This piece is part of Slate’s Holiday Advice From the Experts series, where our beloved advice columnists offer their gift-giving wisdom. Jamilah Lemieux weighs in on self-care items to keep you sane through the holiday season. Carrie Bauer tells you which educational toys your kid will actually find fun. Need a teacher gift? Our Ask a Teacher columnists recommend their favorites.
I am here to present you with a Classic Children’s Gift Guide, the contents of which will educate and also inflame readers. I write this Guide for the person who can give freely and walk away from the child without any blowback from their choices. It is written, as well, for the children, bless them, as their needs are paramount, just above the desperate, child-free uncle scrambling into late December without a clue. Parents? Well, you’re neither my audience nor my problem, but I’ll attempt to keep you in my thoughts when it comes to airily recommending large drones for 4-year-olds.
The Classic Gifts, as you must know, are constantly in flux. You may go completely off-book one year and present a small child with an item that forever becomes a Classic Gift in their family. My brother sees my children once or twice a year, but when I say “your Uncle Michael” my son adds impatiently, like I’ve omitted an official title, “the man who gave me the dinosaur that turns into a laser ray.” Surely, you wish to be such a person. It makes Uncle Michael feel like a bit character in Star Wars. Do I, the mother, like the extremely noisy light-up dragon gun? That’s not important. It’s a Classic Gift, now.
We must not be hemmed in by tradition. Many Classic Gifts are bad. How many therapy bills in adulthood stem from Love You Forever, and its message about it being OK to break into your grown son’s home to rock him to sleep? Or, if not bad, overdone. Just as all recently bereaved women can build ziggurats of the helpful copies of The Year of Magical Thinking that their (inevitably!) well-meaning friends have given them, a copy of Goodnight Moon slides straight out of a uterus with the placenta. Trust me: You do not need to give a baby Goodnight Moon. Nor should you make a similar error in giving a baby named “Olivia” the delightful Olivia books by Ian Falconer. They have them already. Restrain yourself.
It’s important, as well, to give a gift to a child as the child actually is, and not to the child you were at their age. Me? I wanted only books and silence. Please do not give a thinly disguised directive in the guise of a gift, whether that be “this will be the doll that finally makes your daughter interested in maternal things, in which she has never shown the slightest interest” or “this Beet-of-the-Month Club subscription will surely take a few pounds off my nephew.” When you receive a wonderful gift in adult life, it is rarely precious to you because someone dropped some serious change on a Diptyque candle (I actually would find that very precious, to be fair)—it’s because the gift indicates the giver knows who you are.
When giving gifts to other people’s children, the difficulty is that we do not, necessarily, have intimate knowledge of that child. You have to pick up the phone and ask the parent what the child likes and hates. This may result in an emailed list of options, which could be just what you wanted. But there is no reason not to Freebird this situation a little. (Surely you know not to get toy guns without clearing them with parents, ditto drum sets and cigarettes.) That is where this Guide comes in.
My goal here is to provide a nice, age-appropriate list of serviceable, sturdy, child-tested, beloved items (and experiences!) that have every chance of becoming Enduring Memories—enough options to see your friend or family member’s child up to their departure to college, with some variations based on personality type. (Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have a young Goth relative, for whom gift-buying is a true and rare pleasure, or a devoted bookworm, or one of those children who actually enjoys playing outdoors.) “Didn’t see much of Aunt Mabel,” the child will say, “but she gave great presents.” You are, in advance, welcome.
BABIES: The baby won’t remember—we’re here to please parents with this one—so Practical Stuff is the word of the day. I’m sure they already have a Sophie La Girafe, but no harm in checking. A better wipe holder is always great; do NOT get a heated one. It sounds great but then it breaks on a February night and the baby has never felt a cold wipe before and thinks the world is ending.
It’s not exciting, but if you know they have a Diaper Genie, like most of the population, buy like four sets of refill packs and your name will live on in whispered awe. Same goes for waterproof crib covers. “That’s too many,” you’ll think, but it’s really not. The ideal crib sheeting system is a waterproof cover, then a normal crib sheet, then another waterproof cover, then a normal crib sheet, so that when your baby throws up or poops everywhere at 2 a.m. you can whip off the top two layers and have a fresh sheet and cover already in place. Teach this to your children.
