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A Challenge for Parents

I'm going to ask you something difficult: How many of last year's holiday toys do your kids still find entertaining? Be honest. Did the novelty wear off by the time the wrapping paper met the garbage?

Last year, I vowed that I would keep my mothering-meets-retail frenzy in check when it came to holiday shopping. I wouldn't just go out willy-nilly with my credit card, imagining my kids' eyes sparkling, and fork over hundreds of dollars for toys that ultimately wouldn't last.

How did I fare? Pretty well, if you count intentions and a keen ability to snap up a "bargain." Not so well if you compare how much I spent to how much my children have played with said holiday items. Even $5 is too much for a toy that has little to no play value.

Here's a sampling of last year's purchases:

  • A Darth Vader talking mask that I found for the bargain price of $14.99 at Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) . (My son wore it exactly three times.)
  • The Elmo Aquadoodle that was guaranteed to delight my two-year-old. (She didn't like that her watery pictures "disappeared," so this went to the thrift store donation pile.)
  • A fashion design kit for my artistic four-year-old. (I ignored the age recommendation -- ages 8 and up -- but the toy required too much fine motor control for someone so young and is now up on a shelf.)

The lesson? It's important to take stock of what types of gifts will hold your children's interest for the long haul. You'll save money, your kids will be pleased, and everyone will benefit.

Here are things you may want to keep in mind for your family's gift-giving this year:

  1. Choose toys that are open-ended. Open-ended toys (think Legos, block sets, dolls/action figures, and art supplies) allow your children to use their imagination in the pursuit of limitless fun. Each time your child plays with an open-ended toy can be an entirely different experience. So these types of toys have a much higher play value than toys that "script" the play for your child.
  2. Be critical of last year's toys. How did they fare in terms of repeat play? Were your kids done with them in a week or do they still occasionally play with them? What went wrong? It's important to figure out what works for your children so you can repeat your successes and avoid wasting money on duds.
  3. Go age-appropriate. If you, like me, think your child is a genius, it's tempting to ignore toys' age recommendations altogether. But sometimes the age recommendations account for what we may have forgotten: Often, a child's developmental profile varies across skill sets. Your child may be intellectually advanced but have fine or gross motor skills that are just right for his age. He may like the looks of the toy, but if his fingers aren't strong enough yet to operate the remote control, you'll have one unhappy, frustrated kid.
  4. Don't set the bar too high. Consider setting your own limits on gifts, whether it's a dollar amount you'll spend on each child or a number of gifts per child. Setting a limit will force you to approach potential purchases more critically.
  5. Spend more on traditions, less on stuff. It's easy to get sucked into thinking you have to spend a lot to make your holidays wonderful. But my kids tend not to remember the things they got for Christmas; what they talk about most, long after the holiday has passed, is the fun things we did to celebrate as a family.

This article is adapted from theMotley Fool Green Light Money Answers archive, which features more than 100 articles on personal finance topics such as taxes, credit, and beginning investing, organized by subject and life stage. For access to this content -- plus the current newsletter, back issues, members-only discussion boards, and advisor blogs -- take a free 30-day trial today!  

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool'sRule Your Retirement newsletter and co-advisor of Motley Fool Green Light. Wal-Mart is an Inside Value pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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