Gifts that end up on the shelf

This is the season of the generous gift - and, sometimes, the big disappointment. Well-meaning adults often buy a child a lovely gift, wrap it beautifully, watch the youngster exclaim as it is opened, and usually think that settles the matter.

But many fine gifts turn out to be disappointments. I remember a microscope and chemistry set I looked forward to. I had asked for both - and had no background for using either. My mother knew nothing about chemistry or microscopes and had no interest in science. The accompanying instructions were poor.

I made various attempts to use them before they found a place on a high shelf - and began gathering dust.

Ten-year-old Josh was given a fine tool set last Christmas. He was delighted. But it, too, is now on a shelf.

Although he liked the idea of having a tool set, he really didn't know what to do with it - you can only tighten screws around the house for so long.

He had hoped to build things - but what? He is 10, so building anything means an adult must get the wood and help find suitable projects - nothing too ambitious for a beginner. And an adult should probably supervise the sawing.

A sewing machine, given by a grandmother to 12-year-old Amanda, caused not just frustration but family tension.

Amanda's mother, an attorney, can barely sew a button on a blouse. She couldn't help her daughter use the machine. Grandma could - but she lives 2,000 miles away.

Amanda was unhappy with her mother for not helping her. Amanda's mother was unhappy with her mother-in-law for sending a gift that, had she thought more carefully, she would have realized would cause problems.

Almost invariably, when gifts begin to gather dust on shelves, parents begin to scold.

''You asked for that tool set, now you don't ever use it!''

''You wanted a microscope, now it's just something to clutter up the house.''

Of course the child thought he would use it - or he wouldn't have asked for it. How many youngsters ask for something they don't really believe they will use?

Thinking ahead - thinking beyond the delight the child experiences at unwrapping a hoped-for gift is essential.

Don't buy a child a huge set of building blocks if his room is so small he can't build in it, and he has a mother who is not amenable to elaborate block constructions in the living room.

When a child asks for a questionable gift, discuss it in advance. If you know you haven't the time, or equally important, the inclination, to supervise some sewing, woodworking, or chemistry experiments, be honest - better now than later , when it will become obvious anyway.

Acknowledge the child's desire for the gift, but explain the problems involved. Suggest that the gift might be more suitable at another time - when he is older, when there will be more space, or when one or both parents have time to help.

Had Amanda's grandmother waited one more year to give the sewing machine, Amanda would have been enrolled in a sewing class in junior high school. A set of tools for Josh would have been better deferred until seventh grade when he would have a wood shop class in school.

But remember, too, that we should be willing to stop what we are doing - to put down the newspaper, to turn off the television, to take a pan off the burner - to show interest in what a child is doing. The joy of discovery is greatest when it can be shared.

If a gift does turn out to have been a poor choice, a disappointment, and the child doesn't use it, chances are he already feels bad about it. Give him the gift of keeping silent - and don't rub it in.

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