Kids As Collectors: a Phenomenological Study of First and Fifth Graders

Stacey Menzel Baker, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
ABSTRACT - This paper presents the results of interviews with 79 children, 72 of whom had a collection (or collections) of one kind or another. We observed that the type of collections which children pursue depends upon the ease of entry (i.e., cost) into a collecting domain, gender norms, and current fads started by movies or cartoons. The primary objective of this study was to explore the motives underlying children's collecting behaviors using a phenomenological philosophy. We suggest that children are motivated to collect because they (1) enjoy the process of collecting as it allows them to escape boredom and sometimes reality, (2) learn or satisfy curiosity about their collecting domain, (3) satiate a passion for the objects which are desired, (4) want to differentiate themselves from others, and (5) desire to associate with others, especially family and friends. Although one of the above motives was illustrated in each of the interviews, the text suggests that children often have multiple motives for collecting.
[ to cite ]:
Stacey Menzel Baker and James W. Gentry (1996) ,"Kids As Collectors: a Phenomenological Study of First and Fifth Graders", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 132-137.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 132-137

KIDS AS COLLECTORS: A PHENOMENOLOGICAL STUDY OF FIRST AND FIFTH GRADERS

Stacey Menzel Baker, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

[The authors would like to thank Pat Kennedy, Mary Martin, and the members of the marketing course including Tamera Andreasen, Lynnette Boltz, Matt Christiansen, Sarah Curry, Spencer Ebeler, Jan Hallowell, Stacey Hansen, Denise Heil, Jan Hejl, Lance Lehman, Stacey Nelson, Laura Paeglis, Bee Ling Phuar, and Geok Hwa Wee who provided invaluable assistance with the interviews.]

ABSTRACT -

This paper presents the results of interviews with 79 children, 72 of whom had a collection (or collections) of one kind or another. We observed that the type of collections which children pursue depends upon the ease of entry (i.e., cost) into a collecting domain, gender norms, and current fads started by movies or cartoons. The primary objective of this study was to explore the motives underlying children's collecting behaviors using a phenomenological philosophy. We suggest that children are motivated to collect because they (1) enjoy the process of collecting as it allows them to escape boredom and sometimes reality, (2) learn or satisfy curiosity about their collecting domain, (3) satiate a passion for the objects which are desired, (4) want to differentiate themselves from others, and (5) desire to associate with others, especially family and friends. Although one of the above motives was illustrated in each of the interviews, the text suggests that children often have multiple motives for collecting.

INTRODUCTION

According to recent statistics, child consumers had an estimated $9 billion income in 1989, but influenced purchases of over $132 billion (greater than the GNP of Taiwan) (McNeal 1992). This influence came in three primary areas: items for themselves (e.g., snacks or hobby supplies), items for the home (e.g., stereos), and items for the family (e.g., food). As these figures suggest, children have a substantial amount of spending power, which is particularly significant because almost all of their income and influence goes toward discretionary purchases. In fact, children between the ages of 2 and 12 influence purchases of over $16.9 billion for play items per year and influence 40 percent of sales for "hobby items" (McNeal 1992). Many of the hobby-related purchases are likely to be items which will be added to children's collections.

Collecting is prevalent in consumer cultures; in fact, Schiffer, Downing, and McCarthy (1981) found that just over 60 percent of the households which they surveyed had at least one collection, with the average of 2.6 per household. The motivations energizing collecting behaviors have received a considerable amount of attention in the popular press as well as in the academic literature. However, most of the recent reports have focused on adults and have failed to consider child consumers and their motivations for collecting. Rheims (1961) suggests:

If a child collects, he is very rarely a connoisseur, being chiefly interested in quantity and not caring for aesthetic considerations. But with age and the acquisition of a sense of value, often derived from stamp collecting, a child shows in miniature the psychological pressures that urge its parents to collect....as in the case of adults, more attention should be paid to the motives that oblige people to find an emotional outlet in art [or any other form of] collecting (p. 22).

