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You paint an interesting picture (and one I personally recall) of hobbying in solitude, then rushing outside to play with the neighborhood kids. Kids today (these kids today!) don't seem to have either experience. Their lives are much more closely associated with those of their parents than ours were ("ours" being my siblings and friends). They rush from activity to activity, driven there by a parent. They never play a pickup game of ball, away from the adults; rather, their parents attend every home and away game of their organized sports. Or they sit and watch a screen. My parents attended most home games, but not the away games. These kids seem never to be away from the parental eye, either in solitary pursuit of a hobby or in kids-only unorganized play.

That may be part and parcel of parents trying to be "friends" with their kids, largely not the case with my generation. For good or for ill, I suppose.


I think stinger may be on to something there, if it is not entirely generational.

My brother and I both had hobbies, both individual and through 4-H, and we also spent a lot of time by ourselves or with only a few friends. Both of our parents worked, and both believed in raising independent children. I don't know if any of my hobbies pass the "obsession" part of the test, but between the two of us we managed the following: sewing, ceramics, knots, painting D&D figures, building forts, constructing houses and equipment for our toys, collecting comic books, raising rabbits, catching toads, photography, leatherwork, cooking...

Looking at that list, I think that the most notable aspect of our activities is that, with the exception of my brother's water polo years, my years in dance, and our shared years in ju-jitsu, none of these were things we did collectively in larger groups. Indeed, except for the water polo, none of this was done in teams.

We are not team players, my family. We're too independent, outspoken, and unlikely to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise.

Sometimes I think that this is a detriment, at least when it comes to work. On the other hand, all of us are pretty interesting people.

Anyway, back to hobbies. I think it's not simply having "alone" time, though that helps. It's thinking of oneself as an independent actor, able to act on one's own, rather than going along with the group, that encourages hobbies rather than fad-following - the kid who creates her own radio or writes his own music is going to be a quirkier, independent kid than the ones who prefer getting together with their friends to share the latest pop hits at parent-supervised get-togethers. I'd say encouragement of (or at least lack of concern over) such independence is likely also part of the mix. How can kids develop independent activities of their own (hobbies) if they're never really encouraged to be independent in the first place?


It occurs to me that my comment may sound like I was laying your sons' lack of hobbies at your feet as a parent - which isn't really what I meant. Rather, there is now a culture of non-independence among children and young adults, encouraged by the helicoptering parents - and it'd be pretty hard for even an independent-minded child to go against the stream. When everyone's somewhat autonomous, at least during the day, it's easier to be so oneself. My family had it to a strong degree, but most of my friends and my brother's friends were similarly independent. If all the kids our age had been locked up in planned activities, we probably would have either become antisocial loners or begged to join them, depending on how lonely we felt on our own.


I had half-a-dozen model planes hanging from my ceiling on threads, although I couldn't be bothered painting them very often. I went in for modern USAF fighters, not the P-51s and B-17s. I had some model cars as knick-knacks on my bookshelves. When I was 10 I had a fort in the garage (there were very few kids in my neighborhood then) where I listened to Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett broadcast the Dodgers' games on KFI.

In junior high school there were a lot more kids in our neighborhood, so we played a lot of touch football. Then in high school there were the clubs and service organizations: Chess, History, and Colonial Corps (which was the "go pull out the bleachers for tonight's basketball game" group).

But mostly in high school I was a reader and listener to music. There was a year in there Mom called "the Year of the Great Silence;" she says I'd get home, go into my room, close the door, and turn on the stereo. I vaguely remember doing that, but I think she exaggerated.

Also, I worked after school, first with a paper route for three years and then as a janitor in my high school three afternoons a week. That put limits on other activities.


A hobby is a systematized, borderline obsessive form of usually solitary play that requires multiple trips to a specialty store for supplies and parts and manuals and has as its goal intellectual and spiritual and psychological satisfactions beyond simple amusement.

Substitute "online" for "solitary" and "eBay" for "specialty store" (or the Apple Store or Best Buy), and there's your hobbyist of the 21st Century, Lance.

Vir Modestus

It seems to me that your definition of hobby includes some sort of product or skill to be created or owned at the end of it: models, comics, ventriloquism. I'm guessing that the definition of expensive, solitary, and skill could include video games. Do your kids not play, or does the skill and obsession involved with computer games not quite align with your definition?

