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Children love to collect stuff. If left to their own devices, some kids would keep every rock and feather they ever saw. Others need to buy complete sets of some toy and can’t be content until they have it all. If your child has a collection of treasures, what should you know about that and what can you do to help him manage it?

Most children do hang onto things. The urge to collect is not usually a sign of any sort of disorder or compulsion. Kids just are fascinated by things and want to keep what they find. In general, collections seem to fall into three categories: nature stuff, commercial stuff, and self-made treasures. Let’s look at each of these.

Nature stuff. Some children love to collect sticks, stones, feathers, leaves, and other interesting bits from the outdoors. If your child is one of these, take a zip-top bag with you on your walks and trips to the park, so there’s a way to carry things. I draw the line at collecting living creatures. Bugs, butterflies, and snails are best off left where they are.

Living creatures might stowaway among the litter in the bottom of the baggie, though. When you get back home, before taking the bag of nature into the house, help your child do a quick sorting. What can stay outside because it’s no longer all that interesting? What does your child really want to keep? You might agree to keep an old bird’s nest but only if it stays in a sealed bag, so critters living in the nest can’t get out.

Commercial stuff. At some point, many children fall in love with Pokémon cards, My Little Pony toys, Lego figures and other things that come in sets. Manufacturers are well aware of children’s love of collecting, so it’s no accident that toys are offered this way. The exhortation to “collect them all!” has been around for decades.

For most children, an infatuation with a particular toy fades eventually. While it’s at a fever pitch, help your child to organize or box her sets and help her to evaluate the need for a new set before it’s purchased. But understand that sooner or later, the collection you helped her spend many dollars on will be outgrown. At that point, your child can sell her collection to other kids just getting started. There’s no need to preserve it for posterity. When its time is over, let it go.

Self-made treasures. For most children, their own artwork is worthy of being collected for only a short time before it fades from view. When my children were little, art was first stuck on the front of the refrigerator for several days, then moved to the top of the refrigerator, where it lived for a week or two.  Anything that made it to the top of the fridge and wasn’t called for in the time it was up there was quietly moved to the trash.

Extraordinary creations might deserve a bit more longevity. Your child’s volcano model from third grade might hang around the back of the closet all through elementary school. We had a model of the moon that didn’t leave the house until the kid who made it was in college and the house was being sold. For these treasures, negotiating a timeline is respectful.

The bottom line is this: don’t make the mistake of cleaning out a child’s room, removing from it everything that made the room hers. Recognize that even though a collection may seem random and messy or even unhygienic to you, it belongs to your child and deserves some grace.

If there’s a family history of hoarding or obsessive-compulsive tendencies, then keep a close eye on your child’s collecting impulses. Collections that have a theme are typical. Collecting everything that one comes into contact with is not. Get professional help if you feel your child’s collecting is getting out of hand.

But for most children, collecting satisfies an impulse to find order in the world and to appreciate the diversity of all the things in it. According to Howard Gardner, creator of Multiple Intelligences theory, collecting is a special ability shared by scientists and other thinkers whose job it is to see differences and categorize similarities.

Collecting is what kids do. It’s a good thing.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.