Gifts kids won't expect

Buying for youths, often savvy consumers, leaves many adults waving a white flag. But don't surrender just yet.

Jill Gunning, mother of two, can neatly summarize many parents' chief complaint about the status of gift giving in America.

"The things that kids want aren't the things you want them to have," says Ms. Gunning, whose children, ages 12 and 15, recently joined her for a Saturday of holiday shopping at a Providence, R.I., mall.

The prelude to this Christmas has been no different. The Gunning children, to their mother's dismay, are lobbying for a new XBox video game system, a product Gunning curtly describes as "not very stimulating."

Yet she admits it is all but a foregone conclusion that her kids will eventually own it, given the tidal wave of hype - including a $500 million advertising budget - promoting the game console.

Like Gunning, many parents are growing more frustrated with a culture of consumerism that seems to be quickly slipping out of their control. At gift-giving time, that frustration can shift into overdrive.

As recently as 15 years ago, experts say, toy selection came from the top down, with parents doing most of the choosing. Since then, the decisionmaking power has shifted drastically.

From the Internet, magazines, and TV, today's youths are barraged with advertising. Many new products have the backing of millions in marketing dollars, which can stir up enough hype to spark fads. This pop-culture consumerism pervades children's lives - and shapes the preferences of many.

Parents who flinch at the products that catch their children's attention often capitulate, either due to a lack of information or simply because their children (who are more monied than ever) might simply buy the item for themselves.

Yet observers say parents and grandparents, spurred by a new current of antimaterialism in the US, are seeking alternatives. Many are searching for a gift or two that, while "cool" enough to pass review by critical peers, may be more enriching than the warblings of a Made-in-China mechanical dog. (For some examples, see story below.)

Experts credit parents' rising frustration to the aggressive marketing tactics of toymakers who bypass parental oversight, taking their pitch directly to kid consumers. Some say the strategy dates back to 1984, when the federal government deregulated children's television, allowing retailers to create TV programs with the intent of promoting a toy. Such shows were previously considered free advertising, and violated commercial-per-hour limits during children's programs.

More than $2 billion is now spent annually on advertising directed at children, about 20 times the amount spent just 10 years ago, according to Shelly Reese, author of "KIDMONEY: Children as Big Business."

"The year-round marketing to kids has skyrocketed through the Internet, radio, and children's magazines," says Betsy Taylor, director of the Center for A New American Dream, a consumer-advocacy group in Takoma Park, Md. "It's the background noise of childhood."

The commercialization of childhood, advocates say, fueled the evolution of kids into one of the nation's key consumer groups. Youths' role in family economics has followed. In 1997, children influenced $188 billion of their parents' purchases, tripling the 1982 total, according to the Channel One Network, a school-based news network.

Terry Tosetti's children are adults, but she knows from shopping for her sister's nine grandchildren that gift-giving has changed since her children were young.

"Parents bought what they thought children needed," says Ms. Tosetti, a resident of Plainville, Conn. "Today, kids say what's on their mind.... If [it's] Harry Potter, parents know they have to get it."

A 'media-linked' toy craze

But other experts argue that parents - in part to compensate for diminished time for one-to-one interaction - have been all too willing to satisfy their children's craving for pop toys.

Indeed, just as marketers began taking their message directly to children, they say, parents themselves began to focus more on building their self-esteem by satisfying - rather than shaping - their kids' preferences.

"Parents decided that in order for children to feel good, they should have an active role in decisions," says Charles Eliot, co-author of "Hollow Kids."

Intense marketing has not only empowered kid consumers, but also altered the types of toys children buy. The 1984 deregulation quickly turned children's TV into the top engine of toy sales. Within a year, nine of the 10 best-selling toys were featured on their own shows.

"More of the childhood play culture was taken over by media-linked toys," says Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College, in Boston.

Consider the media connections of some current toys: Monsters, Inc. bric-a-brac (a new movie), a toy Britney Spears Tour Bus (pop music), and Harry Potter figures (a new movie, in addition to four books).

The Harry Potter phenomenon carries some positive overtones. It is credited with encouraging reading.

But in many cases, the fad-driven toys carry the brand or image of a cartoon or pop star, but do not lend themselves to imaginative thinking. One example: 'N Sync collectible marionettes. "They're based on hype, not necessarily play value," says Susan Perry, a social psychologist in Los Angeles. "These are often one-use types of toys, which do one thing."

Electronic toys often draw the most fire from critics. Products like the remote-controlled Rumble Robots, which shoot "lasers" and throw punches at each other, offer little more than predictable bumping and beeping.

The waning availability of educational toys prompted Teresa Ford to open her own store in Lewes, Del., 11 years ago. The Kids' Ketch features creative toys that often win shoppers' approval. Most popular: Rokenbok, a set of plastic building parts that can form a remote-control construction set with bulldozers and monorails.

Still, few children or teens know about the kinds of toys in shops like Kids' Ketch, and many seem somewhat biased against them at the outset.

"A lot of kids only want what they see advertised on TV," says Ms. Ford. "It's part of not knowing how much fun the more traditional toys can be."

Toy alternative: time

Over the past decade, a small but growing core group of parents have been sensitive to the need of giving their kids alternatives to the video and electronic world of passive entertainment, according to Ford.

