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Children and Collecting

Summary:

Collecting has psychological, emotional and educational benefits for children. It is a natural human function, which seems to originate from the hunting and gathering needs of our ancestors. Experts find that by sublimation the collected objects resolve unfulfilled needs. Hoarding is the pathological assembling of "stuff" without regard for what it is. Parents and educators can use collecting as an educational tool.

Keywords:
collecting, object, subjective value, sublimation, hoarding, Jung, Muensterberger, Freud, Steven W. Anderson, subcortical, limbic and prefrontal cortex of the brain, educational tool

Have you noticed that many children want to collect things? Sometimes it seems like their interest in collecting arises out of the blue. I was curious to find out what prompted this urge. Did it have a psychological basis? A genetic basis? Did collecting have a positive effect on the child? Do child collectors become adult collectors? What about hoarding? I set about to find what experts have written on the subject of collecting.

Definitions

The German born psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger defines collecting as "the selection, gathering, and keeping of objects of subjective value." This value is different from usefulness or commercial worth. It gives the owner a sense of identity, a source of self-definition. The object of their desire depends upon the person's personality and often is related to unconscious experiences from the past.*1 Object is defined as "anything which is the cause or subject of a passion."*2 For children the active phase for collecting is about age seven to twelve.*2 How a child handles his/her collection may give us insight about the working of the child's mind.*8

What's behind the child's collecting urge?

Based on my research I would argue that the drive to collect is influenced by multiple factors which may include the following:

  1. Favouring an object instead of people may be a solution for dealing with emotions brought on by a separation trauma. E.g. The infant being weaned from the mother's breast and loss of the frequent cuddling and touching the mother provided, may sublimate a soft teddy bear or a doll for the mother to alleviate his/her anxiety over the loss.*1
  2. In a magical way, the child manages his anxiety about feeling helpless and alone by personifying objects. He feels no longer alone with his "people" around him. He may give them names (animism). The objects may be imbued with the ability to carry on conversations.*1*2
  3. The child's collection is regarded as private, solely of his own design. It may draw attention and bolster his/her identity as a person of worth.*1 (On the dark side, friends may not understand and share his/her interest, which is disappointing.)
  4. Children are naturally curious and the act of amassing objects to be observed, arranged, classified and studied fulfills this need.*5
  5. The collection can be a means of socialization when others share his/her interest.*5
  6. Children are vulnerable and may start collections because of marketing pressures directed at them.
  7. The child's collecting interest may follow the interest of a valued adult or be foisted upon him/her by people who believe they are benefiting the child.*6
What do experts say about the origin of the collecting drive?

Jung attributes the collecting drive to our innate unconsciousness. Our ancestors collected "nuts and berries" in order to survive. Muensterberger says collecting is "a self-soothing way to cope with trauma."*1 Freud postulated that collecting stems from the anal-retentive state in childhood. The collected object replaces the lost object (bowel), created by the child, which was flushed down the toilet. Steven W. Anderson, a neurologist (University of Iowa) points out that "the urge to collect derives from the need to store supplies such as food..."*4

Is adult collecting an extension of child collecting?

The adult collector is driven by many of the same needs as the child collector, so that sometimes the collecting is refined but continues; however, often the early pattern is outgrown and other reasons for collecting emerge. Diane Fricke and others wrote about adult collecting:

  1. "People collect in order to remember and relive the past."*3
  2. The collected objects help us "understand the past."*3
  3. The objects satisfy a "personal taste" for beauty or they may reflect the person's wish to be different, "show individuality."*3
  4. Some collectors are driven by an eye toward "profit."*3 The collected objects will hopefully sell for more than they cost.
  5. People often collect "to fulfill incomplete needs which arose in childhood."*3
  6. The pleasure of the chase after objects gives an emotional high.*5
  7. The owner of a collection often believes that the collection will out-live him/her. In a sense he/she has a stake in eternity, which is reassuring to the collector.*3
An example

Orhan Pamuk, Turkish Nobel-laureate gives us a picture of the motivation, experience and expectations of the collector, Kemal, in his novel Museum of Innocence . Although living like a gentry and engaged to a woman of his class, Kemal loves Füsun, a much younger, lower class shop girl. For thirty years he is obsessed with collecting objects related to times with Füsun. A museum is built to house the objects Kemal might have collected for the entire world to admire.

