When you factor in the agonizing contemplation of finding the right item for your child or friend, the crowds bodychecking their way through the aisles and check-out lines, and money draining from your checkbook or Visa card, you realize the experience is more bloodsport than sleigh riding.

Retail statistics show that Thanksgiving is the busiest shopping day of the season. That’s when most people have a moment to even think about a day in the mall and, most important, the sale prices appear. But the stress begins to build way before Turkey Day and the after-Christmas sales keep the pressure on for weeks after the actual holidays.

Despite all the battle testing parenting gives you, holiday shopping always manages to throw you a curve. I am usually a last-minute shopper, but as life gets busier, I’ve found that thinking ahead — if not shopping in advance — can go a long way toward making gift-buying much easier. Before you get in the car or go online, glance over these tips for saner and more satisfying holiday shopping.

Surviving Shopping with Kids

Have Fun

First, shopping for kids is one of life’s true pleasures. Buying something you worked hard to pay for and that you chose just for your child is wonderful. It’s also a way to live vicariously through your kids, buying things you would’ve liked to play with and certainly items you want to use in interacting with your kids. That being said, this is all a stressful proposition that you should plan for, so…

Lower Stress

Start early and shop at odd hours to lower the stress level And don’t shop hungry — low blood sugar or high blood sugar can be dangerous (for you and the kids)!

Money Isn’t Everything

Set a budget and perhaps a number of toys you plan to get. Remember that grandparents and friends may give gifts, so do not feel pressured to ply your child with too much. They will ignore most of their toys within days if not minutes. You might even consider giving your little one a box to play with. No joke, but kids can hide, make puppet shows, forts, and more with just a big old box.

Age Appropriateness

Especially for younger kids, opt for items that require children to manipulate them. Too many electronic games do stuff automatically. Children develop motor skills and cognitive skills with toys they can build, stack, and color. Toys that multitask and can be combined with other things. Imagination is key – cars, character sets, i.e., Rescue Heroes and Barbies.

For the older kids, video and computer games are hard to avoid. Decide how much violence you want them to see in these games. Some research says these games are actually healthy, though never in large doses. Older kids tend to also like clothes, music, DVDs, and even cash to spend how they wish. With younger kids, you will shop with them, but older ones might like to get a budget and shop for themselves. Giving them money helps them focus on the task at hand and may get them in the spirit of giving. They may even do some additional chores to earn extra money.

Balance What They Want with What They Should Have

If you want guaranteed smiles, be sure to buy kids at least something that they asked for. On the other hand, you can select one or two things you think they should have, something education or challenging. If you’re really clever, you can lobby onto your child’s wish list if you make subtle suggestions like, Your friend Jacob has a chemistry set. Isn’t that cool?

Gender Gap

The gap is thinner than it used to be now that young boys will play with dolls and young girls covet baseball mitts. Even older boys are more into clothes than they used to be. Still, young boys favor trucks, superheroes, and trains while girls love dress-up clothes — princesses are bigger than ever — dolls, and fashion accessories. That being said, a creative purchase for boys or girls is costumes for imaginative play.

Types of Stores

Toy stores, video game stores, book stores, shoe stores, clothing stores, sporting goods shops. Bookstores are especially fine places to shop and not feel guilty.
Think about balancing your list with items from the above kinds of stores.

Fun Ways to Make Lists

Stay Focused

Go in with a list to limit the tantrums and negotiations. You will probably have a fair amount of repartee with your child, simply because toy stores are meant to overwhelm parents and kids with all that can be had. So don’t expect a pain-free experience. On the other hand, do expect to have a good time. Pay attention at birthday parties; see what kids get and like. Pay attention at playdates and other social visits. What does your child love? If they can write (or need the practice), have them write their own list.

Prioritize

Kids ask for things all the time. On the list, prioritize those items that they ask for more than once or twice.

Written Promises

Whatever your child doesn’t get, write the item down on a new list for their birthday or next year. This will lessen the crying and whining

Gifts for Kids to Give to Others

Let’s List Again

Have them write a list of things they want to give their friends.

Give Unto Others What You Would Give Your Kid

For friends, give what your kids would want for themselves. Have them tell you what to get or have them shop for it themselves. While shopping for the holidays, buy two for the holidays or birthdays. Or keep the list of what you buy and return to the stores for sales on those same items.

Be Personal

For relatives, give something personal. Create-your-own pottery, handmade cards, photo albums with photos of special times spent together. What counts is how the gift connects with a friend or loved one.

Beyond Disposable – Fun and Worthwhile Gifts for Kids

The Gift of Time

A museum pass or amusement park pass provides your kids with an opportunity to spend more time with you. Also consider gift certificates with dates for times you will take one child out with mom or dad for special dinners or other outings.

Year ‘Round Gifts

In addition to the seasonal passes, try joining a book club in their name or make your own book club good for 5 to 10 books throughout the year and stamp a homemade card each time you buy one with your child.

Philanthropy

Teach your children about those who don’t have the same privileges. Have them choose a toy to send to a charitable organization. Take them to the donation place.

Board Games

Board games, a deck of cards, puzzles for family times. Ages two on up will like this option which increases family time.

A Nifty Trick & A Warning

  1. Try hiding some toys and pulling them out of the closet for well-timed opportunities throughout the year.
  2. Regarding toy safety, it’s best to stick with box recommendations and use your good sense about potentially dangerous toys.

Gregory Keer is a syndicated columnist, teacher, and on-air expert on fatherhood. His Family Man ™ column appears in publications across the country, including L.A. Parent, Boston Parents’ Paper, Bay Area Parent, Long Island Parenting News, Metro Augusta Parent, and Sydney’s Child in Australia. Keer’s concurrent column, Today’s Family Man, is found at his online fatherhood magazine, www.FamilyManOnline.com. He also writes for Parenting magazine, the Parents’ Choice Foundation, and Parenthood.com. On television, Keer has appeared on morning shows and cable specials. He is the father of two (with one on the way) and husband to Wendy, a professor in child-development.