How do you pick gifts for your the kids of your ONbeat parent friends?

Offbeat Home & Life runs these advice questions as an opportunity for our readers to share personal experiences and anecdotes. Readers are responsible for doing their own research before following any advice given here... or anywhere else on the web, for that matter.

This post features offbeat affiliates, meaning that if you buy something featured (or click on a link here and buy something else that isn't featured!), you'll help support Offbeat Mama's mission of bringing awesomeness to mamas, papas, and everyone else.

Mother and child
Photo by Flickr user Ed Yourdon, used with Creative Commons license.

Holidays are approaching and I'm already receiving links of wish lists. I know the topic of what to gift Offbeat Mothers has surfaced, but what about the On-beat Mothers and their offspring? I am fully aware that it is their child, not mine, and that they have the final say on what they consider appropriate. I would like to find some gender-neutral, non-color-coded gifts that won't be mistaken as criticizing their parenting choices. What would YOU suggest? — Emily

Buying gifts for anyone can be challenging, but buying gifts for your friends who are parents (onbeat or offbeat!) can be borderline nightmarish, especially if you have no idea where to start! There's so much to consider — would your friends rather you make something? Buy local? Buy Etsy? Buy Target? Do their kids want clothing, games, or just cash? Do you even have any idea what the kids really want? How do you keep this all neutral and fair without bringing your own nontraditional tastes into the mix?

While I'm sure the timing of this post is cutting it close for some of you, I'm a late holiday shopper (read: I usually buy things two days before I'm supposed to give them to people), so maybe it'll help!

Newborn – 12 months

Babies of this age can be a little daunting to shop for if you're not directly related. Some parents (like me!) are notoriously picky about the clothes they put on their kids backs, while others love getting clothes as gifts. If you decide to go the clothing route, I'm a HUGE fan of Baby Soy [editor's note from Ariel: me too! My favorite onesie Tavi had was their's!], and their soybean fiber baby clothes are eco-friendly but not at all granola feeling. Some of my favorites: All-Natural Kimono Bodysuit and the Eggplant Onepiece.

Accessories (bibs, blankets, etc.) are pretty easy — my favorite socks that Jasper has ever worn were the Trumpette Sneaker Socks, which were a gift. If you want to check out Etsy, Janie Bug Bibs makes super-crazy-cute bibs.

12 months – 3 years

There are only two names I want to mention: Melissa & Doug. This company gets their own heading because I love them. As far as I know, they're an all-around good biz. More importantly, in this case, nearly all of their products are gender-and-politically neutral — you can give this stuff to just about any kid you know. I recently attended a birthday party for a two-year-old who received a stamp set similar to this Animal Stamp Set. He might not be old enough for the colored pencils, but he's totally ready for the stamping part. We got Jasper the Deluxe Beginner Band Set for Christmas last year, and he still regularly plays all of the instruments, especially the harmonica.
See also: Wooden Shape Sorting Clock, Playtime Veggies, Deluxe Standing Easel

3 years – 6 years

Converse/Chucks (did you know the kids are calling them "Cons" now? I feel totally old.) are a pretty safe option — they're both on and offbeat, and sticking with something neutral, like this black pair, could work. If you want to go the toy route, my husband immediately answered "light sabers" (I was thinking a magic wand) when I asked him, so here's a few: the Obi Wan Kenobi Light Saber is only $10, while the Darth Vader option is $90 (!). Star Wars is notoriously geeky, but also totally mainstream. Since it could be interpreted as more of a "guy" thing, other options for this group could be Flower Fairies, and while we're on the topic, the Fairy Triad Dome Terrarium looks awesome and pretty gender-neutral.
See also: ANY kind of costume apparel. Almost every kid I've known at this age LOVES to play dress-up.

7 years – 10 years

You'll need to know the personality a bit more, but this is a great age — think something like binoculars (those are only $12 — I wouldn't go too far up in price, since they could also be crushed/destroyed/otherwise maimed by crazy 7-to-10-year olds), glow in the dark paint, or maybe even a disco ball lamp! The possibilities for kids this age are very nearly endless.