Traffic at stores like Kids' Ketch could finally pick up this year, as parents and grandparents make a more assertive effort to give gifts that really matter. A poll by the Center for A New American Dream registered a 26 percent increase in the number of people who plan to give more personal or meaningful gifts this holiday season.

Less commercial options for kids include gifts of time, according to Betsy Taylor, the center's director. "Offer to teach your child a particular skill," says Ms. Taylor. "Spend a day building a bird house, or toy box, or knitting a hat for the winter."

Levin says, in general, younger children enjoy dramatic play, 7- and 8-year-olds prefer collecting, while 10- to 12-year-olds favor options like magic kits and chemistry sets. After a trip to England exploring cathedrals, her then-10-year-old son came home with an urge to replicate medieval architecture.

"When his birthday came around, we bought him Legos to build a cathedral," says Levin. "He came up with a plan, made flying buttresses. It took his love of Legos in a totally new direction."

Gifts that promote creative thinking

A sampling of imaginative, interactive gifts for givers with youths on their lists (check products' packaging for specific age-appropriateness):

Archaeology: The "I-Digs Mammoth" kit includes a brush, a chisel, and other tools that children can use to pick a replica of a wooly mammoth skeleton out of a sandstone block. Use an information booklet to piece it back together. Find it at www.eshop.msn.com. The Mystery Rock, found at www.familyeducation.com/whatworks, also includes excavation tools, brushes, and log books to aid the removal of 10 real gemstones and fossils embedded in hard clay.

Basement bargains: Have some space? Think air hockey, foosball, Ping Pong. The simple, traditional games were staples of the American rec-room childhood. They're also cheaper now. (You can spend as little as $60 for a mid-size Hydro Foosball Table at Sears.)

Books: Sorcerers' stones and goblets of fire pervade children's literature now. (See Harry Potter books one through four.) Other top titles include "Skellig" by David Almond, and Louis Sachar's "Holes." An established classic: "Where the Red Fern Grows," by Wilson Rawls, about a boy's adventures living on his own during the Great Depression.

Construction: Blocks and Legos are simple and timeless - and constantly improving. Archiblocks, available in many educational toy stores, let kids build structures of Egyptian, Roman, or postmodern design, among other periods. Lego-block sets have grown increasingly elaborate over the years. (Builders can now construct remote-control vehicles.) Three-dimensional puzzles offer a similar function. Picture a miniature Sistine Chapel on the coffee table. Some parents suggest buying David MacAuley's classic book "Castle" for additional inspiration.

Globes: Interactive globes are becoming popular learning tools for a nation in want of geographic knowledge. LeapFrog's Explorer Globe (www.leapfrog.com) announces the names of countries, capitals, continents, and oceans in response to the touch of a wand. It even compares populations, land areas, and cultures.

Music Remix machines, from the DM2 Music: Remix machines, from the DM2 Digital Music Mixer (www.mixman.com) to the "Reason" virtual sound studio (www.propellerheads.se/products) can free the inner DJ in many children. A more traditional route: the Schoenhut 30-key Baby Grand Piano, available at www.niftycool.com.

Pen knife: A basic carving knife is fundamental to a life of boy scouting, and general galavanting in woods, on a hike, or just in the back yard. Look in any camping or Army Navy surplus store.

Science: Chemistry kits can often overwhelm. Three options from www.discoverychannelstore.com are a bit simpler and more task specific. The Rock Tumbler Set helps kids polish rocks for jewelry or just burnish a stone for collecting. The Macro Microscope enlarges objects from 20 to 400 times, enabling children to look at the cell walls of plants or slides of insects. For celestial wonders, consider the Home Planetarium, which can display images of 10 constellations and seven planetary systems on the ceiling.

Sewing: A Quick-to-Knit Scarf kit comes with two wooden needles, mohair-wool yarn, and full instructions. Buy it at www.niftycool.com. The Woolery (www.woolery.com) sells knitting and needlepoint kits for beginners, as well as a spinning wheel.

Spy games: The "trickledown" from military technology has already reached the 'tween market. Night Vision Goggles, at www.discoverychannelstore.com, can help venturesome kids see their way to the bathroom - or snoop on a dinner party next door. They can be aided by the Supersonic Ear 2, an electronic listening device that picks up sounds from far away, even through windows. Find it at www.niftycool.com.

Visual art: Most art-supply stores carry wooden chests with coloring pens, pencils, paper, and other tools for those even with just an inkling of artistic talent. Watercolor sets and tile-making kits are ubiquitous. Magnetic Mosaics let kids create replicas of designs from ancient Greece, using 2,000 foam magnets, a square foot playing surface, and fold-out history sheets. Find the mosaic kit at www.mfa.org/shop.

Wildlife 'adoption' Wild Animal Adoption Kits, available at www.discoverychannelstore.com, let children "adopt" a dolphin, eagle, panda, or sea turtle, among other animals living in zoos or wildlife sanctuaries. The child eventually receives a color photo of the animal being helped, information, posters, and other trinkets. Defenders of Wildlife runs a similar "adoption" program. Kids who would rather bring living creatures right into the home have an option, too: Nifty Cool's Butterfly Garden ($19.99) lets them construct a butterfly house in which live caterpillars received by mail form chrysalids and then hatch.

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