Parents buy toys for their children year round — holidays, rainy days, desperate days. But toy manufacturers unleash their really bad ideas just in time for the holidays. Why? Because they know that Mommy and Daddy will not be seduced by just any toy — we have standards. So Evil Toy Emperors rely on a network of "Trojan horses" to get the goods (and the bads) into our homes. Well-intentioned grandparents, neighbors and occasionally Santas become unwitting pawns in their strategic marketing plans.
This year, I am fighting back.
Despite keeping my kids "unavailable" for Nickelodeon-influenced wish-list consultations, generous friends and relatives always manage to deliver the space-sucking, energy-consuming, noisy "hot" toys of the season. Our children squeal at the delightful lapse in toy-selection judgment. We simply step back and say a silent wish that the instructions, if included, are less than 17 pages long.
So I say, it's time to rein things in; without looking a gift Trojan horse in the mouth, I hereby offer a "What Not to Gift Guide" for 2005:
Even Santa makes mistakes. Sometimes, bad toys that disappear from store shelves reappear with a new name and a bigger advertising budget. Such is the case with the "new" at-home Slurpee maker. Don't be fooled. It is the toy reincarnation of the Icee machine, aka "The Simpsons' " Apu Squishy Maker.
Santa delivered this trouble to our house three years ago. We spent forever struggling to assemble a million plastic parts. When we were done, we realized we were missing the crucial ingredient: the kind of sugary soda most parents don't allow their children to drink, which, of course, was not included. Christmas Day ended with crying and bitterness.
The next day we were back at it. Endless hand cranking and whining finally produced a tiny cup of slightly cold, sweet syrup. This time the kids cried with us, while we nursed carpal-tunnel syndrome. Later we all decided the Icee maker would be much happier in a landfill. Falling for this year's Slurpee machine could lead to more tears — so save the Slurpee for next summer at your local 7-Eleven.
The vicious cycle of revenge gifting begins innocently. Maybe you decide to nurture a love of art by carefully selecting a kit containing 101 carpet stains for your precocious nephew. Do not be surprised if your daughter then receives a Polly Pocket Deluxe Set — with Bonus! Expect to retire your vacuum until she finds the microscopic "other pink shoe."
Resist the temptation to play this heady game of one-upmanship, or you could be on the receiving end of Spiderman Web Blasters, Floam or new this year, the extremely ill-advised Doodle Bear. I propose a cease-fire agreement, or there will be a traumatizing upsurge in non-"doodle" teddy-bear defacement.
Toys gone wild
In the good old days, it was easy to calm childhood fears of toys' coming alive in the middle of night, because they didn't. Today's stuffed animals and dolls light up, move and, in a creepy bit of overkill, respond to your child's questions.
An unsuspecting adult's good-night's sleep can be ruined when a talking Big Bird whispers a muffled "peek-a-boo" in a scene straight out of "The Twilight Zone." Disposing of these toys requires distraction and subterfuge; otherwise, they will call out to your child from the Goodwill box. Their inevitable rescue lets them live to scare another day. Leave them on the shelf.
What looks good in the store can lose its luster by the time it's opened, a lesson I learned in my rookie years. Just because your 4-year-old son insists on a Barbie cake for his birthday, it doesn't mean that he now wants to become a Barbie Girl living in a Barbie world, or even that he wants a Barbie dress-up head of his very own. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
But I barely escaped with my ear when he flung my bad idea gift across the room in horror and embarrassment. I recently overheard my son recall his Barbie party with chagrin. He explained to a friend that he was just "stupid" back then. Think twice before you buy a cute little doll for your best friend and her macho husband's baby boy.
I'm a grown-up now
Avoid toys that mimic the real, dangerous and messy adult versions because they are usually really dangerous and really messy. Like me, skittish parents everywhere have barely survived the Easy Bake Oven, build-it-yourself V-8 engines, chemistry labs, rocket launchers and complete sets of kid-size Home Depot tools. Please spare us gifts requiring matches, eye protection and the dreaded three words; "adult supervision required."
And don't even think about showing up at my house with a Dr. Dreadful Demented's Drink Lab and Food Factory.
Unless, of course, your name is Santa, in which case — just do what feels right to you.
Heija Nunn is a writer based on the Eastside: firstname.lastname@example.org