Enhancing children's lives through parent and teacher education.

The "GOT TO HAVE IT, GOT TO TRADE IT" Phenomenon

From marbles to baseball cards, from Beanie Babies to Pokemon cards, children have historically found collecting and trading objects appealing. If your child's interests lie in collecting leaves in the fall, or rocks in Central Park, you probably haven't given much thought to their collections, other than that they may be dirty and clutter up their rooms. On the other hand, if your child's obsession leans toward the $150 "rare" Beanie Baby or Pokemon card, collecting and trading takes on a whole different meaning, and parents need to be informed about the benefits and pitfalls of this "got to have it, got to trade it" game.

Let's start with the benefits of collecting and trading:

* Creating a collection can teach patience and perseverance. Collection by it's very nature takes time. Children who collect things often learn to persevere, moving forward step by step as they enlarge their collection. It takes patience to build a large collection, and that patience is rewarded concretely with each new acquisition.

* Collecting can teach organizational skills. In order for a child to collect something successfully, they must assess not only what they have, but what is still left to acquire in order to build a collection that is diverse. In addition, children who are required to organize their collection in boxes, binders or on shelves learn something about taking care of their things through making sure they are organized, not haphazardly thrown about their rooms.

* Collecting often breaks down barriers that might otherwise prevent children from interacting with one another. I've seen five year olds chatting comfortably with 12 year olds about their mutual interest in collecting. Even children who speak different languages are given a common ground when they're talking the "language" of their collection. With something in common, there's more room to learn to communicate in other ways and to form friendships with one another.

* Trading one of their collectibles with another child's can teach negotiation and socialization. In order to trade, children must interact with one another, socialize appropriately (or the other child might walk away from the trade) and negotiate. The "I'll give you two ___'s for one of your ____'s" helps children learn to assess the value of objects and increases thinking and problem solving skills in the process.

There is no question that children can learn many things from the process of collecting and trading. However, there's a negative side to the "got to have it, got to trade it" game as well and parents must be knowledgeable about the negative as well as the positive aspects in order to help their children achieve balance.

The pitfalls of collecting and trading:

* Cheating others. In a market-driven collection where some of the focus is on trading with others, children who are developmentally more mature have the advantage over younger children. Thus, the opportunity for an older child to cheat a younger child out of a "valuable" collectible will present itself over and over again. Without parental awareness and intervention, cheating others becomes a rewarding and satisfying enterprise with very few drawbacks. Learned at young ages without contradictory messages from authority figures, cheating may well become a value that the child then adopts as a lifestyle.

* Children can become "acquisition oriented." Caught up in the excitement of making their collection ever bigger, combined with the market and media push to purchase the latest Beanie Baby or Pokemon cards, it's easy for children to get the "greedy-gimmes" and develop an insatiable appetite for more and more objects. This greediness can even go beyond the current collection and extend to toys in general. Unless parents verbalize and live a different message, children may not feel satisfied unless they have the latest, greatest or most valuable collectible or unless they have more "stuff" than the other kids.

* Objects can become psychological substitutes for love and attention. It's important for parents to assess whether their child's passion for collecting is based on an interest in the items being collected, or whether the child feels left out, sad, or unloved by his parents or peer group. Sometimes children who are having intense negative emotions will seek to cover those feelings by purchasing things. While the feelings may be temporarily numbed by the excitement of a new collectible, the minute the newness wears off and the feelings come back, the child asks for another object. This pitfall can be avoided when families not only do a lot of talking about feelings, but also when parents accurately assess the amount of time they spend with their children, and make sure that each child is being given adequate amounts of parental time and loving attention.

* Children may come to feel a sense of "entitlement." When a child comes to believe that "it's not fair" when you won't buy her the newest collectible, she may have developed a sense of entitlement. In other words, the child has stopped believing that it's a privilege to have nice things or numerous toys and comes to think that it's their God-given right. This sense of entitlement undermines the values that most parents are trying to teach their children. If you believe your child has come to feel entitled, it may be time to put the collecting on hold and focus for a while on giving to those less fortunate.

* Collecting may stop being fun. I've seen parents become so intense about the collections of their children that it stops being fun for the child. When parents insist that each Beanie Baby "must keep it's tag on" or Pokemon cards can never come out of their case or else they stop being "valuable" and the child feels the Beanie's are more cuddly without the tags, or that they want to actually play the Pokemon game with their cards, then it's time to ask "Who's collection is it anyway?" If collecting isn't fun for the child, then it's lost its value in terms of the benefits that the child can derive from it.

When parents can help their children maintain a balance with regard to collecting and trading, and when they continue to teach their values to their children - both verbally and by example - then creating a collection can be a rewarding learning experience for child and parent alike.