptive study was to examine treasured possessions and their meanings during adolescence, and to explore the relation of objects treasured during adolescence to those treasured during early life.

The limited literature on adolescent treasured objects is hampered by methodological and sampling problems as well as a lack of empirical data, and is also inconclusive regarding the meanings of possessions for adolescents. Comments about treasured objects in these writings have been indirect and by-products of other studies; there has been no systematic assessment of adolescents' treasured possessions (e.g., Berg, 1982; Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981; Downey, 1978; Free & Goodrich, 1985; Furby, 1978; Humphrey, 1986). Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton's (1981) often-cited study of possessions considered "most special" in the home, for example, reported that youth tend to prefer objects that are activity-related. However, the "youth" in their study ranged from 8- to 30-years of age, limiting the conclusions to be drawn about adolescents. Further, clinical writings generally claim (without empirical evidence) that adolescents' valued possessions function in ways similar to that of early life (i.e., they provide feelings of comfort and security, symbolize the adolescents' ties to their mothers, and assist in the individuation process and in coping with stress) (Berg, 1982; Downey, 1978; Free & Goodrich, 1985; Humphrey, 1986; Rosenthal, 1981; Sosin, 1983; Steude, 1985-86; Straetz, 1976). Nonclinical writings, by contrast, contend that especially valued objects make possible certain activities, provide a sense of independence, and aid in identity development (e.g., Belk, 1991; Furby, 1978).

In addition, the literature has not explicitly addressed the fate of objects treasured during the early years of life in the adolescent years. While some have speculated that the use of early treasured objects dwindles with age (e.g., Shafii, 1985; Sherman, Hertzig, Austrian, & Shapiro, 1981), others contend that these objects continue to be psychologically significant, at least through the adolescent years (e.g. Belk, 1991; Berg, 1982). No empirical evidence, however, has been provided on this issue for adolescents.

The purpose of the present study was to comprehensively assess treasured possessions and their meanings in adolescence as a step toward the development of a theory about treasured objects and their developmental functions (if any) during adolescence. The specific questions addressed were: (1) What possessions are especially treasured during adolescence, and what are their meanings or developmental functions? (2) Are there changes in object attachment from early life to adolescence? Specifically, are the meanings and functions of objects treasured during adolescence similar to or different from those treasured during early life, and what happens to objects treasured during the early years of life? Do they continue to be used? Do they retain psychological significance in adolescence?

In addition, sex differences in object and meaning preferences were examined since studies of young children and adults have found gender to be a significant influence on object and object meaning salience (Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981; Dittmar, 1989; Parker, 1980; Wallendorf & Arnould, 1988). …