The objective of this paper is to explore the motives of collecting for children in the first and fifth grades. First, the current literature on motivations for collecting will be reviewed. Next, the research approach will be explained. After a discussion of the types of collections which we encountered in this study, the motives underlying children's collecting behavior are explored. The paper concludes by suggesting that the motives with which the collecting process is approached and the task effects of the process aid children in their developmental process and in their search for identity.

MOTIVATIONS FOR COLLECTING

Perusing the literature in consumer research, developmental psychology, and social psychology as well as articles and books in the popular press makes it obvious that a variety of motivations for collecting have been offered. In a true Freudian fashion, Muensterberger (1994) suggests that adult collecting is the result of unresolved childhood fantasies. Even, if this view of the motives underlying adults' collecting behaviors is accepted, the motivations for children's collecting behaviors are still uncertain.

In one of the most comprehensive explorations of collecting in consumer research, Belk et al. (1991) suggest that two basic motivations can be used to explain collecting: legitimization and self-extension. Legitimization motives are characterized by collectors behaving within boundaries which the social world will accept. The authors suggest that this process begins in childhood as children learn that behavior which is done for "rational" purposes (e.g., creating, investing, building history) is not considered to be self-indulgent if one labels it as "collecting." Self-extension motives are characterized by a desire to enhance or improve the self. In fact, Belk (1988) suggested that completing the collection may symbolically complete the self.

In another study of collectors, Formanek (1991) found that respondents were motivated by investment, obsession, preservation, and legitimization of the personal and social self. She found that across all kinds of motivations, the one thing all collectors have in common is their passion for the items which they collect.

RESEARCH APPROACH

Regardless of the manner in which motivations are labeled, the energized state results in the collector working toward his/her goal of acquiring more items for the collection. In this paper, we seek to delve into the meaning of the motivations which children have for collecting activities. This research question was approached using a phenomenological philosophy which allows one to explore the meaning of a phenomenon as an informant consciously perceives it (Moustakas 1994).

Approximately 90 first and fifth grade students were interviewed about their consumption experiences with advertising and collecting. Because of time constraints, the topic of collecting was broached in only 79 of these interviews. Because we wanted to investigate what collecting experiences mean to young children, we chose to look at children in the first and fifth grades. Our rationale was that children at age 6 (first grade) would just be starting to accumulate their own things and would be in the earliest stage it seemed possible to have a conversation. By age 11 (fifth grade), children are becoming more independent and make or help make more marketplace decisions. In addition, because of maturation, they are more independent in their decision making than first graders.

TABLE 1

TYPES OF CHILDREN'S COLLECTIONS

The textural descriptions which are presented in this paper were obtained through interviews which were conducted by the authors as well as by members of an undergraduate directed-study course in marketing. The students who participated in the project were given course credit for reading materials on qualitative research, interviewing children, and collecting (e.g., Belk et al. 1988); attending training sessions on interviewing children; conducting interviews with first and fifth grade students; transcribing the interviews verbatim; and beginning to pick themes from the text. They received feedback at each level of the project.

The perceptions of the children were our primary interest in the interviews as we explored why children believe they collect objects to add to a collection. Thus, the grand tour question sought to determine "what is it about collecting that children like?" This was determined by asking them to tell us stories about when they acquired new items for their collections and by asking "what makes new items special?," "how do you feel when you collect things?," and "what do you think about when you collect?"

The children talked with the interviewers about collecting for between 5 and 25 minutes; the variability of time was mainly due to varying levels of involvement with collecting, but the child's attention span also was an important factor in the length of the interview. As an incentive to participate, the children received two movie passes. Parental permission was obtained for all informants.

TYPES OF COLLECTIONS

Of the 79 children who were interviewed about collecting, only 7 did not consider themselves to be collectors or said that they did not have a collection of any kind. Of those that responded to our collecting questions, only two had to be given a hint as to what a collection was (both were in the first grade). The interviewers told these two respondents that a collection was a group of "special things."

