How to Buy Better, Fewer Holiday Gifts for Kids

illustration by KJ Dell’Antonia

What your gut tells you about toys is absolutely true: they’re better in some ways, worse in others and much cheaper and more widely available than the toys your parents bought when you were a kid. Just 3 percent of the world’s children live in the United States, but they consume 40 percent of the world’s toys. Consuming does not mean using: parents report that most kids only play with about 5 percent of the toys they own, possibly because they have so many they don’t know what to do with the rest.

And yet, whether you’re wrapping up your Hanukkah shopping or just facing the few remaining days until Christmas with shock, it’s likely that you’ll be adding to that abundance. The average American plans to spend $330 per child this year. That’s a lot of Fingerlings and Hatchimals sitting abandoned on a lot of living room floors come January, and that won’t make anyone happy.

If toy shopping is an inevitable part of your holiday, how can you make choices that won’t be forgotten by Valentine’s Day? After more than a decade of wooden kitchens frantically assembled at midnight, Furbees, and the occasional best present ever accolade, I might have a few thoughts on the subject. Here are my tips for on toy-buying for a more joyful holiday all the way around.

Little kids don’t like lots of gifts. It’s a classic holiday moment of excess: your 2- or 3-year-old has just opened a wonderful present and–surprise–she wants to play with it right now. Let her. Don’t push her on to the next present. Don’t even have a next present (when our kids were little, only Santa and grandparents gave Christmas gifts). That child is happy. Enjoy it.

illustration by KJ Dell’Antonia

Follow the age guidelines. Your kid is so smart. Really. But even bright kids are often frustrated or stymied by toys designed with an older child’s dexterity, size or reasoning ability in mind, and then next year, when your child would love that R2D2 droid, it’s already been dumped at the back of the closet. Save some fun for next year.

illustration by KJ Dell’Antonia

Buy for the kids you have, not the kids you want. It’s easy to get snared by gifts for the kid you thought you would have (or the kid you were). But love means buying for the kid you’ve got, whether he wants a tutu or an over the door basketball hoop. In particular, kids who aren’t already spending time coding are unlikely to be compelled by even the very coolest of new tech building toys. With one exception (below) unless your child really wants those pricey Little Bits that connect into codable circuits, they’re likely to go unused.

If you want to play with it, go for it. One exception to both of the above rules: if you want to make pots of fruity scented lip gloss or try wood-carving, buy the kit and enjoy it together. The best way to get a child excited about coding toys is to have a parent who is incredibly excited about coding toys, and even a child who didn’t think woodcarving sounded fun will almost always respond to the idea of doing it together. (Side note: go ahead. Buy yourself the Star Wars Lego Death Star and just build it. You don’t even have to let your 3-year-old help. Just don’t go all Will-Ferrell-in-the-Lego-Movie on him.)

Keep a list. Lists of what your kid wants are great. Lists of ideas collected throughout the year for gifts? Fantastic. But what you really need, in your phone, is a list of things you have already bought, coordinated with anyone else who buys for your child, so you don’t go overboard. There’s a lot of fun stuff out there. You don’t need all of it.

Dumpster or donation? One thing to consider before hitting Buy It Now: would another child want this when yours is done with it? Lego, building blocks, toy trains, Polly Pockets?—?these stay fun even after they’ve been used. Flying remote control fairies and spray Crayola marker systems generally do not. That doesn’t mean you have to skip this year’s fad toy, but don’t go too heavy on things that are destined for the landfill.

illustration by KJ Dell’Antonia

Watch your gender biases. Even the most overtly woke among us can find ourselves buying art supplies for girls and sports toys for boys, especially when we are buying for other people’s children. Do not bring your friend’s daughter a stuffed unicorn and her son a remote-control car. Buy them a pair of battling remote-control pooping unicorns instead. (I’m patenting that idea.)

Remember: even cheap toys are expensive. A small toy budget can go a long way at a big box store, and the result can look like an abundance?—?before it looks like a mess of broken pieces, worn out batteries and snarled doll hair in the bottom of the toy box. Everything you buy now will cost you double later in the form of finding a place to store it, cleaning it off the living room floor, fixing it when it breaks and eventually moving it on when it’s been outgrown. Don’t Kondo your kitchen with one hand while filling up the playroom with the other.

One final thought: the absolute, hands down best gift I’ve ever given a child was the Complete Calvin and Hobbes. It’s been eleven years since I took a deep breath and invested in a set, and I still find one of those books on the dining room table almost daily. Amortized by use, it might be the least expensive gift I’ve ever bought.

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