'Tis the season, and if you're buying gifts for children that aren't your own, here are a few big, big hints:
Don't ask a parent what the child is interested in, then completely ignore all suggestions. It may come as a surprise, but parents spend a decent amount of time with their off-spring and tend to know what will be a hit. And there's nothing more irritating for us than spending time e-mailing suggestions, to have them all completely ignored.
Don't harass said parent into giving you a list within 24 hours of receiving your e-mail/phone call. Parents are busy, and they may even have to have a few sneaky conversations with the child to determine what would be a good gift suggestion
Do ask the parents for input before buying anything. The child may be in need of an umbrella, which can be a fun gift to buy; perhaps they have just been given a new sleeping bag, which sounds like the ideal gift, but you really only need one.
Don't buy age-inappropriate gifts. If you're buying for a 5 year old, no matter how "verbal" or intelligent s/he is, a toy designed for 6-8 year olds will probably be beyond his/her developmental ability, which will in turn lead to tears and tantrums from the child as they struggle to "play" with it, and pissed-off parents who have to cope with the aftermath. It's not a compliment to buy toys that are meant for older kids, nor will they "grow" into them without first being very upset that they can't use them right now.
Do wrap the presents before sending them. Small children are usually around when parents open parcels, and cannot be trusted not to go after them even when you've told them it's not for them, and "hidden" them on a high shelf. A wrapped present, at least means that they might not rip the paper off. And sending unwrapped gifts also means that someone else will have to wrap it nicely for you. Come on - unless you're having something shipped directly to the child's house, and have notified the parent beforehand, wrap the damn thing up.
Don't buy crap. Buying cheap gifts is insulting to anyone, but when something breaks within ten minutes of coming out of the wrapping paper, small children tend to become slightly hysterical. In my opinion, parents are within their rights to explain to their children that the gift was "not made very well", even if there is a risk that this will be repeated to the gift giver at the first opportunity. Should this happen, parents should simply look the offending adult firmly in the eye and say "It broke almost immediately". You, the parents, shouldn't be the ones apologising.
Do exchange something that is broken or unsuitable yourself. If a child simply wants something else, then no, the gift giver shouldn't have to exchange it.
Do send the gift on time, if you're important to that child. Usually, small children have no concept that their godparent has forgotten to send a gift on time, but if you know that the child will remember, at least phone up on Christmas day and tell him/her it's on its way.
Do make sure it will survive being sent in the post. There's nothing worse than a present arriving that's shattered beyond repair. The parents can't really ask you to get another one, and might end up having to fork up for a replacement if the child is particularly distraught. I realise that ham-fisted parcel delivery people may be to blame, but pause a second before buying the gift in the first place, and ask yourself "Will this arrive in one piece?"
Don't eschew money. I used to pride myself on always being able to come up with good gift ideas, but as children (particularly boys) get to the 10-14 mark, it becomes more and more difficult. Besides, they're usually saving up for something and are grateful for the cash. Gift cards are a great alternative too.
Do be polite about the whole Christmas thing. If you're really too busy or disinclined to buy presents, think of a way to explain this nicely. "I can't be bothered this year", or "It's too much hassle", however true, is quite the insult.
Do discuss any changes in tradition before enforcing them unilaterally. If you've decided you're only buying for kids under 10, or only buying one gift for the entire family, have the decency to let people know, or even discuss the issue, before December 24th.
If I've missed anything, please feel free to add to my list.
(A version of this post first appeared at the author's blog Expat Mum.)