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At the holidays, 'best interest of the child' applies to shopping

There are few things more stressful for some people than the holidays. In cases of difficult custody negotiations or bitter divorces, a parent may be tempted to outdo his or her ex when it comes to gift giving. It is all too easy to lose sight of what's appropriate for a child when you're wandering down Chicago's Magnificent Mile and see the giant stuffed panda in a toy store window. That panda is bigger than anything your ex-spouse would buy, and, even if your child is just a toddler, into the shopping cart it goes.

In family law, the doctrine of the "best interest of the child" is applied in custody and visitation decisions. Child development experts say it should be applied when buying children toys, too.

It's important to know a little about how a child's brain develops when you're shopping for toys. Between birth and age 4, a child's brain triples in size; at that point, the child's IQ is pretty much set. The capacity for learning is in place.

At the same time, of course, a child is learning skills. Lots of skills, in fact. But after the age of 4, the development focus shifts to skill-building. The capacity to learn is there, so the brain starts to acquire specific knowledge about the world. (Maybe this explains the "Why?" phenomenon.)

The first rule of toys is that the combination of toy and child is greater than the sum of its parts. And, research has shown that simple toys are better at helping to build both capacity and skills than the most educational video ever. So:

Rule 1: Consider the interaction between the child and the toy.

Rule 2: Remember that simple is better.

There are also developmental specialists who say that generic toys offer more opportunities for creativity. Studies have shown that a child playing with a toy that's tied into a TV show or movie is more likely to re-enact the story he already knows. The idea of the toy, though, is to encourage the imagination. So:

Rule 3: Generic is preferred.

The most important thing a parent can do when it comes to toys is to join the child in play. Children learn from watching and doing, and, surprisingly, an hour spent playing with alphabet blocks can take the edge off the holiday. So:

Rule 4: Participate.

Finally, always always always keep safety in mind. Safe toys, safe play and safe environments. It's all in the best interest of the child -- and the parent.

Source: USA Today, "Smartest toys for kids can be the simplest," Liz Szabo, Dec. 12, 2011

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