How to tell if your young one is just going along with the fad, or has a serious hobby
By Chris Muise
Life with children means a life with toys; with Lego, comics, cards, and any number of other flights of fancy they might enjoy, scattered across your living room floor, your kitchen table or, best case scenario, a self-contained play room that’s covered end-to-end with stuff.
As adults, it’s tempting to think of these things as childhood distractions, or some fad they’ve gotten into recently, or anything else that really doesn’t command your respect. They’re just playthings, after all.
But what if they aren’t just playthings to your child? What if that pile of Pokémon cards, or closet full of Barbie dolls, means more to them than just the toy of the week they’re bound to forget about and eventually grow out of? What if it’s not just the latest fad they’ve bought into, but a lifelong collection?
With all the different kinds of toys and games vying for our kids’ attention invented every year (not to mention the legacy ones that have stood the test of time), we know it can be hard for the uninitiated parent to tell exactly when an interest crosses that threshold into full-on hobby, and then how best to support them once that threshold is crossed.
We spoke with some experts on the matter, to help you identify when an interest becomes a collection and compiled some advice on how to support them with their collection while also helping them prevent it from becoming an obsession.
It’s not always easy to pinpoint the moment a new interest becomes a lifelong hobby. Sometimes, even the kids themselves don’t notice the shift. Max Peach can’t remember the moment when he knew his love of Transformers would be a long-term thing, but he does remember his first robot in disguise.
“My dad took me to a Wal-Mart and bought me one, Revenge of the Fallen Bumblebee, deluxe class,” says Peach, 13. “It appeals to me mostly because it’s just the person I am. I enjoy just playing with toys.”
For others, like Cooper Brown’s mother Karen, it wasn’t hard to spot when he dove head-first into Pokémon.
“It stemmed from his older brother, who was a collector of Pokémon cards before him,” says Brown, a childhood educator for kids with special needs. “But unlike my older son, Cooper has found a love for playing the game. I think Cooper is more serious.”
At first, interest in a fleeting fad can be hard to distinguish from a budding collection, because it’s not uncommon for one to stem from the other.
According to Dr. Shawn Gates, a clinical psychologist with the IWK Health Centre, fads are a healthy part of being a kid and are often a way kids develop relationships with their peers.
“It’s normal, developmentally, for people to be experimenting with ‘Who am I? Where do I fit in,’” Gates says. “When you see, ‘Hey, all my peers are doing this,’ there’s a certain natural draw… that natural gravitation towards things that can be fad-y.”
Getting into something and realizing it’s not for us is just a normal part of growing up. But sometimes, trying something because it’s popular can lead to a child discovering their “thing.”
“Sometimes you get the kids in who are interested because their friends like it, and it’s a social thing to do,” says Joshua Pyle-Carter, owner of The Deck Box, a card-game shop in Halifax. “You can definitely tell the kids who are actively looking to collect something, for whatever reason. Those kids are the ones who are going to take better care of their cards, ask more questions.”
Darryl Wall, owner of Giant Robot Comics in Dartmouth, could spot Max Peach right away as someone who was going to stick with collecting robots.
“There’s a lot of kids, like when movies come out, we’ll sell a bunch of Avengers figures, we’ll sell Superman, or Batman, or Transformers, but then you won’t see them after the movie’s had its heyday,” says Wall, himself a collector of Transformers. “Max, we see him pretty much every week. And almost every other week, he’ll go home with something.”
Gates, himself a collector of sports memorabilia, says collecting has come up in his practice. How much time or energy is being devoted to the hobby is cited as the primary concern for parents.
But in general, he says parents don’t have much to fear in terms of a long-term collection becoming problematic, so long as a balance is maintained between it and their everyday lives.
“If they’re doing it within their financial means and everything else, then who’s to say it’s a negative for them,” Gates says.
There can be plenty of benefits to having a collector kid. A collection is a great lens through which parents can teach and encourage all sorts of life skills to their children.
“You can use it as kind of a small-scale example of how we have to deal with things in our day-to-day lives,” Gates says. “It’s just a big, meta teaching moment.”
