The Parent Trap: Kids and Obsessions—May The Force Be With You

by Betsy McMillin

My five-year-old son and I were playing Star Wars charades.


Same thing, every time.  He played out some scene or action. I, with little emotion, tiredly went through the few characters I knew at the time: Luke. Han Solo. Darth Vader. Leia.

After many exasperated “no’s” from him, my twelve-year-old son happens through the room and throws out a quick, bored “General Grevious” (pictured right, for those who may need a bit of help picturing the character) to an excited “YES!” from Mr. Five-Year-Old.

General WHO? I ask?

I was sadly out of touch with the Star Wars universe.

When my son first happened upon this obsession many months ago it consumed his (and therefore my) every minute.  My reaction was always “No! Not more!! ”  After awhile, I decided it was time to be a typical parent about the whole thing and totally find worth in his obsession.  I boned up on Star Wars characters, watched a movie or two with and him, and best of all, turned it into a learning tool for him.  I found my saving grace, The ABC of Star Wars. We then did alphabet flashcards: he had to say the letter, then a character or anything from Star Wars that started with that letter sound.

After applying the academics of Star Wars, he was extremely proficient with all his letters and letter sounds in an amazingly short period of time. I also used it as a very useful bartering tool. He would do just about anything to work towards a new Star Wars Lego set or book.

Like a well-worn, much loved, tattered stuffed animal, these obsessions grab our kids. From the time my son gets up and uses his cereal spoon as a light saber, until the moment he lays his head on his Ewok pillow, these familiar items are part of his every day.  And I’ll bet my Millennium Falcon that his dreams are filled with George Lucas creations, as well.

Obsessions have an important place in our kids’ worlds.  They bring comfort to them, let them be in control for awhile, let them be leaders. Obsession and interests allow them to make instant connections with other kids and bring some reliability to their real worlds. They help fuel their imagination and help them make order out of things they may seem chaotic to them.

Think how good it feels when we are the go-to-guy or gal, when we are the expert in our field. People come to us when they need advice or more information. Hand this feeling over to your kids and let them be it for awhile. Let them enjoy that feeling of top dog in their chosen “field of expertise”.

Without even knowing it, we get pulled into these obsessions. I found myself, whenever out shopping, subliminally looking for Star Wars items… place mats, food items, dish sets, cups, t-shirts, you name it. In previous years I have done the same with John Deere, Playmobil, Lego (still doing that one), Elmo, fairies, Disney princesses.  The list goes on and on. We love to be part of what our kids are doing, and it can be fun to step into their world for bit (or a lot). Remember too, how fun and rewarding it can be to learn from them (see The Parent Trap, July 31, 2011).

Ask me to play charades now. I’ll rock.

Years ago, a good friend of mine had a three-year-old son who was truck obsessed.  Vehicles too, but mainly trucks.  So much in fact that his parents took him on neighborhood “truck walks” where he could spot trucks and with permission, touch them. His obsession and interest prompted his parents to make a new rule: no truck books unless they included some new, unlearned material. In other words, enough with the trucks already, but since we can’t get over it, lets go through it the smart way. Take his interest and in place of making it the same thing over and over, add new material and turn it into a learning experience.

A couple of years ago when I needed to know the technical difference between a grader and a scraper, I knew who to go to, no question. Sure, he was 12 now, but he still knew the answer.

Here is an example of how we as parents can try to get them past their obsession or attempt to change it, to no avail: I was watching this same truck-loving boy for a few months, along with my own three-year-old at the time. His mom was expecting baby number two. I decided in all my wisdom, to remove all my truck books and replace them with “welcoming a new baby” books. I packed away his much loved, looking-forward-to-at Betsy’s-house books and got out every book I had used only months before with my daughter when her bother was born: new babies, families getting larger, families, becoming a big sibling, changes and dealing with not being an only child anymore.

When he came over the next day, I ceremoniously showed him the books and explained since his mommy was having a baby, I got out all these books about mommies having babies.  He looked puzzled, then brightened and asked “Mommy trucks having baby trucks?”

So much for my wisdom. I put all the truck books back out within five minutes.

What I failed to realize was that at that time in his life, when a huge change was about to happen, he needed that comfort, the familiarity of his trucks. He needed to be in charge, to know he could count on something safe, something he loved, something he could control. I also failed to realize that while we can try to steer our kids from their love interests or minimize their effect, we can’t make them go away completely. Most will, one day, grow out of whatever fad or obsession fills their days and nights. They will move on to something else, sometimes every bit as all-encompassing, sometimes not nearly so.

Experts agree about how important these interests can be to younger children.

This, from sixtysecondparent:

Developmentally a toddler is trying to gain independence and control over his or her behavior and environment.  Children of this age may sometime seem to withdraw into their own world and become self-absorbed with a particular idea or item.  Having something upon which they focus or with which they feel comfortable gives them that sense of control and security as they move out toward more independence.

How do you know when the behavior becomes a problem?
The behavior may become a problem when an interest in tractors prevents your child from other experiences.  An interest turns into an obsession, in the negative sense of the word, when the need to have or to play with that item is something the child feels he must have or do, even though it may cause your child to feel bad.

My almost-three-year-old has a fun (note the sarcasm) obsession: tap shoes. My ears, my mind and every nerve is jaggling with an endless tappity-tap-tap. But darn if she doesn’t look cute. Still trying to figure a great learning experience to glean from that one. Count those taps!

Another benefit to these interests is the instant connection they bring when meeting with or playing with other kids. How comforting for our kids to walk into a new situation, not know anyone, yet immediately see another kid with a soccer ball in hand or a Disney Princess shirt on. It’s like a secret handshake; instant acceptance. That exact obsession that is driving us nuts just drove our kids to a comfort zone, a place where they can have fun, engage in some spectacular imaginative play, share all they know and maybe learn a little more.

Tween obsessions carry all the same benefits. For them, it is usually a member of the opposite sex that they obsess about. For me it was Shaun Cassidy, then those Duke boys, Bo and Luke. This is a safe way for kids to start dealing with the idea of boyfriends and girlfriends. Yes, horribly annoying, and their rooms can be wallpapered with the likeness of their crush, but it is phase, and will pass. It is also like a road map for us as parents, alerting us to what lies ahead, and not too far off. It allows us to see our kids in that way and start to understand the newer feelings they are having.

So take a deep breath and realize that Dora, Bay Blades or Justin Bieber aren’t the enemy. See if you can try to get some learning out of it all, possibly some quiet time for you, or use is as a most helpful carrot when chores need to be done.

I got over Shaun Cassidy and even Bo and Luke. I must admit though, I have met many an adult who still is obsessed with Star Wars.

In this crazy maze of tiny and not so tiny people obsessed with everything from cupcakes to monster trucks, may the force of the obsession be with you.

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