Bill Altreuter

Ah, models. You'd build them, and paint them, and there were skill levels, and it was both an activity and something to collect. There are still hobby stores, but they seem to cater to adult obsessives, not kids.

Model trains are a hobby for grown-ups-- it's too expensive, and too space intensive for a kid. When I was a kid my dumb little town had two joints where you could go to race slot cars. Remember those? I cannot imagine how someone could make a living selling slot cars and renting track time. I can't imagine a parent today letting his kid hang around in such a place, although there is a comics store around the corner from me where there are kids playing Magic: The Gathering all the time, so what do I know?


I think the present-day decline in kids cultivating hobbies just might have to do with a surfeit of non-hobby-type amusements.

I was poor growing up, and I had a very restrictive lifestyle to boot. There was zero socializing, no after-school activities, no sports, and no Internet until my late teens, even though I grew up in the era of the Internet. We did have TV but didn't have much to watch on it until I was 14 when we finally got cable. I had a lot of time to kill and not very much money to kill it with.

I think kids develop hobbies for two reasons: to occupy dead time after school (and remember, school takes up much less time than a full-time job) and to amuse themselves. It's not as hard as it used to be, I think, to do either, what with the Internet, even more commonly available TV, video games, etc.

There was the expectation in adults around me that I was supposed to occupy and amuse myself. I still have never been to an amusement park, for instance. My parents were what I term "benignly neglectful" which threw me on my own resources and forced me to develop minor obsessions and detail-oriented time-consuming hobbies. (Yes, I collected stamps; I drew and painted; I did jigsaw puzzles; and so on and so on.)

I still have hobbies, which left me with a hard-to-shake hoarding habit (once you collect one thing, you develop a "collecting mentality"). I think, once you get a taste for them, you don't let up. It's the getting-a-taste-for-them part that is not sticking in kids nowadays because they aren't called upon as much to become internally resourceful.

I am almost never bored as a result of that childhood. I wonder if the kids growing up today will be able to say as much, because I think that is the fundamental difference between the hobbies of yesteryear and those of today: we used to make something out of nothing, pulling amusement from deep within ourselves. Now, kids rely too much on outside sources of amusement. Cut that off and where would they be?

Chris The Cop

One of the reasons I enjoy this blog so much is that every once in a while, Lance discusses something that takes me back and makes me think about things I haven't thought about in years.

I wasn't a hobby person, but my brother was. I can (now) see him painting toy soldiers, building model air planes and, as a teenager, trying to play the bag pipes (well, one pipe) Like I said, I haven't thought about that stuff in years. Thanks, Lance.


Digital natives, virtual hobbies. For instance, I don't know exactly what it is that my nephew is always doing with his phone, but I'd wager that it fits your definition of "hobby" fairly well, except for the physical presence of a shop.

Second Life, WoW, Facebook, Myspace, blogs, even texting are all ways of creating and maintaining virtual creations.


Just last weekend, my husband and I were reflecting on particular good fortunes in our childhoods: that we both grew up on streets with plenty of kids, where you got to clamor in and out of many different households and could form two softball teams with relative ease, nearby empty lots to play in, and great open stretches of unstructured time for developing personal projects. For him, one was building things out of found objects. He still savors the memory of pulling his wagon through alleyways looking for usable trash. For me, it was putting on elaborate backyard shows and carnivals. Hobbies without kits. We both remember going into neighborhood houses and discovering that our friends each had their own particular interests as well. On my street, there was the girl who hand-stitched doll clothes, another who had a vast paper doll collection, a boy who made boats, another who made planes...a coin collector...a bottle cap collector...

I used to have a card on my bulletin board that quoted from one of psychologist James Hillman's books - it went something like this: that three things are required for a child to find his or her own true calling: (1) Parents who have some notion of what they might do. It can be right or wrong; the child just needs something to work with or against, (2) some "familiarity with odd fellows and peculiar ladies", and (3) "obsessions must be given courtesy."

This is what we discussed as our good fortune: that we lived in a world that was open enough to let us develop our own obsessions, with the space to develop them in our own good time.

Gary Farber

"And did you have a hobby?"

