Early the other morning, I found my daughter standing outside my door, crying. I threw my arms around her and asked what was wrong.
"I can't find Pink Teddy," she told me through her tears. "I woke up, and I couldn't find Pink Teddy! I don't know where she is!"
There was a reason she couldn't find Pink Teddy, a small, pink-colored plush bear. The night before, she had fallen asleep on the couch before her bedtime. Not wanting to disturb her sleep, we gently put her to bed without waking her, and there she slept for the remainder of the night. She fell asleep on the couch, where she had been playing with Pink Teddy. She woke up in bed. Pink Teddy was gone (or, at least, we didn't place it next to her in bed when we lay her there).
With a tight hug and a gentle kiss, I told her not to worry. I told her to go climb in bed with mommy and I would find Pink Teddy and bring it to her. That's exactly what I did, and all was right with the world again.
Children can have very complex thoughts, but their inner worlds are very limited in scope. Many parents don't realize how important that limited scope is. Your child may always get a hamburger when eating at a restaurant. In some cases, this is a child's being a picky eater, but in other cases it's an act of seeking the comfort of familiarity in a foreign place. My daughter, for example, feels better when a restaurant offers macaroni & cheese, even if she doesn't ultimately order it.
This kind of familiarity plays itself out for all children again and again throughout the situations they face. A doctor's office that doesn't have a little play area in the waiting room won't seem as inviting a place as any other doctor's office. The child is set at ease by the presence of that play area even if she doesn't make use of it. Knowing that the doctor gives out lollipops after the appointment just says to the child, "This doctor is nice." Actually eating the lollipop is beside the point. This may be why children seek out the small chairs, the multi-colored things, the cartoon characters, and so on. In any situation, if there is something out there for kids, you can bet the children will find it and make use of it. It helps them feel more comfortable; it gives them a role to play in the situation, even if the adults have business to attend to.
This is not so different from adults. We set up the peripherals of our situations in order to help define our experiences for us. If we expect to have to wait, we make chairs available, preferably comfortable chairs, along with reading materials, windows, and houseplants. We inevitably store shoes near a place to sit, so that people putting on their shoes can sit while they do it. We put knives and forks in the same place; presumably, if you need one, you'll need the other.
It's not emotionally jarring for us if we misplace our wallet and have to look around for it when we get ready for work in the morning, but that's only because we're familiar with the world. We're especially familiar with how we interact with our own homes. If you didn't leave your wallet on your nightstand, it's probably on one of your well-used shelves or countertops, or some similar place.
Children are less familiar with the world, and don't have an innate urge to place things in boxes and on shelves. They have not yet set themselves into routine patterns of behavior. But the scope of their world is still quite small. Thus, when a child misplaces a toy, it's a double-whammy. First, something important is gone! And second, if something important is gone, what other trouble lies in store for her today?! Such are the consequences of a world in which important things disappear, unaccounted for.
When your child is upset over something that seems insignificant to you, it might be a good idea to pause long enough to consider whether the matter holds greater significance for your child. What if Pink Teddy, or the play area in the waiting room, or macaroni & cheese, was just gone? What if everything you were counting on being there in the morning was also gone? No wallet, no shoes, no keys, no spouse lying next to you. Nothing.