Obsessions, Kid Style

One of the magical things about being a little kid is the ability to be all in, gung-ho, consumed, fascinated, and captivated by a single subject. We see it over and over, generation after generation, particularly in the 2-5 year old bunch. And though pop culture additions to the list come and go (Teletubbies, Pokemon, and Hello Kitty come to mind), the old-school standbys like dinosaurs and superheroes have staying power.

One theory suggests that kids who tend toward fascination with single subjects are destined to be gifted. Chat rooms on ‘gifted and talented’ websites are filled with stories about toddlers who play with nothing but trains for months on end, those who spend hours taking apart every tech gadget in the house (but do they put them back together?), and still others who are drawn to balls of every shape and size — but only if they’re red.

Then there are the worriers who panic that total absorption with dinosaurs, balloons, or whatever is a cardinal sign of Asperger’s or another condition on the autism spectrum. Let me clear up any confusion over that concern. By itself, single subject obsession is not a symptom of any disorder. If a young child shows exclusive interest in a single thing as part of a constellation of other symptoms, like problems with social interaction and language, further evaluation is in order. But if your child is responsive and affectionate, makes good eye contact, engages easily with other children and adults, has typical communication skills and eats, breathes and sleeps sea creatures, not to worry.

My (not so original) explanation? The world is a complicated and scary place to be, especially when you’re short and powerless. Kiddos this age are coming face-to-face with the reality that they have little control over their environment, and are struggling with the knowledge that yes, mommy IS the boss of me. That doesn’t feel so good, and if you’re 3 ft. tall and looking for a sense of mastery, what better way than to delve deep into a world of wonder and know everything there is to know about it, kid style.

Whether it’s earth moving equipment, dinosaurs, sharks, or Spiderman, it’s a fun, captivating and master-able place to live. And if the object of your affection happens to be bigger, stronger and more powerful than you are, all the better.

One of mine knew the make, model, and year of every car on the road before he was 3. It was a complete mystery to us, since his dad and I aren’t really car people and don’t much care what we’re driving as long as it starts every morning. Not this little guy, who knew each vehicle and could name it a block away long before he could read. The most exciting outing ever for him? A trip to the New York Automobile Show.

The other was obsessed with … wait for it … Abraham Lincoln. No joke. He collected pictures of him, wanted to be read to about him, talked non-stop about him. In a famous family video clip he’s seen hugging and cuddling his little sister with pure affection when he says, “do you know who my best friend is? Guess who my best friend is?” … dramatic pause … “Abraham Lincoln!” On a family trip to Washington he refused to leave the Lincoln Memorial until we’d read every word that was carved into the stone. Every word. Go figure.

A friend’s son was over the moon for the Beatles. He couldn’t get enough of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. He sang every song, every word, all day long. His favorite was Norwegian Wood. My friend loves the Fab Four, but it got old. She finally filled her iPod with every Beatles CD she could beg, borrow, or steal and let him have at it with earphones. Don’t even ask about the scene that followed when he inevitably learned that both John and George had moved on to that Yellow Submarine in another dimension. Not pretty.

I find myself wondering what happens to these obsessions as we move through childhood and into adulthood. Do these kids become the grown-ups who spend a lifetime studying the genetic structure of the tze-tze fly, or the guys so committed to the hometown football team that they miss birthday parties and piano recitals? Or more ominously, do the harmless obsessions of childhood predict adult obsessions to come?

And what about our mom-like obsession with our kids? Is it related? Is helicopter parenting a grown-up attempt to control the uncontrollable? I don’t have the answers, but the questions are worth asking.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?


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