How many times have you watched your child open a bad holiday gift and your heart sinks, because they love it and you don’t want them to have it? Here’s my list of the top ten worst kinds of gifts to buy for kids—those toys likely to conveniently disappear within a few months (or minutes!) of opening. Feel free to share with your relatives so that your holidays will be merry and bright!
1) Tech toys 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. 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 for a treat or entertainment, but giving them one of their own is guaranteed to increase screen time and decrease time for imagination and creative play. Creative play is essential for toddler intellectual and emotional development, and can easily be suppressed by easy access to digital entertainment. 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) Adult humor and gross toys: The “Rapid Repeatin’ Tarzan” doll made me laugh until I cried, but share this adult joke online and spare your kids. You won’t be laughing when your son makes these lewd gestures at nursery school… The pole dancing doll falls into the same category. 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
3) Inadvertently inappropriate toys: Avoid toys that subtly promote bad habits, such as the McDonald’s playset. It may seem cute to let your kids pretend to be fast-food workers, but it won’t be long before they’re begging for another happy meal. The most subtly inappropriate gifts are items with violent or non-kid friendly characters. Grandma may think those South Park characters are cute, but once your kids start watching adult animated content it’s no fun to explain why it’s not for kids. I find it is especially hard to avoid violent and rude animated characters—even classic games like Memory and Connect 4 now come marketed with characters I don’t want my 3-year-old to love.
The alternative: 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 then their new equipment for next season. If you just can’t think of anything else, fresh school supplies are always a great stocking stuffer.
4) Age inappropriate gifts: Our worst Christmas morning ever was when our 3-year-old got an age 8-10 motorized Ferris wheel that you had to build out of snap-together parts. “He’s so smart I know he can do it,” the gift-giver said. It took about five hours to put together and took up a large portion of our living room. He loved it so much that he had no interest in any of the three-year-old creative toys everyone else had bought for him, and actually refused to open some of them. He screamed and cried unless we gave him our full attention to help him build this thing. For the next four weekends in a row, my husband had to help him put this thing together. Finally, we put it away until he was eight. Now, he still loves it, but he can do it himself in the basement! So avoid the temptation to buy those awesome toys that your kids just aren’t old enough for—the time will come before you know it.
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.
5) Large items: Everyone loves the “wow” factor in giving a kid a huge box and letting them wonder what is inside. But large items are the first to be thrown out when they take up too much space in the garage or living room.
The alternative: The most exciting gift our kids ever got was an indoor inflatable jumping toy that was as big as our living room. It can easily be put away in a 22 quart storage bin, which is why we still have it. Consider large items that collapse for easy storage, such as cloth-sided play houses, inflatables, and folding bikes.
6) Motorized vehicles: Motorized scooters are a big hit this year, and they are all over my neighborhood. But a kid with any sense of adventure quickly figures out that you can go much faster on a regular scooter, and the under-eight crowd cries for a chance to drive these scooters that are just not safe for little-ones. Scraped elbow and knees are a guarantee, and broken bones are likely. Also very annoying are those motorized jeeps and pink SUVs that your kids can drive on the driveway. 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: Our most loved toy ever is an indoor tiny bicycle that all our kids drive around and around the house in circles. A new bike or scooter (with helmet) can never disappoint! Roller skates with pads can even be used indoor during the winter.
7) Anything that plays annoying music: Nothing will hit the trash faster than toys that repeatedly play annoying music, especially if you can’t stop the music on demand. These things also tend to eat up batteries that you are not motivated to replace.
The alternative: Toys that play a variety of different tunes and have an “off” switch that is not obvious to your toddler. It’s even better when they come with rechargeable batteries.
8) Toys with lots of parts: 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. We have a remote-control helicopter that has replacement parts for sale online. 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) Addictive video games, apps, and games that provide uncensored online 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 online 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, 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.
10) Anything that will mess up mom’s decorating scheme: My mother-in-law gave my kids all my husband’s old trophies, and I still have not managed to get them out of my son’s room. I wish I had intercepted them the day they entered the house. Tacky nick-knacks, princess picture frames, and anything with an un-funny joke on it is likely to find the good-will bin before the New Year. This is an especially cruel joke on moms, because we have to secretly dispose of these items and hope our kids (and husbands) don’t notice.
The alternative: Experiential gifts will never interfere with home décor. Give “tickets” for fun family activities and adventures, or pay for a child’s ballet or piano lessons. Or try things that can easily be put away, like art supplies in a storage bin.
Momsanity tip: You don’t have to keep something just because someone gave it to you. 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!