The ultimate holiday gift giving guide

It's that time of year again: Black Friday (the day when we spend more than $6 billion (and $2 billion of that on smartphones) is past, and the end-of-year holidays are on the way.

Everywhere you turn there are suggestions and promotions for the best gift you can buy for your loved ones: a simple Google search for ‘holiday gift guide 2019,’ already pulls up 704 million results. So it’s no surprise that it's practically impossible to use social media or the Internet without coming across some form of "holiday gift guide."


How to use holiday gift guides

While gift guides can be helpful, when we use them we should make sure we are using them to meet our needs rather than anyone else’s.  So we should always consider:

  • Why the guide was created?
  • What is the objective behind the guide?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • How buying these recommendations will affect my family?

Bloggers and influencers of all genres jump on the bandwagon of creating gift guides during the holiday season. These guides are full of the hottest toys and products that can be found on Amazon or elsewhere online. The outward intent of these guides is to help you pick the perfect gift for your loved one but most of the time they are created simply to generate income.

Most of these products are linked directly to sales pages through affiliate links, where the blogger gets a share of the sale, and holiday gift guides allow bloggers to share their links ‘for your benefit.’ This is a big reason why we see so many gift guides published during the holiday season when people are already primed to spend money.

If you found a specific product that perfectly meets your needs and you never would have identified without the blogger’s help then of course there’s nothing wrong with clicking through their link to ‘thank’ them (and do be aware that, on Amazon, they also get a cut of whatever else you put in your cart within 24 hours of clicking their link and then purchase within 90 days).  But do be aware that this affiliate revenue is why these posts are created in the first place - not because your child needs the items on the list.


The problem with most holiday gift guides

With so many bloggers creating holiday gift giving guides, it can be confusing to keep them all straight. Why? Largely because most of them tend to offer the same predictable advice. During the holiday season you’ll find gift guide after gift guide that recommends:

  • Choosing open-ended toys to promote creativity
  • Choosing only high-quality pieces that will last (which are often expensive)
  • Choosing toys that are made of natural materials since they are better than plastic toys
  • Avoiding branded toys that ‘constrain’ or limit the imagination
  • Avoiding electronic toys, especially toys with screens!
  • Buying toys that support skills they will need in the future (i.e. coding, engineering, etc.)

One of the biggest problems with most of the holiday gift giving guides is that they solely focus on the question “which toys should I buy for my child?” The problem with this is that when we focus on this particular question we are ignoring the unspoken cultural subtext “which toys will help my child get ahead in life?” as well as the real question we should be asking:

“Does my child need these toys at all?”

We hope we’re buying toys that will support our child’s development in some way when in fact it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether they have the authentic $150 Grimm’s Rainbow (“made by hand in Germany”), the $50 knockoff version (note: these are not affiliate links…), or no rainbow at all.  Billions of children around the world have grown into competent adults, and even attended elite universities, without the benefit of a wooden rainbow – Grimm’s or otherwise.  The same can be said of every other toy that appears on these lists, without exception.


Making assumptions about your family

Another problem with many of the gift giving guides is that they make assumptions about the reader and their family. One of the predictable recommendations is to purchase toys that they deem to be ‘high-quality’ toys. These high-quality toys often come with a hefty price tag, costing significantly more than other available toys that serve the same purpose (remember, commissions are made as a percentage of sales so the higher the dollar value of your purchase, the more the blogger earns). This also assumes that parents reading the blog have lump sums of disposable income available to spend on these toys.

Gift guide writers are often in the business of telling parents parents to buy less stuff – but making sure what they do buy is the right stuff (the stuff they’re recommending). Many parents view their children NOT having certain toys as evidence of parental restraint – as sort of a metaphorical “I mean, the materialistic culture around here is just terrible” kind of eyeroll. Dr. Alison Pugh calls this “symbolic deprivation,” where affluent parents indulge their children’s consumption but present their spending decisions as restrained. Parents do this in an effort to show they are not materialistic and that they have the ‘right values’ as defined by the station to which they aspire in society.  After all, if you have serious money it’s generally considered rather gauche to buy your child everything they want – so what we don’t buy sends a signal about our values just as much as what we do buy.


Toys serve as a social currency

While symbolic deprivation may make sense to parents, it’s a concept that most children simply cannot grasp. A big part of symbolic deprivation is that parents are choosing to only purchase toys that are deemed ‘high-quality.’ However, children are often oblivious about why parents see some toys as ‘high-quality’ and other toys as ‘low-quality.’ Instead, rather, children are more focused on their peer group and what toys everyone else is getting.