Offbeat parents: please add to this list! Let us know what has and hasn't worked in the past with your more onbeat counter-parts. Also, I didn't go above age 10 because I can't even imagine touching the pre-teen and teen years … gift cards?

Join our community!

  1. Except Converse aren't exactly the most ethical shoe company anymore. Sure, people identify them as "alternative" style, but honestly if we're doing the whole soy kimono bodysuit thing, we may want to consider the morals of the other companies as well.

    12 agree
  2. What I've been doing is relying predominantly on knitting. I try to take how my own friends dress themselves and go from there, just because I find people buy clothes for their kids that they would wear themselves. I only knit small accessories for kids, like toques or mittens. Things that are quick and easy but still show love and thought on my part.

    I honestly get frustrated actually going into stores and buying things, I don't like crowds and I struggle with the idea of taking a holiday and turning it into a mass marketing scheme. So, I don't generally buy items for anyone at Christmas…I do handmade only, so its something even my on-beat friends have come to expect from me. Most love it, and for those who don't I still consider it an expression of my love for them..but I usually choose items (like baking) that are less involved project wise.

    1 agrees
  3. I love pretty much all of the kids stuff at thinkgeek.com. They have V1.0 and V2.0 shirts that would be a cute combo gift for a parent & kid set. My favorite is their vampire pacifier for the little blood sucker in your life. ;P Also, tons of Star Wars stuff for kids and adults.

    4 agree
    • Thanks for letting me know about thinkgeek!
      I'm totally buying my husband something from here! yay!

  4. Craft sets. You can make them yourself or buy them, but I haven't met many kids in my life under the age of about 12 who don't like arts and crafts.

    2 agree
    • I was going to suggest the same thing! I'm an art teacher, and I'm always amazed at how many of my elementary students tell me that they don't have basic art supplies (crayons, colored pencils, markers, oil pastels, large heavyweight drawing paper, watercolor paints and brushes) in their homes. I personally love Crayola; their products are always high quality and they have some fun novelty items like "disappearing" ink or glow-in-the-dark markers that elementary-age kids can't get enough of.

      2 agree
      • seconded (thirded?) i just gave my offbeat friend's 18m son a re-purposed vintage makeup trunk (which they're totally into) filled with art supplies suitable for his age and the near future. it's something that you or the parents can add to every year as he gains the dexterity to handle different media. i started with finger paints, sidewalk chalk, large format crayons and markers (8 colours each & the markers are washable and dry-out resistant) and a pad of construction paper.
        emily, i also love crayola; have you used their window writers? i've gone through a few sets in the past 8 years and i think they're rad. i love to use them on mirrors in the house.

    • Craft sets are fantastic, and even the most straight-laced-worried-about-stains parent is going to love helping her/his kids do something hands-on and educational. It's also really easy to run this idea past parents and tailor your craft set to their needs and/or wants.

      • Yeah, I was specifically going to say that, if we're talking about a list from offbeat people to onbeat parents, be careful with crafts. Many parents may simply view it as a mess waiting to happen and would prefer it to be something their kids DON'T play with at home – at least until they're old enough to be trusted not to write on the walls with crayons. While most parents are happy to occasionally do or supervise crafts with their kids, when you give the crafts supplies directly with the child it could make them feel entitled to play with them when ever they feel like. This could result in conflict with parents who feels that the supplies should only be used when they can supervise and may not be available when the child wants to play with their present.

  5. I second craft kids, we give those a lot. I like the idea of a book and a small trinket (or if you don't know what books they like – in the case of an older kid — giftcard to the books store). You can get these great wooden 3-D puzzles at stores like michaels. They can assemble them and paint them

    For tween girls, I've done a pouch (could be a make up bag, a purse, a canvas tote) and thrown in like a chapstick, hand cream, etc.

  6. We went for the classics this year and I think they are pretty safe for on or off beat families: wooden tea set, kaleidoscopes, Jack-in-the-Box, wood and tin instruments, Lincoln logs, etc.

