“Daisy is a hoarder!” my daughter exclaimed in horror (and frustration). If I didn’t know about kids and their typical development, I might agree with her. For Daisy, the world is filled with treasures. Whether it is a lost sequin spotted in the driveway, a set of Halloween vampire’s teeth, a singular sticker from a coach, party favor junk, or another piece of plastic cr&p from the dentist’s office, it is must be saved. Castoffs of all categories, shapes, colors, and sizes are for the keeping to Daisy. One man’s trash is Daisy’s found treasure. And she can tell you the story that accompanies every tiny thing she has saved.
Daisy is a prolific artist, who creates art on and out of everything and anything. Each piece is truly amazing and fabulous, that, if not made specifically for the best friend de jour, must be saved, signed, dated and SAVED.
Daisy is not a hoarder; she is a saver.
Hoarding, on the other hand, is a real, diagnosable condition. The manifestations of this disorder are certainly well known. For a variety of reasons, all of which fall within the spectrum of anxiety, adult hoarders acquire and hold onto specific items, often organize these items, and are entirely unable to part with any of them. Adult hoarders’ bounty takes over an entire house. This condition can begin as early as the mid-teen years, and once in a blue moon, can be seen in children even younger. It is an anxiety disorder. It is not because a child collects and saves.
Saving treasures is part of childhood, a scene that can look like hoarding, but is quite different from a diagnosis of hoarder. Children love collecting, different from adult hoarding. Collecting is what kids want to do. With adults, hoarding is a need. The child doesn’t organize her treasures beyond the category of “treasure” or something that was important to her and therefore saved. There is little rhyme or reason to the things she saves, beyond her liking and wanting to keep them. The child can make a choice about keeping her stuff, even though she may not want to be reasonable at that time. She can be reasoned with. The diagnosed hoarder cannot part with his accumulations or panic will ensue. There is an over powering, emotional attachment to his things. He worries about his possessions. Talking about it and reasoning don’t work. The adult hoarder is so worried about his possessions that he simply cannot function without them. Hoarding takes over his home and his life. He is ruled by his collections.
Precursors to childhood collecting or hoarding, so-to-speak, first blossom around 18 months when the child understands the word, “mine” and uses it at every opportunity. Having things that are yours is powerful and intoxicating to the young child. And so collecting—wanting stuff—begins. Thereafter the collections and bounty expand as the child matures. By four years old, the child’s parents begin stealthily tossing things, the child never actually noticing anything is gone.
Another aspect of this initial collecting stage is “Bag Lady.” Both toddler boys and girls love loading things up, especially in purses and bags of all kinds, and carrying them around. Fifty years ago my little brother used to load a doll buggy with cars and take it where he went. Early on, Daisy was emulating her mama and others who carried purses wherever they went. Her bags were swollen with whatever she could reach. It just had to be full. (The young collector is no different than her mother whose bag is often filled with everything except the kitchen sink.)
I have now seen this purse packing behavior in several of my grandchildren. It’s not just Daisy. Have you noticed how so many toddler ride-em toys come with a compartments in the rear or under the seat? It’s the perfect space to fill up, to carry your loot with you. Kids love their stuff. They see their possessions as extensions of themselves. Take my toy away, you are taking my arm. Mine Mine Mine! Kids’ possessions become part of their sense of self.
For most kids, however, as they develop and mature as whole little people, as they master separation and letting go in other ways, this stage passes. I found a little plastic chicken in Daisy’s pocket while doing laundry during my last visit. When I asked Daisy about it and where she wanted it to go, she said, “It’s rubbish. I got it for student-of-the-week. I don’t need it.” What a relief!
Tips for lessening hoarding behavior:
- Honor your child’s feelings about her stuff, and don’t try to talk her out of her treasures. Do not let her desire to save things that are special to her become a source of tension between you.
- Create a “treasure box” or a few containers in which to keep her special treasures.
- Organize your children’s play rooms with labeled containers. Animals in one box, cars in another, Barbi accessories in another. Make sure all the containers the kids use are labeled (with a picture of what is inside), transparent, and easy for them to open and close. When everything has its home, the temptation to keep unclassified treasures is lessened. There is no place for them.
- Set up a limited place to keep saved items of all kinds–art work, sticks, brochures. A drawer or a shelf, for example, works well when you say, “Whatever fits in this place, you can save.” As it fills up, the child learns to discriminate and prioritize because it all won’t fit. The things that don’t fit cannot be kept.
- Have a permanent Donation Box, not just at Thanksgiving or the Winter holidays. Make donating to someone who in need a habit and a regular activity, be it for clothes, toys, duplicate kitchen utensils, or treasures. Model doing so. Your children need to see you donating your “too much.” And think out loud, so your child will learn how you decided to donate an item. “I have 3 pairs of red shoes, and I really only wear two. I think I will donate one of my pairs.”
- Teach “one in; one out.” At an early age help your child to cleanout one item when a new one comes in. Model the same behavior with your possession.. (When my husband used to receive a new neck tie, he always got rid of an older one, as his tie rack had only 24 spaces!) One in; one out enables practice in deciding what is worth keeping and what isn’t.