This focus on their peer group is important given that children tend to use toy ownership as a kind of social currency. What this means is that children use toys as a ticket to have the ‘right’ conversations with the ‘right’ children. In other words, toys are a kind of ticket to get attention and fit in with their desired peers.

Most parents to want their children to be liked, but in individualistic cultures like ours we also have a competing instinct – that of disparaging conformity, and wanting to make sure our child is unique and stands out from the crowd. In fact, many parents who are now affluent had the experience of not fitting in as children. In turn, they don’t want their own children to have these experiences or to feel the way they felt when they didn’t fit in. This creates an internal conflict for parents who struggle to give their children the best they possibly can while also fighting against excessive consumption.


So, what should we buy?

If we don’t want to buy in excess but still want to give our children the experience of fitting in, what should we do?

Consider not buying anything

Researchers have observed that gifts were rarely exchanged in times when families used to engage in cooperative labor.  Now we no longer use this method of maintaining ties with our kin, ritualized gift giving has stepped in to fill the void.  It also serves to reinforce the mother’s role in the family: since the mother’s role is to provide caring to achieve her own self-fulfillment, gift giving becomes a way to express that caring.  The kinship work of identifying gifts, purchasing them, and wrapping them is usually done by the mother (I’m of course aware that we are taking a hetero-normative perspective here – and we’ll dig deeper into the patriarchal implications of this kinship work in coming months).

We are also trying to send a message to our child – usually something along the lines of “I love you and I will do everything I can for you,” but when there’s a chance the message might not be received, we amplify its signal by repeating the message – and giving more gifts.

Yes, giving a gift or buying something for someone can show that we care about them. But that is not the only way to show you love them. You can show your child that you love them by spending quality time with them or doing something special for them that you know they will appreciate. You could give them a ‘coupon book’ for activities they really enjoy that are special treats.

You can absolutely show your child that you care without having to buy a toy or gift.


Focus on why we give

While the person receiving the gift will feel special initially, the feeling typically doesn’t last. In fact, when it comes to giving a toy, this feeling decreases with each gift a child receives – and an excess of physical objects can actually be overwhelming and contribute to feelings of anxiety.

Keeping this in mind, it really doesn’t matter what you give. Even if you get your child the top 10 hottest toys of the season, they quickly get over them and move on to wanting the next best thing with little thought or consideration to the gifts they just received.  Last year my daughter campaigned for the Hungry Hippos game that she had played at a friend’s house.  My husband tried to sell her on a new bike – she consented, but only if it was accompanied by Hungry Hippos.  She probably played Hungry Hippos 10 times, and it has sat untouched in her closet ever since.

For this reason, before you rush out to stand in line for hours to get the hot ticket item this year, think about why you are giving your child that particular gift. In addition to your desire to give your child what they want, part of the reason for your gift is likely to be self-gratification – the warm feeling you get when giving a gift.  But if both your child’s need and your need for positive feelings in your relationship can be satisfied in other ways, then do you really need to buy a gift?


Think inside the box

Many of the predictable suggestions on holiday gift giving guides are related to open-ended toys. While wooden rainbows and water-filled blocks can promote creativity and encourage a child to use their imagination, you don’t need specifically-designed toys to do this.

There are plenty of other options that can encourage creativity and imagination. Even using items from the recycle bin can do just as well, free of cost.  The anecdote about the child unwrapping a large expensive gift and then spending the rest of the day playing with the box it came in is tired for a reason – it’s really true.

If you still wanted to focus on giving your children something geared towards creativity and imagination, gift them supplies that will allow them to make new creations from found materials, such as craft supplies.  You could even treat them to a visit to your local creative reuse store – there are few excursions that my daughter loves more than this.

One of the reasons that ‘educational’ toys are so popular among parents is that there is often an underlying fear that our children won’t have the necessary skills to be successful in life. This is also a big reason why we see so many toys that are geared towards teaching children specific skills like coding.

However, many of these toys fail to focus on the actual skill that is needed to be successful. For instance, curiosity, problem-solving, sequencing, and recognizing high quality work are more important in learning to code rather than learning the actual functions of coding itself. So we shouldn’t worry about buying our children toys designed to teach specific skills that may or may not be relevant in two decades but rather toys that will teach them broader skills that are applicable across industries and a variety of careers. As the writer of the article on coding did, you can bake cookies with your child to teach them just as much about coding as a toy specifically designed to do this.