    Also, for the powerhouse of Melissa and Doug: Jonah received their alphabet nesting boxes when he was a few months old, and at over 4 he is still playing with them and learning from them. Absolutely one of the best buys ever.

    • I had to put a stop to my mother-in-law bringing my daughter a new stuffed animal every.single.time. she came to visit -she lives in the same town and is over 2 to 3 times a week. my strategy involved a pink toy baby cradle, which makes me cringe but that I knew she would love, and a one in one out rule. The first time she came over bearing a "teddy" after buying the cradle I said "oh, thank you! Let's put this in jude's new cradle. Oops! It doesn't fit. Guess we'll have to get rid of one." Worked like a charm. We haven't had to evict a teddy yet.

  7. Also noted: you on-beat friends may shock you! My only other really close mom-friend (we were friends before we were moms, lol) is extremely on-beat, very on a different parenting path. She turns to me one day and says, "I'm thinking about cloth diapers." They didn't turn out to be right for her situation, but she has the information for her next one.

    But! The rambling works down to: her daughter's birthday was the next week, and I was able to get her some super awesome locally-made cloth training pants that I might have shirked from before, because she wasn't into the cloth diaper thing before; they're now her daughter's very favorite panties.

  8. I like the funky kids' t-shirts at threadless.com and in lots of Etsy shops. For kids I'm closer to, I'm a big fan of the activity-as-gift idea.

    1 agrees
  9. A gift I often give to kids of many ages is sidewalk chalk. It has the bonus effect of getting kids outside. Its also very budget friendly. You can buy funky sets on etsy or you can buy it at Wal-Mart, so there's no shopping stigma either way.

    2 agree
  10. While I do love Melissa and Doug, especially their puzzles and puppets, I wouldn't classify their toys as being 'gender neutral'. Many of their craft kids focus on pink! purple! unicorns! princesses! for girls, while 'boy' kits invole racecars! and dinosaurs! and construction! I would like their company so much more if their products weren't always based on boy/girl stereotypes.

    1 agrees
    • The stuff I've seen of theirs has been pretty neutral, but I haven't spent tons of time going through…everything we've gotten for Jasper has been neutral. But I suppose that could be because that's what we're already looking for in the first place? Good call!

    • Just because the gifts appear to be gendered who says they have to be given/gifted in similar ways?

      I have a very onbeat Mum friend who has asked everyone to give dolls and prams to her 4 year old son this Christmas. I'm looking forward to see him proudly "Daddy" dinosaurs in his doll buggy!

      2 agree
  11. Annoyingly (from my perspective at least), our nieces and nephews definitely have traditionally-gendered desires – American Girl/princess stuff vs. trains and trucks. Sometimes we give in (I got American Girl doll outfits this year), but I tend to try to buy things that encourage more imaginative play – wooden toys, puppets, artsy/crafty things, science kits. Plus, it's really hard to construe those things as having any kind of agenda or being a diss on the parents' parenting style.

    I tend to buy from Etsy and Thinkgeek. That way, even if what I'm getting isn't necessarily offbeat, I can feel good about supporting local or otherwise nifty companies/people. These are some of the vendors from whom I've bought or I am going to buy:

    http://www.etsy.com/shop/MamaKs
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/art2theextreme
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/IsabellasArt
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/manzanitakids
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/MuddyFeet
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/littlesaplingtoys
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/peanutbutterbandit
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/CeadarHillHeirlooms

  12. I love Melissa and Doug but since we're pointing out political hazards….I feel it necessary to point out that this company manufactures out of China. This is a big deal to my father in law (who tries to buy American only) so thought I'd pass it on

    1 agrees
  13. while lego might have drifted into hazardous, gender specific & branded territory in the past 15 years or so, they still have tonnes of basic sets that most kids will appreciate. Playmobil, similarly. Arts and crafts materials are a great suggestion, also – books! Especially for the littler ones, picture books can be a bit expensive for the parents, so are often a welcome gift, and are usually gender-neutral. Beatrix Potter, Maurice Sendak, Robert Munsch, Rosemary Wells, Raymond Briggs, Babette Cole, Janet & Allen Ahlberg…..there are so many great authors out there I could go on and on and on….

