Rhiannon tells me that the kid she nannies used to collect disposable latex gloves. This started when he was around two. Any time he’d see latex gloves — at the doctor’s office, at nursery school, in a random first aid kid mounted to the wall — he’d ask if he could have them. He preferred the “blue glubs” but the “kinda yellow glubs” were also acceptable. He’d wear them around and then stash them in his pockets, in drawers and in his play kitchen.
“It was so gross, honestly,” Rhiannon says of the sweaty, sticky things. “He’s 9 years old now and I will still occasionally find a disgusting, decomposing rubber glove in a weird place — recently, in the old Fisher-Price cash register that he won’t let us get rid of.”
Members of the Offspring Facebook group revealed their own kids’ obsessive collections. There were the common ones—rocks, seashells, stuffed animals. And then there were more obscure interests. One parent wrote that their son would collect the sand that he’d get in his shoes, pouring it into a container that he kept by the TV. Another shared that her son collected garage door openers.
Friends and family would usually give him their old, nonworking ones, but a few times she caught him stealing the ones that opened their garage door. (“He wants be a mechanical engineer,” she writes.) I think we all have memories of our childhood collections — in the third grade, I collected eraser dust. Lifehacker managing editor Virginia Smith collected hotel toiletries. Our health editor Beth Skwarecki had a folder to keep her pennies, with a slot for every year.
In the age of Marie Kondo, it has perhaps become less common for parents to allow their kids to bring home Tupperware containers of assorted pebbles or shoeboxes full of bottle caps. To adults, these items don’t spark much joy. But for kids, collecting things has a lot of benefits. It gives them a sense of ownership, teaches them that patience can lead to gratification (finding that one rare stamp/baseball card/hermit crab shell is always a thrill), and expands their organizational skills.
(One dad writes that his daughter’s stuffed animals each have a very specific sleeping spot on the bed — it’s cute, he says, until you accidentally push one off and “then the whole world comes crashing down”).
By grouping and classifying objects, children are building cognitive functions. “When something is a member of a collection but something else is not, kids make decisions about attributes of objects,” notes educational psychologist Dr. Patricia Anderson.
“This is a key mathematical skill that is essential for scientific thinking.” Kids often become hungry for knowledge about the item they are collecting, and that’s a good thing.
Some things to keep in mind about your child’s obsessive collection:
There’s a difference between collecting and hoarding. The Child Mind Institute offers a great breakdown. One distinction, as Caroline Miller writes, is that children who collect show pride in their collections: “They like to share them with others, and talk about them.” Children who hoard, on the other hand, “often feel embarrassed or uncomfortable letting others see or touch their things.”
Marketers love that kids like to collect things. Toys have long been invented around this fact. (My husband remembers his Garbage Pail Kids collection fondly.) But there has been a recent explosion in the “collectibles market,” spawning L.O.L. dolls, Hatchimals and Pikmi Pops (if you’ve never heard these words before, be thankful). An Atlantic piece reports that marketers are convincing kids “toys are about collecting, not about play.”
Susan Linn, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School and the author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, tells The Atlantic: “It’s the notion that the things we buy will make us happy.” Know that when you purchase one of these toys, you may not be just buying that one item, but the entire manufactured frenzy that comes with it.
You can set limits. A parent named Jennifer says she was finding “creepy Blair Witch-style” piles of rocks all over her house, so she had to have a talk with her daughter. “She’s allowed to bring home one rock a day and puts them in an old shoebox we redecorated and keep away from baby brother,” she says. Your kid’s collection shouldn’t cause stress for the other members of your household. If it does, put a cap on how many new items they can bring in without shaming them (e.g., “Ew, why would you keep something like this?”). That is, if you can. Writes one mum named Kimberly: “I found my son’s booger collection a few weeks ago. It was on the wall by his bed, and he’d wipe them there when he didn’t feel like getting a tissue.”