In many cultures, the holidays are a time of gift-giving. This is especially true with young children. It's so rewarding to wake up on Christmas morning and watch your children's eyes light up when they see their "absolute, most favorite" toy waiting for them. The challenge comes when picking out these toys and gifts. There are so many things to think about when choosing appropriate presents for children and adolescents.
First and foremost is safety. When making or buying presents for your children, remember the following:
For children younger than 4 years of age, beware of small parts. Older infants and toddlers will naturally put everything in their mouths. Small pieces will get mouthed, poked in available orifices (noses, ears), swallowed and choked on. Beware, especially, of small batteries and small magnets. Batteries are very dangerous when swallowed and can cause internal damage. Small magnets can slip to different parts of the intestine, then attract each other through the walls of the intestine, causing bowel obstructions that may require surgery. And, of course, glass and sharp objects are off-limits for young children.
If an older son or daughter is getting prized hunting equipment, remember the curiosity of the younger ones and keep knives, guns and other potentially dangerous implements completely out of reach of younger children (locked away and unloaded). Also, remember the intensity of adolescent feelings when dealing with the strong emotions of jealousy, unrequited love and love lost; protect against these tools ever being available for use as weapons during times of strong emotion.
For all ages, be aware of the dangers of high decibel sound exposure and make sure your children do not have toys or electronics that produce extremely loud sounds (whether it be music to your teen's ears or not). Hearing loss from noise damage is permanent and can occur quite quickly if the sound is loud enough and close enough to your child's ear.
Another important thing to consider when giving gifts is developmental stage. The best toys don't just entertain. They allow interaction at the child's level. They bring out the child's own imagination and they energize the child. These are the toys that will still be around 2 or 3 weeks after Christmas, being used and enjoyed. Examples of these kinds of presents include things like books and crafts and toys that encourage lots of pretend play. They also include toys that encourage physical activity, like skates and skis and basketballs. And they include things that foster creative talents like drawing and playing a musical instrument and learning to be a chef.
In thinking about developmental stages, I don't want to minimize the importance of the stages of adolescence. The topic of social media and cell phones is an interesting one and it's often unclear at what age kids can be allowed to have cell phones or a Facebook page. As they grow and develop, younger children do not have nearly the investment in social relationships that tweens and teens do. For this reason, I recommend waiting until middle school and high school before even considering these as appropriate gifts. Even then, I would caution against nonchalant bestowing of these kinds of gifts. I think care and consideration should be given when letting a child graduate to having his/her own cell or Facebook account. On the one hand, social media and cell communication are nearly impossible to avoid; developing independence in these areas and learning to manage social relationships is a very important part of growing up. On the other hand, cyberbullying is a real entity, predators do prey on innocent, vulnerable kids and too much time spent on the computer or on the cell phone is detrimental both physically and socially - "All things in moderation" as they say.
Cell phones are not only involved in social relationships in the form of calls and texts. They can also interfere with good sleep hygiene if their usage is allowed during night-time hours. And they can contribute to poor grades and teacher troubles if their usage is allowed during school. Be aware of how much time is being spent on the phone and set limits so that the phone doesn't interfere with sleep or with learning.
I would encourage parents who are considering allowing Facebook for their tweens/teens to have a profile first themselves for a couple of reasons. First, you will better understand what kinds of issues your child may be faced with and can be more proactive in helping him/her set and maintain good privacy parameters. Second, for the same reasons it's good to get to know your child's friends face to face, it is good to know who your child's Facebook friends are and what they're doing. So make sure you are friends with your child on any social media he/she is participating in.
The holidays are times of warmth and love and gift-giving. I challenge you to choose your gifts wisely and have a Merry Christmas!
Editor's note: Sherry Gilliland, MD, is a pediatrician at Baraga County Memorial Hospital.