Table 1 illustrates the favorite types of collections which our informants said they looked for and enjoyed getting (by themselves or through gifts which they had solicited). In some cases the children had multiple collections, but we asked them to focus on their one (or sometimes two) favorite collection(s).

These lists of items which children collect offer insight into children's collecting behaviors. A number of children noted the care they put into maintaining their collections. Some like Sarah (1st) enjoy naming every item; she collects stuffed kittens "because when I get a new one I get to name it." Others spent time cleaning their collectibles. Brayha (1st) said her rocks were:

like clothes...everyday when I get them I like wash them and then I put them on my dresser and then when they get dirty I wash them again.

Stephanie (5th) would put a little note by each of the special rocks she had. She said:

One time when we were playing on the playground we stuffed our pockets full of rocks but my friends dumped theirs out. I didn't. I took them home and washed them and put them in my collection.

Other children keep lists of all their items, and several had special cases or shelves for them. For example, Lukas (5th) collects rocks:

For my birthday I got this rock case, this big rock case my dad made, and I shelve all these glazed shells and stuff and it has a purple light, you know white light you just turn on the knob and it can be purple or you can turn it off, and turn on the white one or both.

It is obvious that these children put a great deal of effort into building a collection (e.g., searching for rocks or bugs or putting sports cards in order).

Ease of entry is an important component of the type of collection children pursue, as evidenced by the prominence of items that can be picked up without cost (e.g., rocks) and received as a small gift (e.g., trolls for first grade females and Jurassic Park "stuff" for first grade males). The items collected by the older children were generally of a greater cost. Gender norms seem to affect what is collected. Fifth grade females are likely to collect stuffed animals (35%) and males are likely to collect sports cards (58%). The list also illustrates the timeless collections including rocks and stuffed animals; however the influence of movies, cartoons, and advertising is also apparent as the current fads include dinosaurs and Jurassic Park "things" as well as Garfield "stuff" and trolls. Perhaps, when this generation reaches adulthood, these fad items will be among their desires, as Pez dispensers are now for adults who lived through that fad. Or, perhaps not.

CHILDREN'S COLLECTING MOTIVES

Although first and fifth grade children do not have the words to articulate their feelings to the degree that adults do, children are able to express the goals they have in their collecting and enjoy talking about it. However, they are more likely to do things rather than to ponder why they do them. For several of the younger informants, the notion of collecting is quite different than the operational definition evolving from adults. For example, Jamie (1st grade) said that she does not collect anything. When probed with "Nothing?", she said, "At our school, we collect paper; white paper only. We have this box that we only put white paper in." When asked what he collects, Nathan (1st) said, "Money." He was proud of having $16.37.

First graders also displayed vivid imaginations about what collecting means. Shea (1st) collected treasure maps which led him to find eggs and "inside are gold coins." When asked how he would feel if someone hurt his card collection, Stuart (1st) said he would be mad because it "might wreck a pro basketball player." Older children had both more traditional collections and more traditional perspectives of what collecting entails. Further, they were able in many cases to take a more active role in the acquisition of their collections due to their access to more resources. As noted earlier, most first grade collections were either picked up (e.g., rocks) or were generated from gifts.

Although children have different definitions for collecting, they seem to have some expectations as to what collecting will provide to them. Our text illustrates that children have multiple motives for collecting. The motives discovered in our text help us to understand the meaning of children's collecting experiences.

Collecting as Doing

Collecting was seen by many informants as something to do. Many said they collected because collecting is "fun" and because they enjoy doing it. Not only is collecting enjoyable for children, but it also helps them to relieve their boredom. Tony (5th) talks about why baseball cards are a good thing for him to collect:

I don't know, because it's something to do when I get bored and like when I go do my travel I stop at like a Quick shop and get a few packs and look at them because I always get bored when I travel.

Similarly, Corey (5th) said that "collecting makes me feel good, because it gives me something to do like organize cars and stuff like that when there is nothing else to do." Mary (1st) collects rocks because "sometimes I get bored and it keeps me from making myself mad. It just makes me think about something else. Like when I'm picking up rocks it is hard for me to think of something else."

