How to buy the best gifts for kids

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How to buy the best gifts for kids

Don't get me wrong, any gift is a thoughtful and appreciated offer. But let's be honest, some gifts are a better use of your money than others. So much money has been wasted in gifts for my children over the years – jeans that my daughter won't wear (to my total bafflement), toys for my son that require eight batteries, baby dolls with creepy laughs, and twenty-piece puzzles that we were able to finish once, before the pieces scattered to opposite ends of the earth (or, you know, our house).

Every one of those gifts was appreciated, but some of them were used once or never used at all.

Maybe you want to buy a toy for your friend's kid to unwrap and your thought is, "It's the thought that counts." I agree. That's great and you should buy anything you desire.

Maybe you'd really like to buy your six-year-old niece a useful gift that'll be worth every penny and you're not quite sure what six-year-olds are into these days. Nancy Drew novels? Monchhichi dolls? A good sturdy pair of overalls?

If this is you, I offer this gift giving guide to the best gifts for kids:

Ask the parents what the kid wants. This might feel like you are taking the surprise out of it for the parents, but parents don't need to be surprised. I would much rather you buy something off my list that a) I know my kid will use and b) removes something from my list of things I need to buy. At least get a general idea from the parents of what the kid is into.

Include a gift receipt and shop at a store that accepts returns. There are some sale items that can't be returned and some online discount stores that don't accept returns. My mom bought my daughter some adorable clothes online that ran very small (kids clothes sizes are ALL OVER THE MAP) and we couldn't return them. Also, remember that your out-of-town cousin can't make a return to your local bookstore.

Gift cards are great! When you give a gift card you are giving a gift and an adventure. My favorite birthday ever as a kid was when my parents took me to the mall and gave me five dollars to spend in each store (don't worry, our local "mall" only had three stores). My kids love getting five dollars to spend at the dollar store or getting a Target gift card and going to Target to pick out what they want. It's also a great way to teach them about money and smart choices. iTunes gift cards are good for downloading movies and educational games, especially when the family is traveling and needs distractions.

Think about where the kid lives. Get gift cards to stores in the kid's area. Buy clothes with the child's local weather in mind. Remember that family traveling from far away won't have room to fit gifts in their luggage. If you really want to see the kids unwrap gifts (I don't blame you), offer to ship the opened gifts to the kid's home after the holidays.

Don't spend a lot of money on clothes or shoes for kids. One hard day of playing or eating can retire an outfit forever (whether that outfit cost $50 or $10). And shoes? Forget it. They're outrun and outgrown in a month.

Think of the kid's style. Sometimes we tend to buy kids what we want to see them wear or play with instead of what they want to wear or play with. If you've never seen your niece in a frilly dress or your nephew playing a clarinet, there's probably a reason for that.

Remember that you don't have to buy anything. If you want spend time with kids, if you want to do an art project with them, or play chase in the front yard, or teach them about bugs, they would love that. Their parents would love that (assuming they know you and like you). If you want to make a donation in their honor to a kid's charity and explain to them what that means, that would be amazing too. If you want to give a toddler a shoe box full of scrap paper and broken crayons, he will enjoy it as much as a brand new pad of paper and a fancy box of colored pencils.

Here are some of my favorite gifts that keeps on giving (some require a parent consult but they'll be greatly appreciated). And below them, a list of some please-don't-buy gifts for kids.

Good gift ideas

Good gift ideas for kids

  • Books — Although maybe not Nancy Drew for a six-year-old

  • Magazine subscriptions like Highlights or Kid's Discover

  • Online subscriptions to kid's educational tools like ABC Mouse

  • Classes – dance, music, karate, yoga, etc. (be sure to ask the parents first)

  • Family memberships to museums, zoos, play places

  • Donations to college funds

  • Cash to go toward a bigger item — I always appreciate this one so much. There are big items kids need like car seats or swing sets.

Bad gift ideas

Bad gift ideas for kids

  • Blankets or stuffed animals — There's a good chance the kid already has more than he can handle.

  • Anything that requires many batteries — Especially if they aren't the normal AA, AAA or D sizes.

  • Noisy toys with no volume control — Also whistles, bells, instruments, drums.

  • Large toys — I think we kind of have this idea that large gifts are the best, but not if there's no room for them.

  • Live toys — Please don't ever buy any living thing as a gift—not even a fish—if you haven't first asked the parents if they want to take care of another living thing.

  • Anything with multiple pieces — I could make organizing tiny game pieces a full time job.

  • Annoying toys — You know what I mean: barking dogs, crying babies, endless muzak.

  • Anything with glitter — Glitter is like a cockroach–where there's one piece there's five hundred. It's very hard to kill and it scampers quickly.

And remember that no matter what, you should just enjoy gift giving to the very best part of the holidays: kids. The joy with which they celebrate is a lesson to all of us.

Surprise! The perfect gift!

Bonus! More gift giving tips from the parents at PolicyGenius

We asked a couple of the parents here at PolicyGenius for their thoughts on gift giving and children.

Blayne: "Since our daughter is 10 weeks old I'm going to suggest gifts for new parents. Good gifts: 529 contributions, an offer to babysit or to pay for a babysitter so we can have a date night, paying for a house cleaner or for food delivery. My parents' gift this year is to pay for her passport application, which is great.

"Bad gifts would be totally age inappropriate stuff, like clothes she can't wear until she's older, just since we live in a small apartment and I don't want to have to store it."

Bill: "We've been asking for 529 contributions (no joke), but nobody listens. I think books are wonderful for kids because they let you impart some degree of your own personality into their lives, which is kind of sweet. Basically anything made by "Melissa & Doug" is rad for kids."

PG: And what are your thoughts on glitter?

Bill: "%$#! a bunch of glitter. Our daughter has glitter in her hair from August. It just won't come out. Like, ever."

So if you learn nothing else from this post, it's: Never gift glitter.

Photo credit: Kenny Louie