A kid’s obsession: Should they be encouraged?

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Illustration: Chris Danger Illustration: Chris Danger

If you can’t put your daughter to bed without her favorite dolly, or if your son won’t go anywhere without his toy train, you’re not alone—this could be classified as an extremely intense interest, which research finds that one third of children develop in their early stages.

“This was one of my favorite pieces of research I ever did,” says Judy Deloache, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who published a study in 2007 called Planes, Trains, Automobiles—and Tea Sets. “In part, because it was inspired by my young son’s extremely high level of fascination with animals.”

But what causes these extremely intense interests, or EIIs, in very young children? Scientists don’t quite know. One gender, however, is more affected than the other.

“Extremely intense interests are much more common for young boys than for girls,” the study says.

And while young girls are most often interested in pretend play, like playing school, dress-up or other art-related activities, boys tend to gravitate toward an interest in one particular category of objects, like dinosaurs, according to the study.

Some of the most common obsessions Deloache has witnessed, she says, are with balls, dolls, live animals, dressing up and vehicle toys such as cars, trucks and trains, but some can be highly idiosyncratic, such as one described by the study:

“One boy’s intense interest in blenders first emerged around 18 months, when he insisted ‘at least 10 times a day’ that his parents lift him up so he could see the blender on the kitchen counter,” the study reads. “When his parents bought him a toy blender, it became his ‘constant companion.’ He took it everywhere and even slept with it. He began asking to see blenders when visiting friends’ homes. At the peak of his interest, around 2.5 years of age, it broadened to include other kitchen appliances—food processors, mixers, toasters and coffeemakers. He started making up to 25 drawings a day of blenders and kitchen appliances, many with faces on them. Eventually, his parents replaced his toy with a real one (less the motor and blade) that they found at a garage sale. This boy’s parents knew their son’s interest was quirky and unusual, but they thought it was cute and were supportive of it for the two years it lasted.”

And in another boy’s second year, the study describes an interest in brooms and sweeping floors, which soon expanded to cleaning brushes and later generalized to all sorts of brushes, including hair brushes, paintbrushes and toothbrushes.

“His parents indulged his passion to the extent that there were eventually toothbrushes in every room of the house so he would never have to be without one,” the study says.

When asked if parents should encourage these types of obsessions, Deloache says “should” isn’t quite the right question and there may not be an answer.

“For most of the EIIs that we observed in our sample of children, I don’t see any way the interest would be problematic unless it prevented children from learning in other domains,” she says, adding that 92 of 177 parents interviewed reported going along with their kid’s interest by buying toys that supported it or providing opportunities to engage in relevant activities.

And for the vast majority of young children, Deloache says these obsessions aren’t undesirable, unhealthy or problematic, “probably only when an EII could be dangerous or destructive,” such as a fascination with fire, she adds.

The EII study, by the numbers

177 parents interviewed

61 children between the ages of

11 months and

6 years had extremely intense interests.

46 percent of them were boys.

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