by Tralee Pearce
If you’re looking for a gift for Anna Cohen’s boys for Christmas or Hanukkah this year, the Vancouver mother of two may send you a link to one of the wooden trains they collect on eBay – and include her address. Or she may simply ask for a toy-store gift certificate.
“I have absolutely no problem telling people what to give my kids,” she says.
In her case, most of her gift suggestions are welcome, since her family lives in Australia and isn’t well acquainted with the boys’ interests – or, perhaps more importantly, their parents’ aesthetic.
“We generally do ask for wood and definitely not-tacky toys,” she says, adding that she tries to offset the cost by suggesting second-hand sources like eBay. Still, there are always a few relatives who ignore her missives and want to “do it their way,” she says.
While parents have always triangulated their kids’ Santa lists with loved-ones’ requests for gift ideas, this generation of parents is increasingly taking on the role of vigilant gatekeepers when it comes to what crosses their threshold.
As the world of commercial toys has exploded exponentially, and along with it the cache of toys the average kid owns, so too have parents’ anxieties. For some, made-in-China plastic is a no-no. Others have a problem with anything made by powerhouses like Disney or Fisher-Price. Some veto sparkly princess gear or fake guns. At what point does a prudent parent morph into a holiday kill-joy?
It is a generational issue, often pitting parents against grandparents who enjoy doting. (And, it is, surely, as the Twitterverse would call it, a #firstworldproblem.) But there are infinite bad choices out there – and, many toys aren’t made as well as they used to be. Frankly, modern parents have a right to be picky, suggests Ms. Cohen.
This urge to curate starts early. Toronto mother Janine Lad began directing toy traffic months ago at the baby shower celebrating her now nine-week-old baby. She registered at two independent, eco-friendly stores, not just to suggest items she’d like, but also to set the tone for the kind of childhood she hopes to give her son.
Her extended family hasn’t been quick to get with the program; if the baby-shower experience was any indication, she will be finding shiny branded plastic toys, not organic cotton stuffed animals, in her son’s stocking this year. She’s already donated a bag of plastic cellphones and other gewgaws to charity.
“You don’t want to sound like a big eco-snob,” says Ms. Lad. “But with some people I have to be more forward; they don’t understand this eco-friendly stuff.”
Faced with an onslaught of questionable toys, however, some parents take a deep breath and pick their battles.
Toronto mother of three Rebecca Keenan, for instance, has given up on her early optimistic vision of an eco-organic brood.
“Gift gaffes range from too loud, too cheap, too many batteries, too violent, too slutty, too tacky, too many pieces and even too expensive,” Ms. Keenan, writes in an e-mail. “But they’re almost always given out of love.”
So she mostly just lets people buy what they want – with one exception: video games. “I have already discussed my feelings about video games and my kids with anybody who might buy them presents.”
Vancouver mother of two Karen Chester says she has directed gift-givers toward books and even food-bank donations. But she recognizes that calling out transgressions is a bad idea – even in the face of a replica handgun. Once her son received one that she says looked “like a sidearm for toddlers.” She kept her mouth shut because the gift givers were dear relatives. But because she, ultimately, can decide what stays in her home, the toy went MIA a few days later.
“What’s the point of making a fuss about it or vetoing it – usually an unwanted toy is so easily ‘lost’ and disposed of. There doesn’t seem to a point in causing problems in your relations with the gift-giver.”
But how can parents best balance their desire to man the barricades with the very real possibility that they’ll be labelled the family Grinch?
Don’t forget about what will make your kids happy, parenting and etiquette experts say. Plus, you may want to consider recent research from Stanford and Harvard University that found people get more pleasure from gifts they had requested. So, while you’re happy about that non-toxic tea set, is it something that your child actually wants?
Beyond that consideration, experts say most friends and family will welcome gift ideas – but it’s best to wait until they ask. “It’s very bold to assume that everyone cares about exactly what you want,” says Toronto etiquette columnist Karen Cleveland.
When asked, general suggestions and even favourite stores may be better received than overly specific lists. Try to include some context, too, Ms. Cleveland says, such as the fact that you’re trying to steer clear of non-ecological gifts. “Or, ‘Little Johnny’s in a huge gun phase right now and it’s freaking us out. We’re trying to get him out of that,’” suggests Ms. Cleveland.
Consider being asked for gift ideas your ultimate chance to influence what your kids will be unwrapping, says Vancouver-based parenting expert Kathy Lynn. “The parents who have trouble are the ones who aren’t being asked.”
That doesn’t stop Ms. Cohen, who says she draws the line around her own parents and siblings – inside that parameter, she feels fine sharing her views, unsolicited. But politely, of course. “You shouldn’t go all bossy.”
And what if you’re thinking of overriding a request and bringing precisely that off-gassing plastic monstrosity parents have diverted you from? Well, then you’re the jerk, not them.
“You’d be putting a strain on a friendship or relationship over a really trivial issue,” says Ms. Cleveland. “Parents pull rank, for sure.”
(First published in The Globe and Mail, December 2011)