Parenting • Nov 18, 2013

The 20 Worst Holiday Gifts for Kids

Here are this year’s worst gifts to buy for kids—those toys likely to conveniently disappear within a few months (or minutes!) of opening.  Thanks to all the moms on Twitter and Facebook who sent in ideas for this post.  It’s a dirty job to take a gift away from a kid, especially when they’ve just opened it.  So let’s avoid the pain this year.  Feel free to share with your relatives so that your holidays will be merry and bright!  And please, add your suggestions (and horror stories) of gifts that didn’t work out in the comments section below.

1)      Tablets or iPhones for babies and toddlers: Your one-year-old may already be an expert at your smart phone or iPad, but that doesn’t mean that she needs one of her own.  Creative play is essential for toddler intellectual and emotional development, and can easily be suppressed blocksby easy access to digital entertainment.  I know, it’s digital babysitting and very convenient for waiting rooms and moments when you just need to stop the chaos for a second.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for toddlers under age two—a guideline I find impractical in this digital age.  I think it’s okay to let your kids occasionally use your digital devices, but giving them one of their own is guaranteed to increase screen time and decrease time for imagination and creative play.  Now that Curious George and many “educational” shows can be streamed anytime to your tablet or phone, it’s just too much of a temptation to let them watch a bit longer while you get a few things done.

The alternative: toys that promote creative thinking and pretend play, such as blocks, dress-up clothes, play houses, pretend food, musical instruments, or puppets.  If your relatives give your toddler an iPad, say “thank you” and keep it for yourself!  Be sure to make it password protected.

2)      Webkinz, Furbies, and other toys that have associated apps or websites: It may seem cool that you can get a virtual friend for your plush Webkinz pet, but that toy will find the trash fast once your kids start begging you to pay for virtual dog food or give out your email address.  Kids usually spend far more time playing with the associated apps and websites then they do playing with the toy.  So really, all these toys do is get your kids hooked on another time-wasting website or app.

The alternative: Plan an outing or special day with a child.  Draw a picture of your plans and wrap it up.

3)      Anything noisy without an off switch: Kids love to hear the same sounds over and over again—parents don’t.  Your toddler will be so attached to talking Barney that she will want to sleep with him, except she won’t fall asleep because Barney won’t be quiet.  And there is no off switch.  After one night of this, Barney will be in the trash and your toddler will be crying.

Furby is equally annoying and won’t go to “sleep” until you put him someplace away from noise and movement.  Inevitably he “wakes up” and starts talking right after you get the baby to sleep.

The alternative: Noisy things that help the brain grow—musical instruments, a digital music player such as an iPod, children’s music.

4)      Toys that provide uncensored internet access: One of the saddest patients I ever saw in my emergency room was a teen who had started meeting adult men online and sneaking out with them.  Her mother cried and told me how she had bought her daughter a Nintendo DS, through which her daughter had uncensored internet access.  She had limited her daughter’s computer use and never dreamed that a hand-held video game would lead to such unhealthy behavior.  Even if your child doesn’t go this far, every family needs to take online safety precautions.  Many digital games now include online components and group play.  Who will your child interact with while playing World of Warcraft or even free iPad games?  Even if you give your child a game with no phone photoonline component, be prepared to set limits.  Can they play if homework/chores are not done?  Are you willing to fight this battle?

The alternative: Child-safe email programs (there are many options available online), creative computer software for kids that teach programming or web development such as Lego education modules, e-books, an old digital camera and photo editing software, an old iTouch or inactive iphone with the internet disabled for use as a calendar/alarm clock/music player/camera

5)      PG-13 Movies: Did you know that PG-13 movies now have more gun violence than R-rated movies?  New research in the medical journal Pediatrics looked at the top 30 grossing films annually since 1950.  They found that gun violence in movies has more than doubled since 1950.  Gun violence in PG-13 movies has tripled since the rating was created in 1985, and gun violence is now more common in PG-13 films than those rated R.  Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson has written an excellent summary of this issue.

The alternative: Let parents pick out their own movies for kids.  When it comes to movies, every family has different ideas of what is appropriate.  Instead, pick toys that promote healthy habits such as exercise, outdoor play, or family time.  Try giving a swing and installing it your basement for indoor winter playtime.  Give a fishing pole with a note about a camping trip you are planning.  Camping tents are always exciting for kids, and can be set up indoors for play until it is warm enough to camp outside.  Does your child play sports?  Give them new equipment for next season.  If you just can’t think of anything else, fresh school supplies are always a great stocking stuffer.

