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December 14, 2016 12:05 PM EST

The first time I gave my daughter a gift she really loved, she squealed and lunged at it when it was only half unwrapped like a hawk snatching a pigeon off a branch. She loved this gift, a doll, with an intensity and delirium that was intoxicating. To make a child that happy is like a hit of uncut parental heroin.

The problem, as with any high, is that there’s a margin of diminishing returns. As my children got older, their joy at receiving presents turned to confused disappointment or even mild hostility if the requested gift was not delivered and then, eventually, to where it ends: polite acceptance of the act of gift-giving.

As a parent I watched, unable to do anything about this element of the human condition. The best we can hope for is to give our kids things that will pass the test of time. The doll I gave my daughter was much-loved for many years and is still somewhere in her room. Other gifts on which I spent more money have languished unused. So I asked parents of older kids as well as some kids to look back on what gifts had been the most successful. Here are some of their answers.


The consensus is that a really huggable doll, that you can dress and undress, as much like a baby as possible will be a keeper. People also swear by a really good soft teddy bear, such as this guy. Warning: Do not get any plush toy that sings/dances/squeaks/rattles. That way madness lies.

For some strange reason, cash registers are also really big with the Pre-K, Kindergarten crowd. Get a kit with the money, purse, the credit card, and play store. (Heed all choking warning, obviously.)

Elementary school

It seems like such a dull present, but my child had fun with this easel for years. At first she just scribbled on it, then she played teacher, then she organized her life, with these hysterical to do lists, that included things like “Be Nice to mY bruthr.” Other parents cite Calico critters, which took them well into middle school and MagnaTiles.

There’s a reason there are so many parenting jokes about treading on Legos; they’re always on the floor, because they’re always being played with. Most parents recommend them as a gift that kids—and grandkids— keep coming back to. From a youngster set to something advanced, they bridge a bunch of ages. (Confession: building with Legos has the same effect on me as coloring books do on other adults. Soothing, meditative, pointless.) There’s also a robust aftermarket, so you can buy Legos cheap, clean them if necessary and resell.

Middle School

I’m assuming here that you’ve got all the iDevices covered, and are looking for something non screen-related. Most of the parents I asked talked about activities at this stage: bikes, Ripstiks, a basketball hoop. These all depend on what kind of a kid you have and his or her environment: a Ripstik is not much fun if there is nowhere smooth to ride and a hoop is no fun if you live in an apartment. Adjust accordingly.

I didn’t even give my daughter this microphone; her brother did. But some kind of singing/music device, especially when connected to a karaoke-type game was my kids’ go-to fun in the long winter months. Cute speakers for their music making machine will work too.

High School

By this time, some of your offspring’s interests have emerged and so parents said the gifts that served them best were slightly higher end versions of whatever their children are already using: a groovier snowboard helmet or a better wetsuit or the coolest new sneakers.

One version of this is a lit makeup mirror. This one is a huge hit in our house, and all the family members use it, because in the age of the selfie, everyone needs have a good hard look at his or her face now and then.

Gifts for the whole family

A lot of parents swear by their trampolines, and I don’t mean stand beside them and say bad words. If you want to really splurge, this trampoline is the bomb. Upside: it doesn’t have springs, so the whole circumference is jumping space. Also, your kid really can’t fall off. Downside: It’s really expensive. And it’s murder to set up. I’d say we got 12 years of family fun, exercise and birthday parties out of this one, (my kids especially liked jumping on it in the rain and snow) and I still hear plenty of smack about us giving it away.

And, parents urged, don’t forget board games. Board games are a great way to get kids to understand how rules can make things more fun and how to beat someone and concede to someone gracefully, as opposed to just beating a machine or a player in the digital hinterlands. My personal favorite is Telestrations. But Pictureka is pretty good for a range of ages as well.

Finally, many parents said that trips, concerts and experiences were among the most meaningful and lasting gifts they gave their kids. But if you’ve had a tough year, and don’t have much room in your budget for gifts this year, take heart from one mother who wrote to me, whose family, for reasons beyond their control, suddenly went from middle class to temporarily having no access to money at all. “Christmas presents were out of the question. So that day, as we sat around our less than festive table, we asked our children to give each member of the family an imaginary present, anything they could think off, no limits. My eight children, ranging from 6 to 16 played along with enthusiasm, giving away soccer teams, stop snoring magic potions, five more inches of leg length.”

“More than 20 years have past and many presents, from Barbies to drones, from sweaters to trips, have been given over the years. Even now that some are married and have children of their own, they remember that Christmas as the most special.”

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