Holiday sales have already begun, so I'm aware that some people (not me) may be starting their gift shopping soon. It may seem tacky to promote gift-buying guidance as a form of etiquette, but I think we've all gotten a gift at one time or another that inspired a truly sincere "You SHOULDN'T have." In this economy, I feel it's polite to help people not to waste their time and money on things that are likely to inspire more frustration than appreciation.
As a new mother, I am particularly sensitive to this because I realize that my son may be magnet for some well-intentioned but not well thought out presents. Before I was a parent I saw other people's kids as an excuse to buy "fun" kid's stuff. I now see that some of those purchases were a bit misguided (Sorry), but I hope not to have to regret anyone else's generosity. Luckily my son is so young this year that if anyone gives me something misguided it can be fixed with a return, but parents of older kid's may have trouble getting an inappropriate toy away from an admiring youngster. So, for anyone who may not have kids (or whose kids are so old that you've forgotten the fundamentals), here is a guide to picking out toys that will inspire the parents to write thank you letters instead of death threats.
1. Toys have recommended age ranges. You may think something is just sooooooo cute and clever, but check the tag. If the child is younger than the recommended age range the toy is likely too complicated or DANGEROUS. Don't make a parents choose between politeness and their child's safety.
2. Avoid toys that make lots of noise, whether it be from recorded sounds or encouraged banging (i.e. a drum set). Different parents have different opinions of these things, but unless you are sure of their feelings err on the side of something quiet. I personally am okay with banging (which is good because my son does it a lot), but I have low tolerance for the tinny recorded music/voices/nature sounds that seem to be embedded in just about everything nowadays. They say in gift giving "it's the thought that counts," but you really don't want your name connected with the thoughts that hearing a millionth metallic rendition of "Old MacDonald" can inspire.
3. Avoid toys with a lot of pieces. If you followed item one this isn't an issue for a few years since a billion little pieces are a billion little choking hazards. However, once age appropriate things like Legos are very good toys, but that doesn't mean you have to be the one to buy them. Similar to avoiding the blame for the maddening cacophony of noisy toys, you don't want to have your name attached to the end of the expletive that the mom will scream every time she steps barefooted on a jagged piece of plastic that didn't get put away.
4. Ask the parents for ideas, or if you have an idea ask if it seems appropriate. The parents know what they'll be comfortable having their child received. It will spoil the surprise, but some surprises are best spoiled.
Does that all seem too complicated? Why don't you give a nice book? Or, if you really want something the parents can appreciate, free babysitting is always nice. Plus you'll get to see first hand what toys are just asking to be "accidentally" lost forever.