6)      DVDs: Even two years ago DVDs of kids’ movies made really great gifts, but now that online streaming is here, DVDs are outdated.  They scratch easily and get “skippy,” as my kids say.  We often get half way through a movie only to realize that the DVD has a scratch and won’t play the rest.  At best, DVDs require you to watch an “FBI warning” or previews of other movies.

The alternative: Pay for parents to rent online movies for Amazon, iTunes, or other vendors.

7)      Violent toys:  Violent video games, especially those that involve shooting, have been shown to increase aggression in children.  Even Legos can be very violent, including angry faces, guns, swords, and a plethora of other weapons.  Avoid buying any type of toy gun for a child, especially without permission from a parent.

The alternative: Pay a child’s sports fees or buy the uniforms and equipment they need to play.

8)      Stuff with lots of little parts: Little girls love tiny plastic dolls like Polly Pockets, but their miniature shoes and clothes end up all over your house and get accidentally vacuumed up.  Worse yet, your kids will eat or choke on the accessories and end up in the ER.

In a similar vein, I loved that game “Mousetrap” until my kids lost one part and the whole thing was useless.  My daughter’s beading kit was also well-loved until the tenth time our one-year-old spilled it on the kitchen floor and started eating the beads.  Before buying toys with lots of parts, carefully consider the age and responsibility of your child and their younger siblings.

The alternative: Consider toys that have easily replaced parts, such as Legos.  If you have a toddler, buy baby-safe storage for toys that have choking-hazard parts.  For example, our pop-beads are now in a screw-top jar.

9)      Branded merchandise: Parents get to pick which characters their kids watch—not gift-giving relatives.  Even classic games like Memory and Connect 4 now come marketed with characters I don’t want my kids to love.  Even though Dora The Explorer pajamas may seem harmless, they will find the trash if a parent does not want their child to gravitate towards that character.

The alternative:  I find that big box stores such as Target and Walmart tend to be very heavily stocked with branded merchandise.  Instead buy classic games, pajamas, and clothing online to avoid branded merchandise.

10)   Gift cards: If you give a child a gift card they will inevitably want something that costs more than the value of the card.  And, the parent has to take the kid shopping and say “no” to several things before the child finally agrees on a gift.  This is only if the card doesn’t get lost first, and no one else in the family decides to use it for themselves.   The very worst gift cards are for very specific stores that I don’t want to go to—like a mall store that sells clothing styles I don’t let my kids wear.

The alternative:  If you aren’t sure what a child would like, ask for suggestions or shop online together for a gift you and their parents agree on.

bike-helmet11)   Stuff that will land you in the ER: Trampolines and ATVs top the list of unsafe kid’s toys.  Inflatable jump houses, toys with magnets or small batteries, sneakers with wheels on them, and things that shoot projectiles are my job security around the holidays.

The alternative:  Bikes, scooters, and roller skates still make great gifts, but avoid the ER (and your $200+ co-pay) by buying the safety gear that goes with them.  Bikes and scooters should come with helmets, and roller skates with knee, elbow and hand protectors.

12)   Toys that require too much parental help:  It’s just not fair to give toys that require hours of a parent’s time, such as craft kits, science sets, and age-inappropriate toys.   Let parents decide what time-consuming projects they want to undertake with their kids.

The alternative: think of your favorite toys when you were your child’s age.  Then, relive your childhood and have a great time playing together.

13)   A new brand of trains, dolls, or building toys that don’t work together with those you already own:  At one point we owned six different brands of trains, none of which had interchangeable tracks.  We also got some “fake” Legos once that don’t work with real Legos.  I’m still picking the bad ones out of our Lego bins and putting them in the trash.  It’s much more fun to stick to one or two brands of dolls, trains, and building toys, so that kids don’t get frustrated with parts that don’t work together.  Clean-up time is also much easier.

The alternative: Expand toy sets that you already own.  If you buy knock-off brands, be sure their parts interchange with the toys you already own.  For example, it is fine to buy wooden trains as long as they fit together with Thomas trains.  Choose dolls that wear the same clothes as the dolls you already own.

14)   Anything you have to keep alive:  Pets, fish, and plants either die or create lots of work for parents.  Or both.   We’ve tried raising butterflies twice and both times the “cocoon” turned out to be a moldy dead caterpillar that we observed for several months.  Even plants generally cause dirt and water to get all over the house before they die.

The alternative: Buy a zoo or botanical garden membership.  Plan a few dates to go together.

15)   Messy stuff: markers that are not washable, paint, play dough, moon sand, or any kit that comes with glitter.

The alternative: Messy stuff made for the outdoors, such as sand and a sand-box, sidewalk chalk, and washable paint.  Or, plan to attend a “messy play day” at a local preschool or children’s museum.  Better yet, plan a messy play day at your own house and invite your little friend over.

