If you are one of those adults whose response to falling leaves, sweater weather, and hot cider is panic rather than pleasure, this column is for you.
Whether you celebrate Maulidur Rasul, Fritters Day, St. Nicholas Day, Human Rights' Day, Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Ugly Sweater Day, Constitution Day, Hanukkah, Chanukah, Chocolate Covered Anything Day (December 16th: this is real, look it up), December Solstice, Advent Days, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Dhanu Sankranti, Boxing Day, St. Stephen's Day, or Festivus, holiday shopping cannot be far off.
While choosing an appropriate gift for Letter-Writing Day (December 7th) is obvious, most other gift selections are not so straightforward. Making appropriate selections as well as achieving the 'wow' factor for the child or children in your life can be daunting.
Drawing on years of personal success and abject failures, I have put together a guideline – a conspectus, if you will – that will hopefully alleviate your anxiety. If you learn from my gift-giving mistakes, then at least some good will have come from them.
When making a selection, first ask yourself:
1 | How many lose-able pieces are there, and what is my pain threshold should I step barefoot on them in the middle of the night?
I have found this simple question to be a real game changer (pun intended). Some games just do not survive missing pieces.
While we have found that a certain 18-inch fashion doll's handbag can adequately stand in for a particular medical procedure game's "water on the knee" bucket, we are usually not so lucky. My family owns several versions of a certain 'rat catcher' game, all unplayable, because we keep losing the same piece over and over again.
"Caveat emptor" on this one. Otherwise, know that you will be sifting through your vacuum cleaner bag several times during the kids' holiday break.
2 | How long will a round of play take?
For reasons unbeknownst to me, the small fry seem to love to engage me in play. Consequently, I have become a master at covert moves that end the game in a merciful 20 minutes. My overconfidence recently entangled me in a card game we shall call (for fear of copyright issues) Slumbering Princesses.
The game appeared to be straightforward and simple enough for a young child to play, as demonstrated by the four-year-old dragging me over to play. Charming in its concept and bright artwork, the object was to 'wake up' the slumbering princess cards with various potion and magic wand cards while compiling enough princess points to reach a specific tally and thus end the game.
I thought I understood. I thought I was a contender, but it seemed that every time I was about to win, the lispy voice of a four-year-old would advise me of a heretofore unknown rule:
"No, I have double threes, so your princess has to go back to sleep."
"No, my Knight killed your dragon. You go back to the start."
"No, the Cat Princess can't be in the same group as the Dog Princess or they fight!"
Needless to say, our game only ended when we were, mercifully, called to dinner.
Stick with the classics, the ones where you can easily manipulate the rules.
3 | Beware of games or toys that promote unnecessary competition
A little competition is not necessarily a bad thing, but who needs to aggrandize the spirit of rivalry in a family of Type A personalities? This is an ongoing issue in our family.
I distinctly recall a camping trip during which my husband, who had thrown in the towel early and escaped to his sleeping bag, had to later arise and broker detente in a game of Monopoly that had gotten out of hand. He was certain our "discussion" was disturbing the campers in an adjoining site.
There isn't one really, except that I don't care if you are the race car. Putting money in Free Parking is not in the rule book!
4 | Does the toy enforce a sexual stereotype?
When my children were small, I was concerned about stereotyping. I wanted to resist social generalizations and instead cultivate my sons' nurturing abilities and my daughters' strengths and independence.
Our first two children were girls. With daughter number one, I conscientiously surrounded her with traditional male-oriented toys and even opted, when she was a toddler, for gender-neutral clothes. It worked! She is strong! She is self-determining! She is assertive!
She is so assertive, in fact, that she had no qualms about insisting (once she could talk sufficiently) that what she really, really, really wanted was a toy ironing board and lots of frilly dresses. She gave us no peace until her room was frothy with pink and lace.
As for her sister, a delicate and petite child, she cried whenever we combed her hair, refused anything pink, shunned all things even slightly domestic, and used dolls as punching bags.
Next came my son. As my husband often traveled for work, our son entered a predominantly female household – so much so that upon receiving a toy shaving kit from his grandparents, he immediately raised his pant leg and pretended to shave his leg.
