Q. "We have four children who spend a lot of time together and we like to give them an equal number of presents. But it always turns out to be too many and half are ignored by February, no matter how much the children begged for them.
"The 4-year-old is easy to please -- whatever he sees on TV, he wants -- and we'll give him a climbing toy, too. The 7-year-old says she only wants 'one thing' -- a Barbie doll. I find this doll both tacky and expensive and think board games are best.
"Our 10-year-old boy is begging for ice skates (there's a rink nearby) and our 12-year-old daughter says she wants her own record player so she can play it as loud as she wants.
"What do you think are the best toys for children of these ages? How can I keep them from being disappointed?"
A. First, let's keep you from being disappointed. The giver should get at least as much pleasure as the getter, and it's a pleasure that should last.
Spend only as much as you can afford; you'll be cross if the children stop playing with the presents before you've paid the bills.
Give fewer toys than you'd like; too many are overwhelming.
Give the toy to suit the child, not because "all the other kids have it," or because it's advertised on television. Tell your little boy that Santa has a few klutzy elves whose toys often fall apart. (That's why they're pushed on TV: Somebody has to ask for them.) After a few whines your child will probably accept such a logical explanation. If you do give something advertised, he'll just think he fooled you, which always pleases a child.
The best toys are the same ones children have always adored -- the rattle, ball, wheel, blocks, puzzle, the container for the contained. A good toy invites the child to solve a problem, and to suggest another as fast as the first has been mastered. If the toy grows with the child, it won't be ignored long.
The toys to avoid are those that break easily, or are too advanced or inadequate -- the fault of many chemistry sets -- or that horror, the miniature cooking set. The tiny boxes and little pans look cute, but the mixes are dreadful and the tinware so thin that the batter often burns. No matter how complimentary you are, your child will know she's made a mess and be sure to blame herself.
Because today's children have more toys than ever, we tend to think there's a lot of junk on the market, and there is. But there's a lot of nifty stuff.
One of the best for your pre-schooler is the hit of the season -- the practically indestructible Fisher-Price tape recorder. You can tape cassettes of his new Christmas books, with suitably disguised voices and sound effects, and a ring of a bell to mark the end of the page. The child plays the tape and "reads" the book for himself.
To get the best books, two dandy catalogues:
*Children's Book Fare, free, with suggestions for all ages. Published by Barcroft Books, 6349a Columbia Pike, Bailey's Crossroads, Va. 22041, one of the area's best sources of children's books.
* Eeyore's Books for Children, published by New York's only bookstore for children. Send $2 to Eeyore, 2252 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10024, and get a $2 discount if you order more than $10 worth of books.
Unfortunately, a 4-year-old can't live on books alone. The big climbing apparatus is excellent, but only if it will live in an out-of-the-way place. If it takes over the living room, it will cause resentment.
Although you buy a present for a particular child, it shouldn't offend anyone else. That's why the record player may be a disaster unless your rules go with it. A family is a community; a present is supposed to give joy, not strife.
The 10-year-old should love the ice skates. Indeed, sports equipment for all children is usually adored, so long as they aren't forced to use it.
And now for the Barbie doll. It is a good toy, for several reasons.
Between 6 to 12 a child is trying to master the art of growing up, which is why sitcoms and adventure stories are so popular at this age, and weapons -- alas -- and dolls. Even the conversations of grown-ups help children imagine how they would act as adults. Much is replayed with the Barbie doll, tacky though she is.
Although Barbie's bosom adds to her allure, it's her clothes that make her so well-liked, the way paper dolls used to be. Elementary-school children are the ultimate collectors, not because they are such materialists, but because they like to classify.
If you get a Barbie doll you'll see your daughter separate the clothes by color, by style, by occasion. A child instinctively sorts and classifies tangible items so she can sort ideas, think in abstractions and internalize a conscience.
This same compulsion has a child line up crayons by color and spend hours cataloguing baseball cards, stamps, coins, seashells.
Most board games are popular with children. Pyraminx and Missing Link are the big sellers this year, according to Steve Schwarz, co-manager of Lowen's, Bethesda, one of the best toy stores in the area, but nothing has ever matched Monopoly. No other game gives a child so many problems to solve in so many ways and with so much money to win. Kids are your basic get-rich-quick schemers.
And remember, not all toys under the tree must be bright and shiny. Yesterday's treasures -- a scooter or wicker cradle -- are also tomorrow's.