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My Kid Is Obsessed! Understanding Your Preschooler's Hobbies and Obsessions

child playing with toy dinosaurs

Ericka McConnell

I always know when it's Tuesday. On that morning my 3-year-old son, Luke, hears a beeping noise and shouts, "The garbage truck is here!" and races to the window to watch the action. That's just one example of his tunnel vision when it comes to trucks. On the way to preschool we pass a construction site, and Luke begs, "Put down the window, Mommy." At night he snuggles into sheets dotted with backhoes and diggers as I read a bedtime story that invariably has a moving vehicle of some sort in the title.

I'm far from the only parent whose child has developed a fixation. Researchers estimate that 70 percent of preschoolers have had a consuming interest. For moms and dads who are dealing with a Cinderella groupie or dinosaur devotee, it's hard not to wonder where these obsessions come from and what they might predict about the future. Before you decide to buy another set of baseball cards or hide all the Polly Pockets, hear what the experts have to say about little kids' intense interests.

child playing with toy stuffed animals

Ericka McConnell

Wonder what caused your child to develop a fascination with something? Look in the mirror. For while it may have been a toy, a video, or a book that triggered his interest, you're probably the one who exposed him to it and, in all likelihood, encouraged it. According to a study coauthored by Joyce M. Alexander, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology at Indiana University in Bloomington, 69 percent of preschoolers share a similar or related passion with their mom or dad. Meg Wilson, of Anderson, South Carolina, says her 4-year-old son Gardner's insatiable hunger for all things technical -- he's already devised a pulley system using his sand bucket -- stems from his father, Ken, who has an engineering degree. "My husband makes Gardner his little helper when he's installing shelving or fiddling with turntables," says Wilson.

But kids' obsessions don't always run in the family. Research published in Developmental Psychology shows that one out of three parents have no idea where their child's fascination came from. "We don't know what causes these extreme interests," says Judy S. DeLoache, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. "It could just be a child's temperament that makes him gravitate toward something."

Ask yourself why you're passionate about certain things and you'd probably find it a challenge to answer. "Just as grown-ups are drawn to a specific type of music, kids find things that speak to them," says Kathleen McCartney, Ph.D., a Parents advisor and dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Those things may vary from the obvious -- pirates, cars, princesses -- to the downright quirky. Susanna Goldberg, of Charlotte, North Carolina, describes her 5-year-old son's obsession with luggage: "AJ loves to play airport, rolling our bags around the house and through the pretend X-ray machine."

Preschooler passions tend to toe traditional gender lines, says Dr. DeLoache. Boys veer toward vehicles, machines, and superheroes. Girls gravitate toward dress-up, dolls, and animals. Marketing clearly plays a role in this divide, since commercials and product packaging are often geared toward one sex or the other. Children also tend to be encouraged by their parents to play with "gender-appropriate" toys from infancy.

However, it's clearly a matter of nature as well as nurture. By 18 months girls are more interested in dolls than boys are while boys lean toward trucks and cars, according to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development. Scientists speculate that these preferences are at least in part due to biological differences, says Lisa A. Serbin, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Concordia University, in Montreal, Quebec.

Kid obsessions are generally endearing at first. It's fun to see children develop a focus and want to explore a topic more deeply. But once they latch onto something, the constant barrage of questions ("Which holds more dirt -- a backhoe or a bulldozer?") and requests ("Can I get another Barbie outfit?") can try any parent's patience.

Still, experts say you should learn to live with your child's hobby. For one thing, the fixation is probably making him happy. "Plus, an intense interest can fuel intellectual curiosity," says Lisa Spiegel, codirector of Soho Parenting, a center for family guidance and emotional support in New York City.

Alexa Chaplin, of Vestal, New York, says her son Campbell's passion for ancient Egypt at age 3 paved the way for studying pyramids and archaeology. Campbell would sit still for 45 minutes at a stretch listening to Mummies in the Morning, part of the Magic Tree House series, and his vocabulary quickly blossomed.