“It was an interest in something, and it included literacy and numeracy,” says Brown, who especially likes that Cooper plays in a Pokémon League at The Deck Box. “The fact he plays the game and comes here, and he’s social with other people, I like that. I love that part of him being involved in this.”
“Max is always using his imagination,” says Darlene Warner, Peach’s mom. “That’s what I like about Max playing with them, because he [employs]… imagination, dexterity, patience.”
“When you’re exposed to the world of collecting… it instills a sense of value and an appreciation of value,” adds Pyle-Carter, who says he was inspired to find his first job to pay for his Magic the Gathering hobby as a teen.
“Occasionally we’ll get parents who are concerned about the cost of some things, but that’s a pretty infrequent occurrence. More likely what happens is that parents appreciate it simply because it teaches a kid a sense of value.”
A collection can even be a great way to connect emotionally with your child, if you’re willing to take an interest. “It just provides us another opportunity to relate with our child and learn more about them and have them feel like they’re valued,” Gates says. “That we’ve got stuff to learn from them as much as they have things to learn from us. It provides a good self-esteem moment.”
Peach knows just how lucky he is that his mom supports his Transformers hobby. “She’s very, just, compassionate, and allows me to be myself, collecting Transformers,” he says. “I’m glad I don’t have a mom who’s like, ‘oh, you should stop collecting these!’ No, she’s actually really supportive.”
Ditto (Pokémon pun intended) for Cooper.
“She lets me get things to help with the card game and lets me get the video games,” Cooper says. “It definitely makes me happy.”
Collection Maintenance Tips for Parents
Even collector kids are still kids and they might have difficulties with the ins-and-outs of properly maintaining a collection while they’re still learning about value and organizational skills.
We asked avid collectors Darryl Wall and Joshua Pyle-Carter for some tips parents can use to help keep their kids’ collections pristine and out-of-the-way.
1. Cleaning Your Collection
“No matter what it is, you’re going to have to dust it,” says Wall (at least when it comes to anything plastic like action figures). “I use a combination of Swiffer wipes, Q-Tips, sometimes if something’s really dirty I’ll use the same kind of wipes they use for babies with diapers, because there’s nothing bad in them that’ll harm the plastic.”
2. Organizing Your Collection
You’ll want to keep a collection neat and tidy, if you want it to preserve value (and not just find itself as a pile on the floor). “Now that we have an IKEA, there’s so many great things,” Wall says. “For the price of a really good toy, you can get a DETOLF or a bookcase and then start showing off your collection.” For cards, coins, comics, and other smaller items, there are different options. “A quality binder is the best thing you can do for kids,” Pyle-Carter says. “Use sleeves and things like the UltraPro binder series is very nice because they’re a very high-end, durable binder.”
3. Storing Your Collection
It’s best to have a special place to keep your collection, because it’s likely to get lost or broken if it’s just scattered around the house. “The thing I stress, for kids especially, is that usually there are two ways to transport cards: You have your deck box that has your deck in it, and you have your binder you leave at home,” Pyle-Carter says. “You take stuff in and out of your binder as you’re building decks, or you want to look at things. But that doesn’t tend to leave your house.” Wall, who has two rooms in his house dedicated to his Transformers collection, recommends a mix of display pieces and storage pieces. “I’ve got some friends that, what they do is rotate their collections,” he says. “You should always have toy boxes or Rubbermaid tubs. It’s easy to keep your stuff separated.”
4. Learn the Collection
It’s hard to help curate your child’s collection if you know nothing about it. Understanding which cards are rare, or which toys are age-appropriate, will help you help them have a positive experience collecting. Wall recommends getting to know how the toys are divided by age, especially as more toy lines start catering to an older, collector-based audience. “If you go into Toys R Us, basically anything that is not a Masterpiece figure is good,” Wall says. “They have a main line, then they have a children’s line, and then they have a young children’s line. They basically divide it pretty much for you.” Knowing the value of any item is also important, especially if there’s a robust trading and selling market for it. “The best thing you can do is find a point of reference,” Pyle-Carter says. “Putting in an hour or so beforehand, to have them come in and have an experience where they can understand how to value cards, it’s part of why we promote the weekend stuff. They can come in, ask questions, ask me about how this works. It’s really worth doing, just to start you off.”