Besides using collecting as an escape from boredom, children also use collecting as something to do to escape from reality. For example, Stacey (5th), whose parents were "busy and worked all the time," seemed to be comforted by her book collecting. Patrick (5th) seemed to have an unhappy family life. He lives with his father and step-mother, but he does not get along with her. His own mother apparently has substance abuse problems and when he stays with her in the trailer, he sleeps with other kids on a mattress on the floor and he always comes home in rags. Patrick collects rocks, "I feel sort of happy when I'm getting hold of this stuff, just by picking something off the ground and brushing it." For Patrick, collecting seems to one activity in his life which he can completely control. Thus, collecting seems to be something he is able to do to put order into his life.

Some children suggested they collected just because they enjoyed looking at their things; most of these children were female. For example, Stacy (5th) said, "I just kind of looked at them [stuffed animals] and I thought they looked cute and everything so I started collecting them. Similarly, Molly (1st) said she collected bows [from packages] "because I think they are pretty...and they make me feel good" and Tessa (1st) said she collected erasers because "they're fun to look at."

First graders were much more likely to acquire collections which served a functional purpose (n=7) than fifth graders (n=2). When asked why he collects dinosaurs, Cole (1st) said "cause you can play with them." Similarly, Aly (1st) said that "collecting trolls was good because I like to use them and play with them." One of the two fifth graders who mentioned "using" their collections was Stacy (5th) who said:

Because I really like to read and stuff and you can't read if you don't have a lot of books, like if you have one or two books then you'd probably finish them right away, if you really liked to read then you'd have nothing else to read unless you went out and bought something.

The only other fifth grader who mentioned "using" his collections was Will, who noted differences between the sacred and the profane aspects of his pencil collection when, after noting that he used his pencils in his drawing, he said that his favorite pencils are ones "not yet used." In addition, Will was one of the few children who mentioned that it was possible to have "too many" pencils. He said that he would not always collect pencils "cause then I would collect too many and they'd never get used."

Besides the current activity associated with the collection, many informants saw their collection as a source of money in the future. That is, they saw collecting as a way of "doing" something to save for the future. Sex and age differences were noted in this "collecting as investment" perspective. Eleven of the 19 fifth grade males mentioned expectations concerning their collection growing in value, but only 3 of the 20 fifth grade females did and only 3 of the 40 first graders. Trevor, a fifth grade male said he collects baseball cards "because, like most of the cards are going to be high in price someday." Similarly, Jeremy (5th) said:

I collect race car cards, and I collect like um...old stuff. I have a lot of old stuff. Because sometimes it will be worth a lot...it'll be worth a lot of money...I have some car cards that are worth a lot of money now because the person died who drove it.

This "investor" motivation was mostly present in the children (primarily males) who collected sports cards. These children seemed to care more about what the card was worth rather than having any "special feelings" for the card. For instance, one fifth grade boy [Jason] told us that he had taken some of his cards to school and they had been stolen. When asked how he felt, he responded:

Well, that I lost some money..we cause I know they're, I know they're worth a lot if you have like a really good card.

It is not clear whether the children picked sports cards to collect because they wanted to invest in something or whether once they began collecting, they became caught up in using price guides and became socialized to collect cards for investment reasons. Whatever the explanation, the collectors of sports cards (usually males) reflect a greater concern for future fiscal eventualities that is not reflected as frequently by collectors of other types of objects.

Collecting to Learn or to Satisfy Curiosity

Several of the children, boys in particular, talked about how they used baseball cards to learn about players, teams, and also to learn how to read statistics. We found clear evidence of curiosity, at least as conceptualized by Loewenstein's (1994) information gap model. When asked why he collected baseball cards, one first grade boy [Jeff] said, "so I can see I can know and I can learn about them."Another boy explained his collecting of baseball cards this way:

Well I started when I was like 4 years old cause my friend he's like 3 years older than me...he had a whole bunch of baseball cards and I didn't even know what they were and I looked at one and I said 'hey these are really neat. I like these.' And then I started watching a little baseball and a little football and that really got me in...And I kind of started because I just wanted to know who was on certain teams and if they weren't, if they were, how good they were. [Andy, 5th]

When asked why live frogs were a good thing to collect, T.J. (5th) said, "Because I always find something new every time I look...it makes me more interested." Consistent with Loewenstein's (1994) review of the curiosity literature, T.J.'s curiosity appears to be increasing as his knowledge increases.

