Whether it is better to give or to receive, it is better to give or to receive intelligently. With that in mind, magazines are never shy about offering advice.

Yes, the RoboStrux Gorilla looks menacing, but the fine print says it's only 9 1/2 inches tall. So rest easy. Among the 100-plus ideas for children's gifts featured in the December issue of Child, you'll find lots of things that are cuddly and furry and bright-colored, and lots of things that are educational and artistic and athletic, but not one item that could do anyone harm (if used as directed, of course).

The above magazine's holiday selections would doubtless get a seal of approval from Nuclear Times, whose November/December cover story is about war toys. Rene' Riley contends that "U.S. toy companies have turned Saint Nick into an arms merchant." War toys are stockpiled in shopping malls and their symbols and commercial tie-ins "lurk in the bedroom on our kids' pajamas, slippers, sheets and bedspreads; march down the street on our kids' T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps and jackets; and sneak into school on our kids' lunchboxes."

Riley admits that the connection between playing with war toys and aggressive, antisocial behavior has not been fully established, which may explain why the article makes extended reference to more reliable research into television violence and its effects on children. For parents who are content to operate on common sense alone, however, Nuclear Times provides the necessary information to (a) join war-toy boycotts and (b) patronize manufacturers of peaceful toys.

Speaking of service to the socially conscientious, Esquire -- yes, that's right, Esquire -- presents "A Consumer Guide to Charity" in its December issue. Howard Gershen has dug through public records to determine how 50 selected charities spend every dollar you donate -- how much on overhead, how much on fund-raising and how much on the "payout" (eleemosynary parlance for where you wanted your money to go in the first place).

Each chart, Gershen warns, "doesn't aim to tell you if the group's program is effective, only if you're getting your money's worth." For instance, the American Foundation for AIDS Research devotes 83 cents of every dollar to payout; Mothers Against Drunk Driving, 63 cents; Disabled American Veterans, 55 cents; Farm Aid, 16 cents. This is illuminating stuff, but Gershen insists that it should be used to fine-tune one's generosity, not to dictate it.

Now, as a reward for all that correct behavior, how about a nice new car? Road & Track doesn't pick the 10 best automobiles in the world very often, so the rare occasions, and careful choices, should be noted. There are actually two lists -- the best values in a ladder of price ranges, and the best cars regardless of price. The pride may be back, but American-made cars show up only twice (or three times, depending on what country a Merkur calls home) on the first list, and only once -- with the Chevy Corvette -- on the second. Honda products represent four of the 10 best values and, even more impressively, two of the 10 best cars when money is no object.

Re Verse

One by one, and timidly, the poets we revere today dared to send their first poems to the editors of Poetry, and the letters of acceptance that came back amazed them, thrilled them, helped not a few of them decide to become poets.

This "little magazine" devotes its not-so-little 75th anniversary issue (October-November 1987) to the work of its distinguished alumni -- to name just a random few, Richard Eberhart (who first published here in 1927), May Sarton (1930), Stephen Spender (1937), Gwendolyn Brooks (1944), James Merrill (1946), James Dickey (1951), Robert Bly (1960), Brad Leithauser (1974), Michael Blumenthal (1980) and Joyce Carol Oates (1983).

The occasion may be retrospective, but the poems are new, the current work of several generations of American poets. The nod to history comes at the back of the issue, where a few of them tell the stories of their first encounters with the magazine. For a copy of this issue, send $10 plus $1 postage to Poetry, 60 W. Walton St., Chicago, Ill. 60610.

Panama Canard

The case against Manuel Antonio Noriega, the malodorous general who runs Panama, has been made with evidence and vigor in the American press: jailer of critics, fixer of elections, wholesale denier of civil liberties. This is the kind of ruthless dictator about whom the American left becomes justly hot and bothered. A December article in the proudly leftist Mother Jones, however, illustrates the old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

In the eyes of Reagan critic Jonathan Marshall, the U.S. government itself has led the charge against Noriega, accusing him of human rights violations and more -- arms trafficking, drug profiteering and murder -- all because he won't support the contra cause in Nicaragua. As to the charges themselves, which he examines here, Marshall is struck by "the lack of hard evidence against Noriega, coupled with the questionable records of some of his most vigorous accusers."

RoseByAnyOtherNameCo

It cost United Airlines $7.5 million (and, some say, the CEO his job) to invent a new name for itself and then teach everyone how to spell and pronounce Allegis. The babble of new corporate names -- Sequa ... Armtek ... Abex ... Enron ... Trinova -- prompted Inc. to look into the whys and wherefores of the phenomenon, and to identify the elements of a great business name and an awful one. The magazine used the most inspired one as the headline for its November story: a tree- and yard-care service called Tex's Chain Saw Manicure.