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Gift registries for kids: Helpful or horrifying?

Erin Zammett Ruddy

I’m curious: When your family asks what your kid wants for Christmas/Hanukkah do you say, “Oh, he’ll love anything,” or do you say, “the 300-piece Playmobil helicopter with real rotating propellers that’s on sale at Toys R Us for $29.99 and if you head up there let me know because I’ll give you a coupon.” Which answer do you think is better? I kind of have issues with both….

Giving people a little direction is helpful, I think. If your kid loves sharks, why not spread the word? When it comes to my mom and my mother in law, I offer guidance. Because they ask and because I want to be helpful and because we are all very close, I can say things like, “Please do not buy another stuffed animal that goes with a book” (mom) or “you know what Nora really needs for Christmas? A winter coat” (Debbie). But my kids are young, and they really don’t have solid lists for Santa (if you recall, Alex wants an iPhone and Nora wants a flashlight), so I’m at a loss, too. I imagine as they get older they will know exactly what they want. I wonder how much of that I/Santa will handle and how much I’ll farm out to the extended family. Being too specific feels like a registry to me (more on that later) but I guess it ensures that your kid will get what he wants. Then again, shouldn't he be happy with any gift he gets? Isn't it the thought that counts or is that no longer the way it works?

The thing is, I don’t want to stifle people, which is how I sometimes feel when I’m told exactly what to buy. It kind of takes the fun out of gift-giving (although it makes it very easy, which I suppose is the idea). When I asked my sister, Melissa, if there is anything my eight-year-old nephew wanted for Christmas she said, “just get him a video game, I can actually pick one up for you while I’m out.” I told her A: I would never buy him a video game (not my style) and B: What the hell is the point of getting him a gift if she’s going to pick it out and pay for it? (We're on the phone 10 times a day so we can talk to each other this way.) Of course I do appreciate that she was trying to make my life easier—something I tend to avoid.

To be honest, gift-giving gives me great anxiety. The problem is, I aspire to be a person who gets the people on my list one-of-a-kind gems from my year of travels, the way my Grandma Ruth (a world-class shopper and world traveler) always did. She kept a list in her purse of upcoming birthdays and anniversaries and events so she always knew who to buy for. Unfortunately, I never remember to do this until it’s too late (i.e., it’s now occurring to me on December 13th). Oh, and I don’t really travel anywhere. 

And so, instead, I am the person who stresses and spends too much money at the last minute making up for the fact that I didn’t pick up silk-screened panda prints from Bejing (one of my favorite gifts from my Grandma—they are now framed in the kids’ playroom). At the same time, I refuse the very kind offering of my sister or others who say, “just get me _______.” Because I have trouble seeing the point in that, particularly for Christmas. One of the reasons Nick and I stopped exchanging gifts is that it became a simple errand-running exercise and all the thought and love and creativity was gone.

Speaking of telling people what to buy, my friend’s son recently got invited to a five-year-old party and at the end of the invitation it said “Billy* has a wish list at Toys R Us.” A registry for a kindergartner seems a little much but that would be one easy party to shop for! Birthday parties, especially if you don’t know the kid, can be tough. Many of my friends asked me what Alex might like for his birthday and, for some of them, I gave ideas (cooking stuff, gardening stuff, clothes). I know it made it easier for them and Alex wound up with some cool gifts (that's him with his loot, above). But a registry seems a tad much to me. My friend, naturally, was appalled as I’m sure I would be too. But given what I’m currently going through with Christmas,perhaps the joke is on me. Or, more specifically, the dozen or so people I still haven't shopped for. What do you think? Do you tell people what to buy your kids? Do you like it when people tell you what to get? Ever see a registry for a birthday party? Think it's helpful or horrifying?

*name changed to protect the guilty.