It sounds like a Christmas shopper's paradise.

You tell the sales personnel what your spending limit is before you begin to shop. You are provided with a check-off list on which to write the names of relatives and friends to keep track of how much you spend and be sure no one is forgotten. Nothing costs more than $7. And the gift-wrapping is done for free.

But there's one catch -- you have to be under 12.

The place is Woodward & Lothrop's children-only Secret Shop, where youngster can go in search of bubble bath for Mom or the perfect tie for Dad. y

As parents are kept outside, the youngsters enter this Lilliputian world through a three-foot-high, garland-graced archway, with their money pinned to their chests in a brown paper envelope.

Sometimes there's no accounting for taste. The grandfather of one 4-year-old (we won't use his name to save his surprise) will be getting a red pin cushion; the boy's father, a psychedelic-colored pillbox.

Many fathers will open their Christmas gifts to find pink socks or a flashy Scottish plaid tie, which seemed to be a hot-selling item this year. Other lucky dads will be getting a "Galactic Girls" soap and sponge set --"Makes taking a bath as much fun as watching them on TV," the box says.

That's not to say there are no careful consumers among the under-12-set. One 10-year-old purposefully selected some purple ear muffs for his grandmother "because her heat is sometimes off." And, he dismissed the saleswoman's recommendation of English Leather after shave for his Dad because Dad "still has one from last year." He settled instead on a gold and red polka-dot tie that he said would match his dad's "spotted shirts."

When it came to selecting a gift for his infant brother, he quickly seized upon a plastic airplane. "He can chew on that," the young shopper explained.

For many of the youngsters, the shopping provided a lesson in budgeting. Ten-year-old Andrew Levy, who lives near Chevy Chase Circle, said he had four gifts to get -- for his mother, father, sister and the maid. And with $28 from his father to spend, he said he knew he could only spend $7 on each.

About 300 youngsters pass through the shop in an average week, according to Anne Muise, manager of the shop, which is in its 11th year.

"Sometimes it's really funny," says saleswoman, Fonda Chandler, "like when they do something like this little fellow just did," she adds, nodding to a little boy in a gold sweater.

"I asked him if he wanted to buy his father some socks and he said OK and then he went and stuffed a whole box of them (a dozen pairs) in his bag.

"Some kids will sneak in and go right over to the toys and want to buy everything for themselves. And you've got to send them back and tell them their list says they have to buy gifts just for the people who are listed. They look so disappointed when you say this."