My 3-year-old daughter, Mary Elena, became a prima ballerina about six months ago -- at least in her own mind.
She insists on dressing in tutus and leotards every day, performs plies at the grocery store, and gets upset when unsuspecting strangers say, "Oh, honey, you look just like a beautiful ballerina." (Her chilly, stock answer: "I am a ballerina.") She spends her days thumbing through The Nutcracker picture books and watching Angelina Ballerina DVDs; it's a full-time obsession.
I know I'm not alone. Many kids (though, granted, not all) go through a similar phase, whether the object of desire is ballet, Batman, or Barbie. "It's extremely normal," says Michele Borba, EdD, author of 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know (Jossey-Bass). "These are actually some of your child's most creative moments, and you should enjoy and encourage them."
All toddlers love familiarity, and many stubbornly cling to a favorite blanket, toy, or food preference. When she turned 2, Jessica Adams discovered a profound love for her pink sippy cup -- as opposed to the green or blue one. "Soon, she wouldn't drink from any other sippy," says her mom Angel, of Altoona, Pennsylvania. "She'd cry and throw a huge fit and not give in until she got her pink sippy." Such behavior gets tiresome for parents, but developmentally it's a good thing, says Maureen O'Brien, PhD, coauthor of Watch Me Grow: I'm One-Two-Three (Harper). "Routine gives kids a frame of reference, a sense of order," she says. "The world is a big, scary place, and if toddlers feel they have control over one thing, it's reassuring to them."
Between 2 1/2 and 5, repetitive behavior often morphs into a single-minded interest in a character, animal, or favorite color. This one-track-mind phase generally peaks between 3 and 4, says O'Brien. "Around 3, their imagination just takes off," she says. "Their thought process is much more complicated than it was at 18 or 24 months." One important new brain development: Kids can see things from another perspective. "Instead of just thinking the ballerina is pretty, a child can imagine that she is the ballerina," says O'Brien, adding that preschoolers dip in and out of reality and "try on" various personas. "Pretending is a tool to express themselves," she says. "Going down the playground slide as Superman might help a child feel in control; roaring like the Hulk helps him release anger in a safe way."
Having a burning interest in a particular character or toy can also help children relate to each other and make friends; they know they have something in common if they're both wearing Tinkerbell outfits or heading straight to the preschool Lego bin every morning -- even if they can't express their feelings in so many words.
Of course, the relentless marketing of every kid-related product, from Transformers to Dora the Explorer to the Disney Princess collection, often gets kids hooked on a certain character or toy. (So many products are plastered with commercial images, it's easy to be cynical and say, "How can my kid not be obsessed?") But just about anything can trigger a burning interest -- a movie, a trip to the zoo, or a character in a book. O'Brien, who has twin boys, says that one of them was into Superman for months. "I finally figured out that it wasn't the cape or the costume," she says. "Rather, he would look in the mirror, take a piece of his hair, and curl it onto his forehead." With the Superhair in place, he felt stronger, and his posture changed. "He was emulating all the good things about Superman," she says.
And not every obsession relates to a TV character. "When my daughter Alexis was 3, she spent an entire month acting and talking like a cat," says Kelly Mooney, of West Linn, Oregon. "She would only 'meow' in response to anything you said, and she wanted to look like a cat -- she frequently wore cat ears." Fortunately, her teachers were willing to overlook her kitty-cat phase for a few weeks, and Alexis gradually began acting like a human being again. (At 7, she still loves cats, but doesn't dress like one.)
Set Limits -- or Indulge?
The best way to handle an obsession -- no matter how odd it seems -- is to roll with it. Let her walk on all fours like a pony in the house, allow him to wear the cape to the mall, or buy duplicates of a beloved toy. Lisa Chinnery, of Lafayette, Colorado, always made sure her then-2-year-old son James had one of several toy hammers before they left the house. "For about six months, he took a hammer everywhere -- in the car, to school, to bed," she says. "One of his favorite songs was about a hammer, and we had to listen to it over and over."