Also, consider experiences too, rather than just toys or things. Sign up for an event related to one of your child’s current interests, or consider a class where you can learn a new skill (like painting or pottery) together.  These experiences will help your child to learn the kinds of abilities that underlie good coding – and may spark a new interest as well.


Longevity is as important as quality

The focus on choosing only high-quality toys simply isn’t possible for a lot of parents. These high-quality toys are often more expensive, with the same objective in terms of teaching skills. Many times, what parents deem as high-quality toys are simply toys that are made of natural materials as opposed to toys that are made from plastic. Yet, there is no evidence that playing with toys that middle class parents deem to be ‘high-quality’ yields more benefits to children than playing with plastic toys (assuming that the toy is no longer being put in the child’s mouth).

Likewise, there is no evidence that the material of the toy impacts children’s play. This means that while it is important to try to minimize and prevent waste by avoiding toys that will obviously fall apart after their first use, plastic toys like Legos are just as good as wooden blocks. Understanding that you can help your child build the same skills whether you give them Legos or wooden blocks and makes these skills more accessible; especially when parents must choose between paying all of the electric bill and putting money towards the holiday layaway.


Teach your child media literacy

It’s essential that we don’t let our desire to give our children the best get clouded with the marketing gimmicks we are inundated with day in and day out during the holiday season. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the toy manufacturers are concerned with their bottom lines, more than the best interests of our children.

This doesn’t mean that children are simply passive recipients of marketing messages. They will use advertised toys to create their own games and will associate their own meanings with the toys. While the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood might argue that branded toys and their advertising are the problem, really they are only part of the issue – and the parts that we as families don’t own.  The parts that we own are whether we teach our children media literacy so they can think critically about the messages advertisers publish, and whether we choose to buy them anyway as a symbol of our love for our children.

Young children are often not able to tell the difference between programming and commercials so that’s a good place to start, and from there you can move on to noticing gendered imagery and language and identifying what the advertiser wants you to feel and why that might make you want to buy their product.

And again, you may still choose to buy the toy – but you’ll be doing it with your eyes wide open.


Consider your individual circumstances

When you are deciding what to buy, if anything, it is important that you keep your specific circumstances in mind. Not everyone can afford ‘high-quality’ toys and that’s okay. There are other toys available that will last that teach the same skills as the more expensive toys. You should only buy what you can afford to purchase.

Likewise, there are toys that may be a better alternative for you that might not be a good option for another family. Electronic toys often come under special criticism for being closed-ended, meaning there is only one way to play with them. This is especially true for screens. However, there are circumstances where playing on screens is safer and preferable to other options. For instance, for children that live in dangerous neighborhoods, it is safer for them to stay indoors and play on a screen when stepping outside to play could lead to a close encounter with a bullet.


Focus on your family values

So, to reiterate: it really doesn’t matter what you buy for your child, or whether you buy anything at all.  Instead, think about your family values and what brings meaning into your life. While you can do this on your own, it can be a good exercise to do together as a family. Sit down together and discuss what the holidays mean and what your family gives importance to--generosity, kindness, etc.

Once you have identified your family values, plan an activity that helps you uphold these values. Getting your entire family involved can help strengthen your relationship with one another and can give special meaning to the holiday season or can even be spread out throughout the entire year. Example activities could include:

  • Volunteering
  • Making care packages and stockings for the homeless
  • Collecting toy donations
  • Adopting a family
  • Donating to a food bank
  • Visiting with the elderly at the nursing home
  • Donating and volunteering at an animal shelter

A word of caution on volunteering and donating: it can be very easy to ‘other’ the people to whom we are giving; to see them as members of a group rather than individuals, and thus somewhat less-than-fully-human.  More to come on this topic in upcoming months but in the meantime, try to engage personally with the people you aim to help – and get to know them and their unique struggles just as you hope that someone will know you and yours.


Bonus tip: Discuss it early

Rather than have it comes as a shock, it can be helpful to discuss the meaning of the holidays with your children early on during the season. This also gives you time to discuss your family values and make a plan to focus on these values. This will also help minimize any temporary disappointment that your child may feel if they don’t receive the ‘hot’ item of the season. Doing this can help you have a magical holiday season without the added stress of making sure you have all the right toys from a holiday gift guide.

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About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (, which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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