Several of the children talked about how they learn about their collections. They often mentioned talking to friends or reading books; however they also often mentioned catalogs, magazines, and stores as important sources of information. Stuart [1st] said that friends were good sources of information because "sometimes they help me to know how to collect." Sherry (5th) said she tries to find out new information by reading. She said, "I read books about some of them, like my dinosaurs I get books out of the library." When asked why stores were good sources of information, Kierra [5th] said, "because you can see them before you buy them, and you can see if you want them."

Collecting to Satisfy a Passion

As in Formanek (1991) who interviewed adult collectors, one motive for most children in collecting was to find something that they like. However, the intense passion for collecting evident in adult collectors (Baker and Mittelstaedt 1995; Smith and Lee 1994) was not as clearly evident among our pre-adolescent informants. Many informants indicated that collecting was "fun," but none discussed having physical reactions (e.g., sweaty palms) as they moved toward possible acquisitions, as noted in Baker and Mittelstaedt (1995).

Similar to adults, the interviews with children show evidence of high enduring involvement both in the frequent maintenance activities observed (discussed earlier in the paper) and the description of their "learning" activities. For example, Kierra (5th) described her search for information about horses (she collects plastic and glass horses):

I find information about horses in like catalogs, magazines, and stores when we go there. I can remember like, look at a horse and remember when I got it and who gave it to me, stuff like that. I've read that book [her best friend had given her The Love of Horses] about ten times already. I like to go to the library and check out books on how to keep horses and train them. I spend a lot of time thinking about horses, I mean really like them, I want to be a horse trainer when I grow up.

Kierra's search for knowledge goes beyond the items collected to her passion for the objects which her collectibles symbolize. This was a common response for why they collect the items they do: they like the item they symbolize (cats, horses, athletes, rabbits, or events such as vacations). Jessica (5th) collects bears because "I just like bears and it is one of my favorite animals." Rosanne (1st) collects stuffed animals because she loves her real cat. Angie (5th) collects wooden rabbits "because I have always had my heart set on getting a rabbit."

Collecting to Be Unique

Fifth grade informants appreciate collecting because it makes them unique. None of the first graders talked about this value of collecting. For example, Jeremy (5th) said it was good to collect race cars because "You have stuff that maybe nobody else does" and Mark (5th) said he collects cards because "it makes me feel good about myself that I got some baseball cards that some other people don't have." Similarly, Maria (5th) said she collected bears "because it's a collection that many people don't have" and Laura (5th), who collects pencils, said:

Well, because not very many people are interested and you can just sort of keep it private and not show it to the world. I mean like, if you have expensive baseball cards, you want to like show it to everybody. If you have a special collection that not very many people collect, you can just think about it yourself and you don't need anybody else involved.

In some instances, this uniqueness aspect of collecting was seen as negative by several informants, all of them female. Ashley (1st) said, "Barney at school has stamps. It makes him feel happy and us feel kind of bad cause we didn't have all of them." Stacey (5th) noted that "some people who collect kind of brag about this collection and I don't like it when they start to brag." The norm against uniqueness among females also was reflected in the social sharing aspects of collecting. When asked why it is good to collect teddy bears, Jamie (5th) and Jessica (5th) said because "a lot of people have them" and "we have something in common." Stephanie (1st) and Shelly (1st) collect Barbies because their friends do and they can invite them over to play. These comments suggest that reasons for collecting reflect the gender socialization process taking placing even at the grade school level. It seems that these females are being socialized to believe that it is better not to stand out from the crowd.