And yes, the endearing outfit or cute character your child is infatuated with can get old. Megan Cheran, of Ambridge, Pennsylvania, remembers when her son Xander, now 6, went through a Spider-Man phase at 3. "We had to call him Peter Parker when the mask was off, and Spider-Man when it was on," she says. A more annoying problem was that the costume was never off. "He wanted to wear it all the time -- even in the 90-degree heat," she says. "He wore it in the pool, he wore it to bed, he tried to wear it in the bathtub. The thing would stink so bad I had to beg him to let me wash it."
Although it's okay to indulge your kid's whims to a point, you'll save yourself some aggravation by setting limits early. Cheran tolerated her son being Spider-Man at home and on playdates. "He was not, however, allowed to wear the costume to church," says Cheran. "Then he told me that if God loves everyone, he has to love Spider-Man too!"
For most kids, obsessive behavior tends to fade around the time they start kindergarten or first grade. And no matter how odd the interest -- yellow cars, toy rabbits, or vacuum cleaners -- chances are it's a normal, healthy phase. However, if your child isn't developing socially -- if he can't relate to other children or shows extremely repetitive behavior -- it may be time to talk to his pediatrician.
What Does the Future Hold?
Does a deep and abiding interest at age 3 or 4 point to a potential career? Of course, not many kids will grow up to be superheroes, princesses, or prima ballerinas, but their early interests can be a tiny window into their personalities, says O'Brien. "Extroverts are usually creative, dramatic, a bit more out there," she says. "A shy child is more likely to express herself with something more private, like collecting cars and lining them up in a certain way."
Whether your kid grows up to be an accountant, veterinarian, or opera singer, you should nurture and encourage her through this phase of wild imaginings and vivid daydreams. "It helps her learn and grow, release energy, and keep the imagination going," says Borba. "Go with the flow; it's a wonderful, normal part of growing up. And take lots of snapshots because these will be some of your fondest memories ever." Not to mention the knowing nods you'll get from other moms at the playground. Most of them have known a superhero or princess too.
"As far as kid toy obsessions, I would have to say Cabbage Patch Kids. I had four. And my dollhouse -- I was pretty obsessed with it. I would decorate the rooms with scraps of fabric my mom gave me, velvet for the carpets, new baby-flowered bedspreads for the family, checked tablecloths for the kitchen. I was obsessed with anything tiny that could work in the house."
Sarah Jane Morris (Brothers & Sisters)
"I was obsessed with Matchbox cars. You remember Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars? I was obsessed! I collected 250 of those little cars, from mini ambulances to little VW Bugs and Cadillacs and convertibles to little mini Cadillac-type limousines. I loved to go down in the basement and play Matchbox cars and pretend there was a massive pileup on the 405."
"I grew up on a ranch in a remote part of Alaska. I was raised by a single father and two brothers with no modern conveniences. We had an outhouse, no running water, and a coal stove for heat. I shared a room with both my brothers so, needless to say, 'girlie toys' were few and far between in our household! That brings me to my prized possession: jelly bracelets. I think I got two of them from a lady I babysat for sometimes, and I loved them! They were purple, had silver sparkles, and were made of this sort of insane squishy material, and they epitomized all things that were girlie in the '80s...a far cry from all the dust and horsehair of the ranch. I kept them on my dresser and saved money to buy purple jelly shoes to match. Gosh, the '80s were kind of rough on fashion, I guess!"
"The only thing I was obsessed with was worms. I loved them. I loved digging them up in the garden. I used to run outside after it rained, pick them up off the sidewalk, and throw them back on the lawn so they wouldn't dry up and die when the sun came out. I also loved playing horses. We'd fill up the laundry sink in the basement with water and drink out of it as if we were horses. We'd run up and down the alley behind our house, whinny-ing and snorting. Kids used to play outside in those days."
Jane Kaczmarek (Malcolm in the Middle)
"When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Atari handheld video games. Little blips on a handheld plastic display. I was the king of Baseball, Football, and Racing. That and a game called Pencils, where you try to snap your buddy's pencil in half with your own. I was easily entertained. My kids love Bionicles! They have a huge collection, both old and new. That and a series of books called Hank Zipper. Good stuff!"
Greg Grunberg (Heroes)
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the November 2007 issue of American Baby magazine.