One Sunday when he was about four and we were attending church, he sat on the end of the bench and pulled out two Ninja action figures he'd smuggled inside in his pocket. The Ninjas were soon fighting, sound effects – loud sound effects – included.
I shushed him, then shushed him again, and again. Finally, I took the toys away and replaced them with a coloring book and crayons. Before too long (accompanied by the same sound effects), two of the crayons were fighting.
Eventually, the crayons were taken away, and he was left with just the book. Disruption started up a third time...with two little pieces of paper.
Don't waste time worrying about stereotyping. Just support your child's individual personality and interests. I had to learn that I wasn't creating their personalities, but rather guiding them in their discovery of who they already were.
5 | Are you buying it for you or your child?
Initially, this may seem easy to answer – obvious, really – as the packaging usually lists a suggested age-range. But my own spouse once neglected to carefully consider this issue and has thus been responsible for a toy that lives forever in family lore.
We were planning my oldest daughter's eighth birthday when he, accusing me of being overly cautious with my selections and "hogging all the fun," insisted that he shop for her gifts.
(This very statement – as well as having personally experienced grave disappointment with what he called "fun" gifts – should have been sufficient warning to me, but I was young and hopeful and in love, so I chose to have blind faith in him.)
I say blind faith because he kept the details of her main gift a secret until the big reveal segment of her party. To my surprise, he really came through. He brought out a big beautiful box tied up with a sparkly pink bow and there, with all her little friends gathered around, she unwrapped it to reveal...a life-sized plastic zombie head.
It came with a one-year supply of red punch that could be pumped through its plastic veins, as well as candy eyes, taffy sinew, and edible skin to mold into warts and open sores, each piece designed for hours and hours of gooey fun.
Our daughter (who was still ensconced in her ruffles-and-pink phase) was horrified, as were many of her friends. Their giggles turned to squeals as they pumped the red juice through its pulsating arteries. My daughter tried valiantly to hide her disappointment.
My husband saved the situation by then pulling out a second gift (the real gift, ha-ha) of a friendship bracelet loom kit, nail polish, and CDs of the girls' favorite tween Idol. He then spent the next few hours playing with the Zombie Head with our other daughter and sons, which was, I think, his plan all along.
Don't trust the packaging. Also, when in doubt, don't trust your spouse. As for Zombie Head, I, too, was creeped out by him. He always seemed to be staring at me through his bulging candy eyes. I tried hiding him in closets, covering him with beach towels, etc., until at last he mysteriously got "lost."
6 | Does this toy require a parent to play? What is the noise level?
Another tricky situation. I'm all for family togetherness, and storytime is sacrosanct, but if little Timmy wants to say goodnight to that moon 10 times in a row, I say he best learn to read.
As for noise level, anything can be played at high volume, but some items are just obvious. The year my mother gave the kids a drum set comes to mind.
Either invest in quality earplugs, or know your limits and try not to buy anything you aren't willing to play or read out loud a million times.
7 | If more than one child is involved, maintain the appearance of fairness
We learned this valuable lesson on Christmas Eve. It was well after midnight and we were busy setting out gifts when we realized, much to our horror, that one son had been severely shortchanged.
Obviously too late to run out and buy anything, we did our best to redistribute items from the other kids, but we'd downsized that year and hadn't bought many gifts in the first place, so there was little 'give', so-to-speak.
Out of desperation, I searched the toy closet, found a rarely used toy and, saints-be-praised, a nearly-new board game to wrap up for him. The next morning, as our happy little guy showed us his gifts, he commented, "I think Santa made a mistake because we already have these toys."
What could we do? What would you do? We had no other option than to 'Gaslight' our own child by insisting he was mistaken, and that if he didn't believe us, he should go check the toy closet. Brutal.
Keep a master list, even if you don't think you need one...especially if you don't think you need one.
By now you might be thinking, "Okay, I've read your guideline, but what of most value have you learned and wish to pass along?"
I have learned that, while specific gifts might be (and usually are) forgotten, what is remembered and carried into adulthood are the feelings of that moment. No matter the holiday, the family structure, or the wealth, a child recalls her sense of belonging and of being valued. A child remembers the laughs, the tears, the traditions, and mostly the people.
To quote A.A. Milne, something I have read a million times, "Sometimes, said Pooh, the smallest things take up the most room in your heart."