What you shouldn't buy your kids for Christmas

This is a special feature from my mother, Beth Wechsler, LICSW.

Even when it's not the holidays, we're awash in consumer goods both practical and frivolous. It's hard enough to decide on a thoughtful and useful gift for someone, much less your children. Here are four toys now on the market that you don't have to think twice about skipping:

  • An electric bicycle for your 6-year-old. Just what American children need, one more activity they can do without moving.
    • Bratz dolls -- buy one get one free this week at K-Mart. Unless your daughter is in training to be a hooker, one Bratz doll is too many.
    • Mattel's I Can Play Guitar System. Playing an instrument isn't an instant event. Why reinforce our immediate gratification culture?
    • My personal favorite, The Polly Rocket Race to the Mall (I kid you not) playset. You pay $29.99 plus tax so that your children can be reminded on Christmas morning to hurry back to the mall.

    From the vantage point of both a mother and a children's therapist, here (with the possible exception of the Bratz dolls which unfortunately may have a longer life cycle) is how these toys will function. They will be ripped out of their wrappings in one one hundredth of the time it took to buy the wrapping paper and do the wrapping, put aside while the other toys are rapidly revealed, played with briefly and then added to the universal American household problem -- clutter. That, by the way, is the least of the issue.

    I'll never forget the sign at the gateway to Camp Merriwood, which said, "Fun with a Purpose since 1952." I thought it was ridiculous, back in my preteen years, but actually it was true. Fun does have a purpose. Play has a purpose. Ninety percent of what is being sold for children's toys this Christmas defeat the purpose of play.

    I don't mean to sound laborious, as if play was one more thing to cross off the "to do" list. Play is in fact the work of childhood -- though we seem to have forgotten this across the board. Children's sports aren't play anymore - they're structured activities run by adults. Then there are "lessons." I don't mean a piano lesson once a week -- I mean the race from one lesson, sport and club to the next, with after-school schedules so crowded that parents and kids arrive home either too stressed or too exhausted to do more than eat something instant in front of the television set. Then it's onto homework, but that's another story.

    Kids are supposed to play, and toys are something they're supposed to play with and on, not something to watch, sit on or operate with buttons. Good toys engage a child's attention more than once, good toys are engaged with creatively and are often used for what once upon a time was called, "Make Believe."

    What this means is that the news is good -- the best toys mostly don't cost a whole lot and they aren't made of eleven colors of plastic so they aren't even ugly.

    Things to consider:
    • Crayola Crayons - 48's or 64's - markers or pencils - drawing pads, an assortment of coloring books. Glitter. Other art supplies.
    • A recorder with an instructional DVD.
    • Blocks, Legos, Play Mobil toys.
    • Child dolls (a novel concept) and stuffed animals that don't do anything except look cute and feel good to hold.
    • Child-size kitchen sets.
    • High interest books.
    • Board games - and, all right, computer games for kids over 10.
    • Hot Wheels and fire trucks
    • Starter collection sets.
    • A tent and sleeping bag that can be set up immediately.
    • Sports equipment.
    IF, IF, IF a puppy or kitten is on your list, Christmas Day can reveal a photo of the pet, maybe a DVD about puppies, a book all about the particular breed and maybe a "What Shall We Name the Baby" book -- since pets seem to have people names now. Every animal rescue group will tell you that Christmas Day is not the day to bring an animal home.

    COST: a fraction of what you will spend if you pay attention to what the "in" toys are this year.

    REWARD: Children going about the business of childhood.
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