Collecting to Associate with Others

A priori, we had expected the role of family to be central to the collecting process, especially in a modeling sense. There was modeling evident; for example, a few of the children mentioned that their collections were started because of their parents' or grandparents' influence or interest. Tony (5th) told one of the interviewers he started his collection of sports cards because:

my Grandpa had some cards and I just started to like them and I just kept adding them and adding them to my collection when I started them....cause I saw them at his house and then I started to collect them.

Similarly, Synneve (1st) collects kittens, as her mother is a veterinarian who is teaching her about cats. Jeremy (5th) collects race cars, as his whole family (even his grandmother) is heavily involved in car racing. For the most part, though, children's interests do not coincide with their parents' and, while they may collect items similar to what their parents did at a similar stage in life, they do not share many collecting interests.

The involvement of adults in the collections results in longer term expectations for collecting. Josh (5th) was given his first pack of baseball cards by his grandma, and he expects to collect forever, "because eventually I will give most of my collection to my grand children." Jeremy (5th), whose whole family follows car racing closely, also expects to collect race cars forever. Perhaps, Jeremy thinks that we will truly "belong" in his family if he continues to show interest in race cars.

The major role played by family in the collecting by the child is in its facilitation, by easing the child's entry into the process. Parents were mentioned more than three times as frequently as friends and siblings (52 versus 17) in discussions of how the collections were started. Most mentions were of gifts which started the collection or of continuing additions on birthdays and other holidays. Even in the case of an easy access collections (bugs), T.J. (5th) noted the role which his father played, "When I was little, my dad would always pick up rocks and I would look under them and pick up the bugs underneath them." The facilitating role played by parents diminishes as the child gains access to resources. For example, Leon (5th) noted that "my mom used to buy me cards; now I buy them myself." In those cases in which financial barriers still existed for fifth graders, collecting activity resembled that of first graders. For example, Dan (5th) used to collect baseball cards, but he ran out of money. Now he collects "junk that no one else wants and rocks."

Friends were also important motivators for children's collecting behaviors. For example, modeling of friends' collecting behaviors was evident. When asked why he started collecting rocks, Patrick P. (5th) said, "Well, one of my best friends started collecting. He had some really neat rocks so I thought if I could get some neat rocks like him." Trevor (5th) said he started collecting, "because everyone else was doing it, so I thought I might." Time spent with friends often revolves around mutual interests in collecting even though they may have different types of collections. Patrick P. (5th) said his friends didn't help him with his collection, "but they sure like to look at it."

Many children, especially the first graders, compared their material possessions to those of others. They suggested that collecting was a way of getting "more" of something than others have. Courtney (1st) said, "I try to get the most jewelry" and Chelsea (1st) said collecting rocks was an important thing for her to do "because every time I find a new rock I get more rocks in my collection." Thus, for many first graders having "more is better" and the desire to get "more" motivates their collecting.

CONCLUSION

We have found that people enjoy talking about their collections; children are no exception. For children, collecting seems to be a natural part of life. One fifth grade girl explained this, "All people collect, some just don't know it." The perceptions of the children reveal that they have multiple motives for building and creating their collections. Children collect because collecting gives them something to do with their free time while showing themselves and others what they are capable of accomplishing. They also seek possessions which interest them and help them grow as a person (e.g., by helping them learn more), thus, enhancing their self-identity. Acquiring objects for which they have a special passion is a common motive. Children also seek items for their collection to show that they are unique; however, they also often collect because of the influence or encouragement of others either to be like those people or to show others that they have "more" than them.

Although child collectors, especially first graders, have different definitions of collecting than adults, they seem to have just as much fun in the collecting process. One question that remains is whether they are able to achieve the flow that has been observed in some adults' collecting (e.g., Baker and Mittelstaedt 1995; Smith and Lee 1994). It may be that children do not achieve flow because they focus too much on their selves and what collecting will get them (i.e., the collection), instead of focusing on the task of collecting itself.

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