Monday, November 5, 2007

Great Gifts with Really Bad Unintended Consequences

Yesterday I posted "ten gift ideas for kids least likely to end up in landfill" and I promised today I would post my list of some of the worst gifts I've observed. Of course all these gifts were well-intended; the generous gifters just never saw what happened after the gift was received, but as the mom, I got to manage the consequences. And in most cases they were NOT much fun.
Here are gifts to avoid - unless you dislike the recipients, perhaps.
1. Any young children’s toy with lots of pieces and no container. These quickly drive parents nuts. The pieces get all over the house, and you wind up going out and buying plastic bins just to store the damn pieces, which you quickly grow to loathe.
2. Gift certificates: they might seem perfect but turn out to be pain in the neck.

  • They require a parent to schlep the kid to the store - which is rarely convenient. Some are electronic, which is a better bet, but still tricky and often requires parental assistance and supervision.
  • Gift cards are easily lost - they're little. I can't tell you how many times we had to go through a big stack of cards to fish out the accidentally discarded certificate.
  • Worst is that store gift cards are a big ripoff, since they gradually lose their face value and eventually expire altogether (though some consumer laws are being passed to address this).
  • And if you actually make it to the store with the card, the chosen gift never costs just the amount of the gift certificate, so you must either add to it, or hold on to a gift certificate with $2.13 balance which hangs around for years, cluttering up your life!
3. Arts and crafts kits - they also seem like they would be fun and promote creativity, but they're a big bomb. Children are naturally creative, so they do better with interesting art materials. In each of my children’s Big Cleanouts we handed off lots of unopened creative kits; they required way too much focused attention and too many steps to actually be fun. Skip the pre-packaged cutsey "Make Earrings and a Necklace" or "Build a Volcano" and just give scissors, paper, glue sticks. clay, and/or glitter.

4. Single shares of stock - by far the all time best-intended and most irritating gifts my kids received. They were given by an dear elderly gentleman who wanted to teach them about investing, a worthy goal indeed. (Though each did this in school with the Stock Market Game in about 5th grade.) He gave each kid three single shares: 1 of Disney, 1 of CocaCola, and 1 of Johnson and Johnson. I remember very clearly because each one generated quarterly statements, annual reports, tax statements, and miniscule dividend checks! And when they wanted to sell them, we discovered the transaction costs exceeded the worth of each stock. We finally donated them to charities, which in itself generated paperwork. Great intention, terrible consequences!

5. Likewise, US Savings Bonds are not child-friendly, at least for children old enough to understand numbers. It is hard to explain to a kid that a $50 savings bond is worth $25, and will only be worth $50 in another 20 years! Talk about coal in your stocking…. My son thought it was bizarre that it was legal to give something that was marked $100 and was only worth $50! Just give the $50. Fifty bucks will mean a lot more to a ten-year-old than the matured $100 bond will mean to him or her when he or she is pushing 25 years old!

Of course even if you avoid these particular scenarios, it's still hard to find a gift that will please. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you're off. Sometimes you're trying to please the parent, not the child, anyway. That's why I am gradually shifting to contributions instead of gifts. Most American children have way too much stuff to need more. Check out where you can "give" gift cards which allow the recipient to make a microloan to a thirdworld breadwinner. Now that is a cool gift.


Anonymous said...

Funny, I've always been told that noisy toys for teenagers was the worst idea.

ChiefFamilyOfficer said...

You are soooo right about #1. We've even asked family to stop buying toys with pieces but to no avail. Fortunately, we have lots of boxes from economy-size packages of diapers. As for savings bonds, you can get face value I-bonds, and I think they're actually great for teaching how compound interest works (I freely admit that this is theoretical since my kids are 2 and 1, but now that I've thought of it, I may buy them each an I-bond now and that way some interest will have compounded by the time they are able to understand what it is).

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite donation gifts is a Heifer Project animal. Often there is a kid in the country on the receiving end whose life is really changed (and then those kids are often profiled in the materials Heifer sends out and has on the website). For a child who appreciates saving the world, being part of this is a very cool thing.

Anonymous said...

Amen to number three!

Anonymous said...

Now that I'm all grown up, I wish I had gotten MORE savings bonds as a kid - that's about $2k I got for doing the work of being alive (and making it into my 20s, I guess). I see them as something really special - and I keep delaying cashing them in. At the moment, I like to think of them as my eventual "wedding fund".

Anonymous said...

I don't know, my kids are 'tweens' and LOVE gift cards.

I take charge of them as soon as they get any and keep them in a special box in our home office. We pick out a day and they take the gift cards and any allowance they've earned and we go shopping.

I've actually found that it's a great way to teach kids the value of something—if they have to spend THEIR money, they are a lot choosier!

Also, my kids have great-grandparents who mean well but don't get out to shop and wouldn't know what to buy anyway (its hard for me, even).

My kids write a thank-you to the giver of the card and tell them what they got with it.