At the beginning of the school year, Benjamin Thomas, an 8-year-old who lives in Magnolia, came home with a Silly Bandz a friend had given him and he told his dad he wanted more.
Timothy Thomas, Benjamin’s dad, is no stranger to toy and game crazes. As a former employee of Wizards of the Coast, the company that introduced Magic cards, he’s even benefited financially from a fad or two.
With pressure from friends and TV ads bombarding children daily, it’s no wonder kids think they have to have the latest game, gadget or toy.
“From a developmental perspective, children at this age are seeking ways to please others — by being creative, connected and noticed,” says Brian Crain, Psy.D., a clinical child psychologist with Group Health Cooperative serving Tacoma and Olympia. “From the age of 7 to the start of adolescence, they are developing a sense of connection and beginning to realize that what other people think matters.”
As they become more aware of “trends” or how to be a part of an accepted group, they will make efforts to become increasingly involved in these activities, Crain says. When children go along with the current craze, they find a sense of community and harmony. What’s more, they can express their own individuality and be less connected to their parents than they were when they were 4 or 5 years old.
The mastery of different levels, as in Pokémon and video games, also appeals to young people in this age group, says Lahab Al-Samarrai, a psychotherapist in Seattle. With control and mastery, they see a clear path toward some sort of victory.
Thomas took his son to the store and they bought a knock-off brand of bands, not Silly Bandz. First, for a math lesson, they calculated how much each band in the pack cost. Then, Thomas told Benjamin to pick out two bands he thought his friend (who had given him one band) might like.
“By asking my son to choose two bands to give to the other boy, instead of just one, I was teaching him to be generous. I don’t know if giving two changed their relationship or not, but it was a good lesson in social dynamics,” says Thomas.
Crain agrees that fads can be important teaching experiences. Those might include teaching your child how to use available finances to pay for interests, how to make priorities about what’s important to him and his peers, and what activities (fads or otherwise) will provide a connection between him and his peers.
If it’s a trend that involves trading and determining what something is worth, that’s also a valuable life lesson, says Al-Samarrai. The positive side of the lesson teaches your child why people care about certain things and how to negotiate with others. On the downside, your child may get conned by the person they’re trading with or vice versa.
“But anything that helps kids interact more on a verbal and intellectual level is good,” says Al-Samarrai.
But fads can “easily hit the bottom line” of the family budget, says Thomas. “That’s why I’m not quick to embrace them.”
Children can become obsessive about their collections, and then it’s all about materialism and not at all about imagination. Al-Samarrai has even seen children who progressed from a craze to gambling.
Trends can sometimes drive unexpected and unhealthy competition, says Crain. Instead of using the activity as an opportunity for connections and increased interaction with their peers, kids sometimes focus on acquiring more and more materials.
What to do?
Following every toy and game fad that comes along wouldn’t be reasonable or rational, so you can pick and choose which ones to support. Crain suggests asking yourself the following questions when your child asks to take part in the newest craze:
- Is this trend something that is likely to develop your child’s sense of self and identity?
- Will your child invest his own money into the activity?
- Will the fad help your child include and connect to others?
- Will your child exclude friends who don’t participate in the trend?
After Thomas’ initial purchase of the knock-off bands, Benjamin said he wanted the “real” Silly Bandz. But he didn’t press the issue and eventually lost interest. Apparently the trend has died down at his school, too.
“Parents need to guide their children. You can’t let them eat a whole bag of cookies. You have to place limits so they learn to regulate themselves,” says Al-Samarrai.
Heather Larson is a freelance writer who lives in Tacoma.