Happiness may be a warm puppy or a Transformer, but it can also be a gift not found in any toy department. It may be something a child would love to have but doesn't know enough to ask for. And it will probably be something you won't have to stand in a long line to buy.
Here are some suggestions Real Things -
Kids are fascinated by the authentic, whether it be a digital watch, a real fishing reel or adult oil paints. A serious music student might welcome a metronome. Other ideas in the "real" category: a camera (perhaps a Polaroid), woodworking tools, a popcorn or ice-cream maker, Big Ben alarm clock, metal toolbox (with a key), name and address rubber stamp, canteen and Swiss Army knife, seeds and gardening equipment. Personal Things
Children (like the rest of us) are fascinated by anything that has to do with themselves. You can order posters, calendars and jigsaw puzzles made from their photos as well as personalized pencils and bookplates (available from, among other places, Miles Kimball, 41 W. Eighth Ave., Oshkosh, Wis. 54901 or The Paragon, Tom Harney Rd., Westerly, R.I. 02891).
Craft fairs and shops offer room decorations which incorporate children's names. Catalogue companies also offer inexpensive brass ornaments which they will engrave with names and dates. Or how about photo albums, diaries and scrapbooks children can fill themselves? Places to Go
Consider giving tickets to a play or a ballet such as "The Nutcracker," or to a rock concert, ice show, circus, indoor rodeo or horse show, basketball playoffs and other sporting events. It's a good idea to actually have the tickets on hand to give and you could go a step further and include them with a record, T-shirt or other related item. Traditional Things
In the rush for clever or educational toys, parents often overlook the old favorites, the things they grew up with: Lincoln Logs, Slinkys, potholder looms, cardtable covers printed to look like houses, chemistry sets, marionettes, cash register banks and Raggedy Anns and Andys. Such games as "Go to the Head of the Class" and "Sorry" and treasured childhood books such as Misty of Chincoteague and The Secret Garden also transcend generational fads. Handmade Things
Even the most un-handy parents sometimes get a yearning to make gifts themselves. Fortunately there is a lot of help on the market, with doll and dollhouse kits and put-together wooden vehicles. Iron-on patchwork letters can be used to personalize sweatshirts, backpacks and hats. More ambitious parents can buy and custom-decorate bulletin boards or create simple puppet theaters. Unexpected Things
What makes these unexpected are the places you find them. A teachers' supply store can yield fascinating and inexpensive stickers, jars of poster paint, educational games, flashcards and self-hardening clay. But almost any store -- from Army-Navy surplus to country crafts -- has the potential for unusual gifts. Museum shops carry old-fashioned stuffed animal replicas, offbeat models and board games.
Some other ideas: flashlights, labelmakers, staplers, cookie cutters, plants, a full-length mirror, bike trims and accessories, costume jewelry, stationery, unusual belt buckles, tape and record cleaners, gags and illusions from a magic shop. Creative Things
The scenario is familiar: Your child wants to take ballet, learn judo, play the flute. You purchase the equipment and arrange lessons, then three months later -- amid protestations of how much he or she hates ballet, judo or music lessons -- your child wants to quit.
But look at it this way. If the lessons are a gift, you won't bemoan the wasted time and money quite as much. (How many toys are still intact and played with three months later?) And there's always the chance that the interest will stick.
Some lessons that don't require a large initial investment: judo, karate, ballet, ceramics, guitar, tennis, gymnastics and horseback riding (rent the horse). Junky Things -
That's right. The things that have no redeeming social value, the ones that you swear you'll buy over your dead body and that your kid wants more than anything. But if you can afford them, get them, or at least the one that he or she wants most. You may cringe standing in line to buy a Styx poster or bridal outfits for Barbie and Ken, but do it anyway.
Even the most hardened parent can remember what it feels like to want something desperately, more than anything else in the world -- and then open a package and there, magically, it is.
And isn't that magic some of what the holidays are all about?