A child's obsession can also help her forge social connections. Andrea Facio, of Linden, North Carolina, notes that her 3-year-old daughter, Cali, has overcome her shyness around adults by talking to them about her beloved baby dolls. "She loves to answer questions about them," says Facio.

Your child's obsession could even draw your family closer. By supporting a hobby, parents (and sometimes siblings) will learn more about the topic themselves, and her interest can become contagious. Dr. DeLoache recalls from her research how one little girl's fondness for dressing up in fancy costumes turned the whole family into a troupe of Civil War reenactors. And following the lead of their dinosaur-loving daughter, Olivia, the Arnold family, from Worcester, Massachusetts, has made two trips to visit the T- Rex and stegosaurus bones at New York City's American Museum of Natural History.

As you watch your child spend hours building a block city or memorizing cat species, you may wonder what this fixation means for her future. But don't count on her becoming an architect or a veterinarian just yet. Yes, tennis champ Rafael Nadal started developing his strokes by age 4, and by then Rachael Ray was already flipping food with a spatula. But on average, preschool passions last less than a year, says Dr. Alexander. Some of them fizzle when a child starts elementary school, where she is introduced to a range of topics that may appeal to her even more. In other cases, she may simply move on to something related (such as switching from dinosaurs to reptiles).

Despite this, obsessions can hint at your child's budding skills. If he loves doing puzzles, he may wind up being a math whiz. Kids who gravitate toward drawing and music tend to be more free-spirited and less concerned with how their work is judged by others. And those who love to memorize facts (such as sports statistics) are more likely to delve more deeply into topics and develop strong critical-thinking skills.

It'll be a lot easier to connect the dots in retrospect -- once your child is much older and has her career goals and life interests in place. For now, simply allow her passions to unfold and enjoy all the random knowledge -- whether it's about bridges, bugs, or the Titanic -- that you'll both soak up along the way.

Ruth Anan, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, says your child's intense interest could signal an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Speak to your pediatrician if you're concerned.


You say "He's totally preoccupied with it."

Not to worry

  • He complains when you try to change activities -- but doesn't melt down completely.
  • He plays with the object in creative ways and in social situations (such as using his Matchbox cars in an obstacle course and to play gas station with a friend).

Worry if

  • His obsession seems more about maintaining order (lining cars up perfectly) than playing.
  • He's so focused on his passion that he doesn't enjoy doing or playing with other things.


You say "Her fixation seems so odd."

Not to worry

  • She quickly picks up on cues that another person doesn't share her passion, and transitions easily to other topics.
  • Her obsession doesn't stand in the way of making (and keeping) friends.

Worry if

  • She constantly gabs about her fascination, even when peers make it clear that they're disinterested.
  • When the conversation changes, she keeps circling back to her obsession.


You say "I find his obsession with guns to be scary."

Not to worry

  • He's picked it up from an older sibling or from watching violent cartoons (stop letting him watch these shows).
  • If a buddy wants to do something else, he can easily switch to another activity.

Worry if

  • Being the bad guy or a police officer is his only form of imaginative play.
  • He can't refrain from pretending to "shoot" classmates at school, even after constant teacher reminders.

Tired of playing the same games and talking about the same thing over and over? Mix things up. If your child is into:

Trains

Try these new activities:

  • Visit an antique train museum or take a real train ride.
  • Play a board game (such as Candy Land) using toy trains instead of the usual game pieces.

Animals

Try these new activities:

  • Set up her stuffed animals as a pretend petting zoo.
  • Visit a zoo or an aquarium to teach her about new animals and their habitats.

Ariel

Try these new activities:

  • Pretend that you're visiting Ariel's undersea world, Atlantica. Learn more about the creatures that might live there.
  • Imagine Ariel is coming to spend the day. Have your child plan an exciting itinerary.

Superheroes

Try these new activities:

  • Invite some of his friends over in costume and let them create
    their own adventure.
  • Encourage your child to get into "superhero shape" by doing stretches, somersaults, and karate kicks.

Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Parents magazine.