Before I had kids, I loved buying gifts for other people's children. I was the cool aunt. The one who would ignore the lists and get something that I just knew would be their absolute favourite toy / game / item of clothing. Loud toys, messy toys, dangerous stunt toys… anything that would cement my place in their minds as fun, young and relatable. That was before I had 2 kids and an ever-growing pile of unwanted crap in my house.
Parties and Obligations
My son recently turned 3 and my daughter is about to turn 5. Both milestones have required a party (oh how I miss the covid days where no-one was allowed to have parties except for the Prime Minister). My kids are at an age where they play in large groups at nursery, so that involves a lot of pre-schoolers. Add this to out-of-nursery friends and it comes to about 20 kids. All of these kids are obliged to take gifts for the birthday child.
I hate this obligation.
The other parents hate this obligation.
However, obviously, for the kids this is one of the highpoints of having a party. They are excited and wide eyed to see what wonderful gifts their friends have bought them. Of course, most of their friends have had absolutely no input into the gift. If you ask your child "what gift should I get for 'birthday child'?" they will list off some toys that they want for themselves. Asking for child input also resulted in my son choosing some very pink unicorn and mermaid colouring-in books for the birthday party of a boy in his class, but that is a whole other story. At least my attempts to avoid gender stereotyping their toys has not been in vain.
As this is one of these social events that involves complex interactions and masked intentions, you can't offer suggestions for gifts. You can't look like you or your child are actually asking for gifts, even though you all know that a gift will be given. I have tried messaging a parent before a party asking what their child would like, and have been answered with, "Oh don't worry about a gift, all my child wants is to have fun with her friends!" Yeah right, I can't risk my child being the only one without a gift and becoming the talk of the nursery school gossip circuit. When other parents have messaged me I have at least said, "She likes animals, Lego and My Little Pony, but the main thing is having fun with her friends!"
What Not To Buy
Anyway, to my point, it is very hard to give generic advice as to what to buy a kid you don't know for their birthday… but I can tell you a few things not to get:
- Anything that takes more than 15 minutes to put together. They want toys they can play with NOOOOW!!
- Anything that has a load of little bits, but especially if the toy won't work when we lose even one of these bits. Which we will, probably before the wrapping paper is thrown away. In fact, it was probably thrown away with the wrapping paper. Aaaaand now I'm raking through the bin.
- If a child's party has a theme, remember that while they will love toys associated with that theme they probably already have a lot of toys on that theme. Tread carefully to avoid buying something they already have loads of.
- Sweeties. I am not one of those parents who totally denies my kids sweets (they would disagree), but the problem is that a lot of his friends got him sweets. We also had sweets from family, and leftover sweets from the party. Now my kid has so many sweets that I have to eat them when he is in bed for his own good. So thanks for that, now I am fat and it is all your fault.
- Noisy toys. No further comment required.
- Anything that cost more than £10. I don't want to feel obliged to spend a lot on your kid.
- Craft kits are fine. Messy paints and glue are not fine. To be honest I am okay with them, but a lot of parents are not so you are best to avoid them.
What To Buy For Kids You Don't Know
The main point of this post is that it is near impossible to generalise, but it would be rude to not offer any help:
- Despite what I said earlier, message the parent and ask. If you at least have a vague area to work from then at least you know they won't hate it.
- Craft kits that are self-contained (no "just add glue, sticky tape, ribbons, glass jars, the blood of your younger sibling etc.) and have minimal mess involved.
- Scratch art kits.
- Self-contained decoration kits.
- Air dry clay with very simple instructions.
- Books, although this one is a less safe option because I am told some kids don't like books.
- A gift voucher for a local toy shop. This one is a bit dangerous because no young child is excited by a voucher, but it is a great slow burn gift because the child gets to pick something they want later.
Don't Beat Yourself Up
The main thing to remember is that the child is going to be opening 15 to 20 gifts at once. It is insanely overwhelming for a child that is overtired and running entirely on Fruit Shoots and Freddos. Even though the parent will be frantically trying to write down which child bought what so that they can send a thank you text, the child is unlikely to remember who bought everything. You are not going to increase your own child's social status by buying an amazing gift, nor are you going to have got the child their new favourite toy. If you can come up with something consumable that is not food then great, you are not contributing to the emotional load of clutter that the parents have to deal with.
And if any other parents ask what to get your child, direct them to their thingstogetme.com list, of course.