Tell strangers on the bus.
Last, but not least, this thermometer is big enough not to immediately lose, does not necessitate going near anyone’s butt, and is phenomenally accurate. Accept no substitutes!
TODDLERS: You need to give them Magna-Tiles. I do not make the rules. “$50 for 32 magnet blocks?!” you will say. Trust me that they will love them. They are also much less painful to step on than most alternative building sets. (Another plus: You could conceivably give these again and again for the next few years. Kids can never have enough of them—they’re that good.)
Melissa & Doug’s nesting and sorting blocks are so sturdy and beautiful, and if the kid already has a set, you can just build a larger little village. For older toddlers especially, Aaron Becker’s Wordless books work regardless of the language spoken at home, and they are full of joy and spark imagination.
ELEMENTARY SCHOOLERS: This is a great age to break out the Crayola Inspiration Art Set Coloring Kit, which looks dope as hell and is a real crowd-pleaser. See also, Window Art. These rainbow note sets are great for swapping info with friends, especially in the few remaining days before they shake their parents down for a phone.
DO NOT sleep on this very cool marble-run logic game gravity thingie, which has been a big hit whenever I’ve tried it. This game is the only card-based game I like, and it will transform gatherings.
BOOKISH PRETEENS: They’ll appreciate this reading light, which can be quickly turned off and hidden for when you were supposed to be asleep hours ago. Ideally, they’ll be using it to read The Chronicles of Prydain. I think the bookish preteens should be in libraries finding their own books via serendipity, but also, they NEED Lloyd Alexander. I will not further dictate your book gifting. I do, however, STRONGLY suggest this delightful bookmark alternative, a heavy and attractive anchor that can keep a book OPEN for you while you are knitting or crocheting or doing any of the other retro things the youth have gotten adorably into.
OUTDOORSY PRETEENS: No hoverboards without asking first. Are we clear? OK. It seems dorky, but the light-up Capture the Flag game is actually really fun, especially at dusk.
Nothing can beat the best gift, though, which is to offer to take them and a few friends to an outdoor paintball range that allows teens (again, permission!). Failing that, take them to play laser tag. If you’re too old to play (I’m sorry), encourage them to read a book. Get them Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods, which you are not allowed to eye-roll at unless you have thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, haters to the left.
GOTH/SOCIAL JUSTICE TEENS: Get them earning their keep around the house with a really good vegan cookbook. I love anything from America’s Test Kitchen, because its recipes are truly tested to death and the chefs explain every random term. How do you “blanch” something? Find out! Doc Martens are still cool; you cannot defeat them. They will still be cool when we are living on Mars. A gift that costs nothing? If you have old protest buttons or campaign buttons, teens love that stuff. Everything old is new again, just like Peter Allen said. It’s not authentic, but if your relatives refuse to permit open flames, these are very goth and also safe.
POPULAR OLDER TEENS LEADING UNEXAMINED LIVES: They have everything anyway. Give them gift cards to Vineyard Vines and slip them a three-pack of Trojans. Be there for them when the comedown hits years later and they become characters in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” desperate to recapture the time they were kings and queens.
OFF TO COLLEGE: I cannot believe this day has come! Everyone gets a copy of The Gift of Fear, regardless of gender identity. Absolutely priceless. Put a note inside saying that the chapter on intimate partner violence isn’t great and if they ever experience it, they should buy Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? and listen to that instead. Sorry to be a downer. While I’m still being a downer, distribute this four-pack of in-car safety equipment. Nothing says “take this boy home to Mom” like “owns a seat belt cutter/side-window glass breaker carefully Velcroed to the driver’s side panel.”
Oh, don’t forget a reasonably priced waterproof Bluetooth speaker.
One of the best off-to-college experiences you can give a young person is to swoop in (after texting to figure out an appropriate time) and buy dinner at a medium-nice restaurant for them and their dirtbag friends, especially after freshman year, when they are less likely to have a dining plan. I remember every single person who bought me a meal in college and they will all go to heaven, like dogs.
Also, money. They need money.
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