For many of us, shopping in the toy aisle is our chance to reenter the world of childhood. The old joke about the father who buys a train set “for the children” and then won’t let the kids touch it for weeks while he sets up his fantasy layout resonates with us because children do give us a wonderful excuse to enjoy toys. For those who had a wonderful childhood, purchasing toys can evoke fond memories and sentimental feelings. For those whose childhood was less than wonderful, exploring the toy department can help heal old wounds. Delighting a child can delight the child within each of us.
There seem to be dozens of articles on the Web about how to buy safe toys, educational toys, and age-appropriate toys. If you are looking for that kind of information, you can find it easily. But buying toys isn’t fraught only with concerns about safety and appropriateness. The purchase of toys for young relatives and friends also can raise issues around values and relationships.
Remember the Kids
It is so easy to sink into nostalgia and select toys we once owned and loved, to buy the toys we once longed for, or to get caught up in this year’s race for the most well-marketed toy. All too often, the child who is going to receive the toy gets lost in the quest. It is important to a child’s developing self-esteem to feel seen and understood by the adults in his or her life. It may be more politically correct to give a little girl a truck, but she just may be the kind of little girl who really, really wants a doll to love. Tinkertoys may stir fond memories for you, but the child you are buying for may prefer art supplies or a book. Loving someone means taking the time to see him or her. If you are truly giving a gift, take the time to figure out what this particular child would appreciate most at this particular time in her or his development.
Remember the Adults
Buying toys for other peoples’ children involves trust. Gift giving should not be a forum for trying to change another family’s values or priorities, even if you just know that you know better. You may think that one of your small relatives needs something more or less masculine or feminine, more or less educational, more or less advanced, or a thousand other “mores” or “lesses” than their parents are providing. It’s a safe bet that the parents have their own ideas about what’s appropriate for their children. Be careful that your selection of gifts for children isn’t a comment on how their parents are raising them.
If you use a present to challenge parents’ choices for their children, you not only risk your relationship with the parents but you also put the children in a very difficult position. If they don’t thank you, they will worry that they risk their relationship with you. If they do thank you, they may risk something in their relationship with their parents. If you love these people, defer to their values and support their parenting as best you can.
All this being said, gift giving is also at least partly for the giver. Being mindful and considerate doesn’t have to take all the fun out of buying toys for your own children or for your favorite small relatives and friends. If you have fond memories of a special toy or book, or if you have an idea about what a child might enjoy, think hard about what you know about that child and if it’s a match. If you are buying for other people’s children, consult the parents about whether your idea for a gift would be appreciated.
Most important, find a present that you and the child can enjoy together. For the child, memories of your time reading or doing a puzzle together, playing a board game, or building a masterpiece with blocks or a construction toy will long outlast the gift itself. As for you, you will get to visit the world of childhood with your young relative or friend. And that may well be the very best gift you can give yourself.