I went through a slew of hobbies. The chemistry set. The telescope (that was quite long lasting). For a couple of years, chess (that didn't last when I realized just how much I wasn't near the level of truly good players). For a while I collected stamps; for a while I collected coins; neither of those lasted. Ditto cataloging insects. The microscope was still fun for some years. The Heathkits were cool. The Estes rockets were wonderful. The many pets. A mild geological fascination for a while. I even dabbled in bird watching, but not for very long And so on and so on. I'm dead sure I'm forgetting some other passions that were important to me for a time. Not to mention things like playing "let's pretend we're spies!" with friends.

Book collecting has lasted a lifetime, though it's been on a vastly lower and different emotional scale since I twice lost almost all of my possessions, and realized that all possessions are impermanent.

The overwhelming obsession of my childhood was first exhausting the neighberhood, Midwood, branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and then spending the next several years alternating weekends in going to the Main Branch at Grand Army Plaza, with going on used-book-buying expeditions, mainly to the cluster of little hideaway places in Coney Island that had tons of used paperbacks for fifteen cents, a quarter, sixty cents, and the really extragant ones for a buck twenty-five or maybe even a crazy two bucks.

One thing I did at Grand Army Plaza, as a crazed science fiction fan, in the days when you could read literally every sf book published per month, because that was only about 16 books, half of which were crappy by most any standard, was spend more than a year reading on microfilm the complete run of Amazing Stories since 1926, and the complete of Astounding from 1930, on through the late fifties.

(This served me well when I got hired to read slush for Amazing a few years later at the age of 15.)

I really wonder how my childhood would have been different if I'd grown up today, with the internet and computers, though; would I have been far less of a book reader? Or more or less the same?

And I shouldn't neglect to say that even as a four-eyes totally bookish wimp introvert, I did a moderate amount of playing with the kids in the neighborhood, in the street: stickball, and punchball, and bouncing the ball off the stoops, and just running around the backyards of houses we shouldn't go near, climbing trees and fences, wrestling, etc.

And somehow survived riding my bicycle all over with nary a helmet nor kneepads, climbing jungle gyms built over concrete, swimming in lakes without lifeguards, and other such horrifically dangerous endeavors. As well as, of course, navigating the subway on my own from about the age of 10 on.

When I finally found sf fandom, both in fanzines, and shortly thereafter, in local fans and groups, around age 11-12, involvement in those activities that my obsession, and in particular I became a world-class expert in the obscure topic of the history of science fiction fandom, and related topics. Collecting rare sf fanzines and memorablia from the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, became the last obsession of my life for decades, although I pretty much let go of that after the fire of 1991, and another disastrous loss of possessions a few years later.

(Although I kept reading omnivorously on a zillion subjects, both fiction of many types, and nonfiction, particularly nonfiction, and particularly on history, politics, and various forms of science, as well as biographies and autobiographies of every sort; I became obsessed with Richard Nixon, Watergate, and Vietnam, as they happened, and never let go of those obsessions, but merely added others on. Again, this proved useful when I started getting hired for other publishing/editing jobs later in life.)

Oh, and I was born in November, 1958, for the sake of grounding chronology here.

Gary Farber

Oh, yeah, ham radio for a while, and collecting comics came before collecting paperbacks (but I quit collecting comics after a classic coming-home-to-find-Dad-had-thrown-them-all-out), a small amount of racing miniature cars in the basement, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. I dabbled a *little* in models, but just a little.

When we went to Connecticut for some summers, I loved exploring the woods and wildlife, and stuff like finding frogs' eggs. And my own vaguely athletic enthusiasm was swimming and particularly swimming underwater. Also a couple of years of low level judo and karate.

And doubtless more I'm still forgetting.

But most all of my hobbies were solo; I was a way overly solitary, overly introverted, kid. Unhealthily so, until I found sf fandom.

Gary Farber

Lionel trains!


Surprised nobody's mentioned Lego yet! I was big into that.

Mac Macgillicuddy

Like Chris the Cop, this entry got me thinking about stuff I haven't thunk in years. Now, I'm thinking my biggest hobby may have been watching my older brother, and taking up his hobbies as his apprentice and (sometimes I like to think) eventual better and mentor, depending on the activity.


Chris, I'm glad, except for the bag pipes memory. Nobody should be forced to remember someone else's bag pipe practice.

Mac, that's nice, but don't tell your brother. It'd just make him cry.

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