16)   Potty humor and gross toys: Dolls that defecate and urinate will quickly find the trash, especially once you run out of the three diapers they come with.  Toys that reproduce the smell of flatulence, smelly feet, and stink bugs lose their humor when you have to open all the widows in the frigid winter to air out the house.

The alternative: kids joke books, crazy clothes, and silly games like Twister

17)   Sexualized dolls:  Moms overwhelmingly dislike “Bratz” and other dolls with skimpy clothes and too much makeup.  Somehow girls are drawn to them.  Is this the style you want your daughter to adopt?

The alternative: Stick with a few classic dolls with interchangeable clothes and accessories.

18)   Large items: Everyone loves the “wow” factor in giving a kid a huge box and letting them motorized bikewonder what is inside.  But large items like motorized toy vehicles and cardboard playhouses are the first to be thrown out when they take up too much space in the garage or living room.  Is your kid such a king that he needs a toy SUV that takes up almost as much space in your garage as your compact car?  They’re lots of fun for about thirty minutes, and after that they always need to be charged.  These toys don’t promote exercise, and require constant parental supervision.  No more sending your kids outside to play—you’ll have to be there too.

The alternative:  Consider large items that collapse for easy storage, such as cloth-sided play houses and folding bikes.

19)   Sweets: When kids get a sweet as a gift they generally eat it immediately and then refuse to eat their next meal.  Besides, kids get more than enough sweets through the holidays.  And they get free sweets just for showing up at the grocery store, bank, or almost any other establishment.

The alternative: Buy a children’s cook book and set up a time to cook together.  Or take a cooking class together.  Many grocery stores offer parent-child cooking classes.

20)   Clothes:  Clothes can be great under perfect circumstances, but have a high likelihood of disappointment.  Kids clothing sizes are really hard to get right, and can vary by brand.  Never assume a child’s size based on age—always discuss it with parents.  If you do buy clothes, be sure to discuss sizes and styles closely with parents and kids.  And don’t be surprised if a little one opens your clothing gift and tosses it aside saying, “It’s just clothes…”

The alternative: Go shopping for clothes together with the child’s parent, or pick out some things together online.  Teens can put together a parent-approved online gift list with specific clothing items they would like.

Talk to your relatives and ask them what they are buying for your kids.  Your kids’ gifts should not be a surprise to you.  Don’t be afraid to immediately intercept inappropriate toys and suggest they be returned for another option.  Then smile and offer more eggnog.

What are your worst holiday gift stories?  Please post them in our comments section!



  1. “Even Legos can be very violent”? That’s going a little far! Kids can make anything into a weapon. They are a creative toy. I’d say the worse aspect of Legos is the risk of stepping on them.

  2. I agree with the other person about Lego – it allows children to play really creatively and use masses of imagination. Lego heads with angry faces are usually double-faced and have happy faces on the reverse, everyone can end the story smiling! You have to allow children to explore emotions and work out potential problems through play 🙂

  3. What about donating toys and unwanted items instead of throwing them in the trash? It was mentioned several times in the article, but just because you don’t like the pajamas or off brand legos doesn’t mean someone else would feel the same. There’s always going to be at least one gift that doesn’t match with your family, it might as well get to someone who can use it if it can’t be returned or exchanged.

  4. i was wanting to see if anyone could help me get my daughter something for christmas i have just started back to wk and i only get two days a wk right now . any thing would help my phone number is 9105712947 and my address is 209 s bilhein st troy, nc 27371

  5. This article hits on some seriously important points: items that are choking hazards for siblings, unhealthy media, and the lack of modesty promoted with some clothing and toys. Well written and I will be passing on to many friends. I agree! (Except with the Legos and guns but we are a hunting family and I don’t really have a problem with the ninja faces but that is entirely personal. Although anesthesiologist hubby paranoid about choking with Legos)

  6. What a terrible article. Does the writer have kids? know any kids? have a IQ above 50?

    11) Stuff that will land you in the ER: Trampolines and ATVs top the list of unsafe kid’s toys. Inflatable jump houses, toys with magnets or small batteries, sneakers with wheels on them, and things that shoot projectiles are my job security around the holidays.

    The alternative: Bikes, scooters, and roller skates still make great gifts, but avoid the ER

    bwhahahah you are insane! really you are. bikes avoid the ER? bwhahahahahahahahah

  7. Doesn’t sound like much fun, the list is way too long and sometimes you have to chose your battles. Agree with some in this list, but come on. I’m rather risk averse but organised mess? Kids are messy and it’s healthy to let them explore.

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