When loved ones swamp your kid with presents

It’s the time of year when calls and emails pour in from our family and close friends, all asking the same question: ”What would Gerald like for Christmas?”

It’s not always an easy question to answer, despite our 8-year-old son’s ever-growing wish list. When Gerald was much younger, I balked at making suggestions. I thought it was tasteless to compile the equivalent of a virtual bridal registry for our son’s Christmas gifts. But I’ve since discovered that helping others choose his gifts helps me keep family and friends from going overboard with their generosity – and overwhelming our home with toys.

The gift suggestions I make consider a number of factors, including our relationship to the gift giver and, often, the current state of his or her finances. Some members of my extended family are less well-off than others, and this year a few are caught in the mortgage crisis that’s put the squeeze on so many homeowners.

In years past, when I didn’t specify inexpensive gifts Gerald might like, I was dismayed to find that some family members generously bought things that probably taxed their budget. And with such a big family, simply saying ”Gerald likes anything Nerf or Star Wars” inevitably leads to duplicate gifts and disappointed givers.

My husband Gerry’s family is very small, but somehow we wind up with the same gift-giving dilemma: Unless I specify an inexpensive game or toy, Gerald often is overwhelmed with gifts. I fear Gerry’s brother and aunts and uncles feel obligated to lavish expensive gifts on the few children in the family. Then there are my own divorced parents, who insist on buying large, expensive toys and bikes, no matter how much I urge them to show restraint.

Gerry and I are also blessed with many longtime friends; with them, giving and getting gifts for our kids is an excuse to get together, with the result that more stuff winds up in our already-overcrowded homes. Because there are so many children to buy for, it’s generally accepted that extremely inexpensive gifts are the way to go.

Before I make suggestions, I spend time on toy retailers’ Web sites, looking for little presents that would please Gerald just as much as big toys. A $6.99 packet of five Matchbox cars will elicit the same yelp of pleasure as a $69.99 remote-controlled car. Last year Gerald had just as much fun playing with a $10.99 Star Wars Legos V-wing fighter as he did his $99.99 Legos Classic Imperial Star Destroyer. With the benefit of hindsight, Santa could have substituted the $125 robotic dinosaur he ignores with a $2.99 Spalding Hi-Bounce ball he plays with endlessly.

One suggestion I won’t be making this year: gift cards. I’ve tried – I used to urge out-of-state friends and family to consider them, so they wouldn’t have to wait in line at the post office to mail bulky toys. In practice, after two years Gerald has nearly $500 in gift cards still unspent; this year we’ll probably ”regift” the cards by using them to buy gifts for others.

You may wonder why I don’t suggest the easiest and most thoughtful gift of all: a charitable donation in Gerald’s name. Don’t think I haven’t tried. Gerald’s cousin Rylina is autistic, and last year Gerald and we worked hard to raise money for Autism Speaks. Since he participated so enthusiastically, I figured many of our family and friends would feel such a donation would be meaningful for Gerald. Some did welcome the suggestion, but most said they’d feel bad if all the other kids were unwrapping toys while he unwrapped a charitable-gift tax receipt.

Still, I’ll try suggesting a donation again this year, concentrating on family and friends who would otherwise be stuck mailing Gerald’s holiday gifts. For the rest, I’ll compile Gerald’s virtual gift registry. Then I’ll call friends and family and ask for gift suggestions for their kids, so I can get started with my own shopping.

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