    3 agree
  14. There is this great indie store in my city that is all about being environmentally friendly. They have this baby section that sells everything baby, and the stuff is way cuter (and simpler) than what can be bought in the chain stores. So I suggest finding lil' shops like this. From the outside you would never know it sells kids stuff, as it looks more like a home store.

    Perhaps I will have to tell them to advertise on Offbeat Home once it starts!

  15. Couple more ideas that have proven successful with the 8-12 set:
    Funky striped kneesocks
    Beatles CDs
    Set- a fun card game for many ages
    Mancala- this game has many variations around the world. Fun and good for math skill development.
    Calvin and Hobbes books by Bill Waterson are perfect for the in between reader who is out of picture books, not quite ready for chapter books. He ready reflects the experience of the ups and downs of being a kid in a magical way.

    1 agrees
    • OH MY GOD SET. At my first gathering with my husband's extended family I got destroyed by an eight-year-old at Set. That game is such a great age equalizer, everyone from six to sixty was getting in on that action.

  16. I worked with kids for a little over a year, and the one thing that always seemed to draw them in was pipe cleaners. They can be bent and twisted into different shapes, and they would sit there for hours bending those pipe cleaners. I remember I got sent to a different room for a while, and when I got back my kids had transformed one of the tables into a jungle of pipe cleaner trees and animals. It was amazing.

    1 agrees
  17. Thanks y'all so much for this article~ I'm trying to figure out gifts to buy for my nearly two-year-old nieces for their birthday. I hardly ever get to see them (live several states away) so I really want to get something wonderful they'll remember- while still sticking with gender-neutral gifts as much as possible. This has been very helpful!

  18. Growing up I had a special great aunt who was a librarian. Every Christmas and every birthday she gave me, not just books, but great books. Prize-winning children's literature that has greatly impacted my outlook on life and developed my love of reading. Now I strive to be that person with my friend's kids and my nieces and nephews, and I've already started a collection for my own future kids.
    And hey, even the least crunchy-love-dovey parents out there can't hate on The Lorax or The Giving Tree or People (by Peter Spier. Check it out!)

    so in short: BOOKS !!!! 🙂

    1 agrees
    • FINALLY someone said books! Books are always great presents! When I was growing up my friends always knew which present was from me because it was the book.

      1 agrees
  19. Gardening Toys! Target has the cutest gardening toys that are gender neutral. I am tempted to buy them for myself 🙂

    1 agrees
  20. I got my 2 year old nephew this for his birthday.

    I knew he liked his stacking toy, and this kicked it up a notch. Also given that I know his mother is spatially challenged, I figured it would be a good way to help strengthen his skills, in case he inherited her issues. (Why yes, I am a teacher. Why do you ask? :D)

    So I would recommend Thinkgeek as a good place to get cool stuff for kids. Yes, some of it is rather geeky, but then there is totally awesome stuff like the cardboard riveting kit.

    Oh, and we also got our niece a "Flitter Fairy" for Christmas from Thinkgeek.

  21. Oh, and Klutz company activity books.

    Lots of different kinds of interesting crafts and activity books.

    Hell, I still have a Klutz game book I got when I was a kid (Back when they were the Flying Klutz Apparatus Company.). 15 different board games from all over the world.

      • Sorry, being a bit ADD here (usually when I do this, I just edit posts, but not working tonight) but I thought people here would enjoy Klutz's mission statement:

        Create wonderful things, be good, have fun.

  22. A great gift for an older kid is a camera. My favorite gift when I turned nine was a 110 film camera. I'd be even better these days because cameras are digital and so there isn't the extra cost of film and developing. You can get a pretty decent digital camera these days for not a ton of money and a camera is artsy without being messy.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.