It was a total Christmas fail. With great fanfare, my well-intentioned brother-in-law gave my 2.5 year old son a 2-foot tall robot for Christmas. It was jet black. It had red flashing eyes. It shot a ray gun with a rat-a-tat-tat. My brother-in-law was so excited when he pulled it from the box — but my son was terrified. He ran behind me and peered out at the thing, saying “No! No! No!” His favorite uncle was crushed. He thought he’d brought him the perfect toy.
Before you run out to get the “It” toy of this year, before you fight crowds or travel 100 miles to score the “must have” of 2019, take a big step back. Most of those toys are a triumph of marketing. They show up on kids’ Christmas lists because they are advertised on every kids’ TV show, complete with animation gimmicks that make them seem more wonderful than they are. Often they are the kind of toy that is quickly forgotten by New Years.
If you want to give the gifts that the children — and their parents — will appreciate most, consider these Do’s and Don’ts:
Consider the age and stage of the child: My brother-in-law’s mistake was not in the buying of a robot, but in buying one for a 2.5 year old. If my son had been 8 years old, he would have loved it. If you’re unsure of what is appropriate for the child on your list, do an internet search for developmentally suitable toys.
Consider the interests of the particular child: Contrary to TV ads, not every little boy wants trucks. Not every little girl wants fashion dolls. Furthermore, a child’s interests change regularly and rapidly while they grow. If you are the parent, think about whether today’s passion will be forgotten by tomorrow. If so, look for something that will have more staying power. If you are a relative who doesn’t see the child often, ask for guidance from the parents.
Encourage creativity: Art supplies are a good bet for any age. Buy chunky crayons and huge pads of paper for preschoolers; glitter and glue and modeling dough for older ones. Teens may like a leather working, jewelry making, or origami kit.
Encourage imagination: All kids should have blocks to make into castles, and forts, and roads. Little ones love animal and people figures and small vehicles. Older kids enjoy construction toys like magnetic shapes and those ubiquitous plastic bricks that let them try out being engineers and builders. Construction toys are often springboards for creating elaborate stories.
Encourage reading: Every child should get at least one really great book for Christmas. A read aloud adventure that engages the whole family is a plus.
Encourage family time: Look for items that the whole family can enjoy together. Board games never really go out of style. Classic games are classic for a reason. People continue to enjoy them. For teens, look for newer games that tap into popular culture or that require teamwork. If your family hasn’t played together for a while, declare a game night during Christmas week and get into it.
Consider carefully what electronics are appropriate: Electronics are here to stay but, ideally, they don’t contribute to isolation of family members. If a new video game is at the top of a kid’s list, look for those that require cooperation and at least two people to play.
Consider what the family needs as well as wants: I am forever grateful to the relative who gave each of my kids a snowsuit when they were very young. We were struggling at the time. Those snowsuits took one “must have” item off our budget. That relative found snowsuits that each of my kids thought was cool — and she tucked a small toy in the box as well.
Avoid toys that can only do one thing: Once the egg is hatched or the puzzle is solved, will the child still be interested?
Avoid toys that must have all the pieces to be useable: A 1,000-piece puzzle is great until someone loses a piece or two. A construction set that makes a pirate ship is loads of fun until the loss of some crucial piece makes it impossible to build again.
Stay away from breakables for little children: Kids break things. No matter how careful they are taught to be, they are kids. Make sure the toy will stand up to active play. Stick with wooden, cloth, or metal toys or those made from very high-grade plastics.
Don’t buy toys that make noise: Vehicles that go “vroom vroom”, toy boats that sing, and dolls or figures that talk shut down imagination. Kids need room to make their own kind of engine noises and to decide for themselves what a doll or action figure will say.
Don’t give kids toys that challenge their parents’ values: Gifts for children shouldn’t be a forum for “educating” their parents. Books that argue with the parents’ beliefs or toys that are counter to what they want their children to play with aren’t gifts. They are an insult to the parents and a source of confusion for the children. Save your political arguments for private conversations with the adults.
Be careful about reliving your own childhood: Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. But what you wanted most for Christmas and did or didn’t get when you were young isn’t necessarily a good choice for the child you love now. If you still long for that electric train but your child has no interest in one, buy it, wrap it up, and put it under the tree from Santa to yourself.