Pamuk believes that museums were created in the West to show "the power and sophistication of the ruling class." When viewing the collection, the visitor feels "the venue of a prince, a rich guy, a sad guy, the poor collector who thought that he would transcend history by his collection, by his objects." "The objects tell a story." "Inside the museum it's timeless."*7 It's the dream of many collectors to have the things they love preserved and admired by coming generations.

What about hoarding?

Hoarding is a pathological condition. The stash of objects collected is so extensive that it interferes with life. The hoarder cannot part with his/her collected objects. Unlike the collector who handles and organizes his objects, the hoarder piles up "stuff" with no regard for what it is. Hoarding seems to be addictive. There appears to be no collecting gene, but Steven W. Anderson and his colleagues at the University of Iowa have an answer to the riddle about hoarding. They studied 63 people with brain damage due to strokes, surgery or encephalitis who had shown no hoarding behaviour before their traumas. After the traumas, some participants began to hoard newspapers, broken appliances etc., while others did not. Anderson found that the hoarders had "suffered damage to the prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in decision making, information processing and behavioural organization. The people whose collecting behavior remained normal also had brain damage but it was instead distributed throughout the right and left hemispheres of the brain."*4 Anderson believes that the urge to collect derives from the basic need to store supplies and "originates in the subcortical and limbic portions of the brain."*4 Humans need the prefrontal cortex to determine what "supplies are worth hoarding."*4 Without that brain monitor, collecting becomes excessive.*4*5*6

Evaluating child collecting

Collecting is an extension of play.*8 It provides an escape into another world, which is exciting and pleasurable. The collection allows the child to handle and thus discover the properties of objects and to make comparisons. Those discoveries bolster his intellectual confidence. I believe that collecting is a worthwhile pleasure even though the collector may be the only beneficiary.

Collecting as an educational tool

Parents and educators can use collections as educational devices.*8 Back in the 50s I stumbled on a way to use stamp collecting to get the three nine-year-old boys, in the Cleveland, Ohio hospital school, to become interested in reading. When on vacation, I sent them post cards from Canada with Queen Elizabeth pictured on the stamps. Upon return I found that they were curious about Canada's queen. They wanted to know: Where does she live? How could they go to Buckingham Palace in London to see her? How fast do airplanes fly? Then I gave them American stamps with pictures of George Washington and American historical places. The boys were full of questions. I typed out their questions and wrote answers on a primer typewriter. Paul, one of the boys said, "My brother wants to know these things. I'm keeping this (the typed sheet) for him." That spark of curiosity about the pictures on the stamps drove the boys to learn to decipher words and read materials that interested them. Students in the high school biology class I taught showed little interest in plants. I asked them to bring in leaves and evergreen needles and organized the students into groups to observe the similarities and differences between the leaves and needles they had brought so that they could make an identification key. Photo collections of children at play and work are important tools to remind the child of happy times. They show the child how he is growing up, and the photographs give him a sense of security. There are so many stories that you can add to show the benefits attained by the child through collecting.

Conclusion

Collecting is beneficial to children in many ways. The drive to collect is a basic human behaviour. Hoarding is collecting driven to excess without control of a brain monitor. Parents and educators can encourage collecting to bring self-soothing and educational benefits to the child.


References

Profile

Marlene_Ritchie.jpg Marlene Ritchie
For her writing Marlene Ritchie (née Archer) calls upon her experiences of teaching in the U.S., Japan and China, as a nurse and assisting-founder with Emma N. Plank of the Child Life and Education Program, which addresses the non-medical needs of hospitalized children, as a cofounder of Ritchies, a Toronto auction house, about growing up in a small Ohio town and about being a mother. Currently Marlene is a freelance writer and tutor living in Toronto, Canada. For the past eight years she has contributed to CRN.
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