I have always been curious as to why some children fixate on a beloved toy for months or even years. For my nephew, it was a playroom exploding with Thomas trains and a remarkable ability to recall dozens of choo-choo names before he could wipe his own bottom. For my three year-old son, it has been the classic nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty from June 2021 to present, with absolutely no end in sight.
The Humpty fascination struck without warning — one morning our YouTube algorithm offered a never-ending series of Humpty clips. With the song and story firmly implanted in my son’s heart, he started reenacting Humpty’s fall and putting him back together again whenever and wherever he could, using whatever and whoever was available to him. This orange you’re about to eat? It’s now orange Humpty! That baby you’re currently breastfeeding? Button up Mama, I need her for the King’s Horse, and you’re the King’s Men!
When it became clear Humpty was here to stay, I started down the internet rabbit hole to confirm it was just another toddler quirk. My search for “common toddler interests” (trucks, dinosaurs, poop) quickly escalated to “what was Ted Bundy into as a toddler?!”
I was reassured after chatting with Dr. Jacqueline Penn, a child & adolescent psychiatrist at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, that preoccupations like Humpty are typical and healthy at this age: “I think we are too quick to label kids today, so in my work I always want to pathologize less — I think the word ‘deep interest’ or ‘fascination’ is appropriate, as opposed to fixation or obsession.”
And while not every child will go through a one-toy phase, Penn says “it’s extremely common — these behaviors usually start in toddlerhood when children realize how much they want autonomy and to exercise their own agency as they explore the external world.” Penn adds the caveat that if a child constantly can’t transition to bath, bedtime, school, that’s when she’d start to worry — but instead of jumping to a diagnosis at this age, she would “focus on developing coping skills around flexibility and making transitions.” So, while I’d be 100% okay with never hearing that friggin’ nursery rhyme again for the rest of my life, I’ve come to appreciate everything that this anthropomorphic egg does for my son’s healthy development and happiness.
A constant during a time of flux
During our first “Summer of Humpty,” there was a new baby sister AND we were in the process of moving houses, traveling, and staying with grandparents for nearly three months. “During big changes where they can only control so much, these transitional objects or fascinations are a big comfort,” Dr. Penn says. And after so much time apart during the pandemic, the joy of spending quality time with his grandparents again while playing Humpty could have cemented the positive association. (At every breakfast, my dad demonstrated the physical properties and comedic potential of blowing a hard boiled Humpty egg out of its shell, and my son received not one, but two bespoke Humpty dolls knitted by great-grandma.)
When we finally moved into our house, Humpty gave my son the confidence to interact with all of the new people in our lives. At preschool, any anxiety around show and tell evaporated when discussing Humpty, and he loved introducing himself to our neighbors with the killer opening line, “Can I use your wall sometime?”
An unexpected love for global cultures and languages
According to Dr. Penn, “learning is often the motivator behind this kind of behavior, and exploring a deep interest will organically lead kids to learn more in other areas.” Thanks to YouTube, he knows the rhyme in Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and he’s starting on Norwegian. Humpty helps us talk about how the world is a big and diverse place. Upon meeting someone for the first time, my son not only wants to know their names and whether they’ve heard of Humpty Dumpty, but also which countries they’ve visited ‘by airplane or boat’, and what languages they speak.
Learning how to ask for help and the importance of caring for others
When Humpty falls, we practice all of the different ways to call for help, from ringing the doctor (who for whatever reason usually has to fly in from Sweden), to utilizing his most annoying Teletubby as the ambulance siren slash paramedic. Ever since Humpty came into our lives, whenever my son hears his baby sister cry, he’s the first person to lead the charge and say “we’re coming for you, don’t worry baby Humpty!”
Exploring the physical world
I’ve now spent several hours of my adult life analyzing different walls (dimensions, construction materials, landing surfaces). Plus, for the two days my boy only wanted to play Humpty with a real, uncooked egg, he quickly learned that once the egg cracked into a lot of pieces, it was impossible to put him back together again
With a less runny Humpty, we have fun recreating the exact position the doll’s body lands in. (You realize just how much you love your child when you find yourself attempting a full split while narrowly wedged between the wall and the couch.) As a result, my son is more aware of how bodies — real or stuffed — move in space, and when I signed him up for toddler yoga, he couldn’t wait to do moves ‘just like Humpty.’
Developing empathy and perspective taking
“Every kid this age is ‘narcissistic,’ and it’s hard to get them to think about other people — they may not fully understand it, but this is an age where empathy can start to build,” says Dr. Penn. Indeed, my son has learned that Mama loves ChuChu TV’s hip-hop version of Humpty, whereas Dada thinks “it’s rubbish,” so we have conversations about how it’s okay for people to like different things or to have different feelings.
Occasionally at playdates, my son struggles if his friend doesn’t want to play Humpty anymore. “If the behavior is creating a problem with another kid, you can still make the boundary with a lot of love — validate for your child that this is hard, establish the boundary that you aren’t going to play with the toy right now, offer another set of choices to get them to move on, and then ask ‘I wonder how your friend is feeling? Let’s ask,” says Dr. Penn.
Fascinations serve us well beyond toddlerhood
I was excited to find out that healthy preoccupations do not and should not end with childhood. According to a recent study at Northwestern University, a period of exploration followed by exploitation of one specific thing is apparently a magical formula for adult creatives, too. While my son’s object of interest will eventually morph into something else — hopefully after he designs a Fortnite Humpty game that provides for my early retirement — I love knowing that there are times when all of us should revisit our toddler brains in order to flourish.
My son has now put Humpty Dumpty back together again enough times to qualify for the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell says he’ll need to become an expert, and I’ll continue to be supportive of this and other fascinations as he grows. That being said, if there are any TV writers out there pitching a Humpty Dumpty show to Netflix — please move on to your next idea, or I’ll have to push you off a wall.
Julie Kling lives in the suburbs of New York, where she fantasizes about all of the free time she had before becoming a mother of two. She has written for Salon, the Upright Citizens Brigade, and formerly worked as an Admission Officer for NYU. In addition to writing, Julie runs Global Girls Prep, an organization helping women-identified international students attend college in the U.S.