Six-year-old Ian Frazer passed up the $1.50 red-and-white glass peppermints, the $3 Santa Claus potholders and the $4 gold- and silver-glittered pine cone ornaments.

None, he said, was right for his father.

But wait . . . there! . . . tucked in the corner: a bar of root beer-smelling soap.

At $2.95, it was the perfect gift.

"My dad loves root beer, and this smells just like it," said a satisfied Ian, who lives in Herndon and was doing some shopping yesterday at the Children's Holiday Shop at the Colvin Run General Store in Fairfax County.

And what did he find for his mother?

"I can't tell you," Ian said, aware that she was standing nearby. "It's a surprise."

For Ian as for dozens of other youngsters, there was a combination of excitement, confusion and frustration--finding the right color or keeping within their budgets--as they made their purchases yesterday at Colvin Run Mill's old-fashioned store in Great Falls. The shop, which sells gifts for less than $10, is designed to allow young children to buy gifts in secret, while their parents wait outside.

The store, off Route 7 near Tysons Corner, is open from noon to 4 p.m. today and from 1 to 4 p.m. Monday.

Some little Saturday shoppers seemed befuddled by the array of choices: shelves lined with $3 ceramic-chick gravy pitchers, $2 brass-plated shoehorns, $5 coffee mugs, $2.50 ceramic tea-bag holders, $1.25 scented candles, $1.50 snowmen magnets, $4 quilted angel ornaments, $7 pewter butterfly earrings, $3 potholders, $7 thermometers--enough to make Santa reach for a muscle-relaxer if he had to lug it all around in his pack.

"Hmmm. I'm not sure what to get," Brian Bidstrup, 6, of Arlington, said as he and a volunteer helper reviewed his list of names. He picked up a $5 bag of jacks. "I once heard my mom say that she always wanted to learn how to play this," he said, thoughtfully.

But after also selecting a nutcracker ornament for his 2-year-old sister, two peppermint sticks for Dad and a handful of knickknacks for his relatives and teachers, Brian found himself in the position of many a holiday shopper: over his spending cap.

Time to call in professional help.

"Mom, don't see my gifts but please get them, okay?" Brian asked as he headed to the barn next door to wrap his presents. Kristin Bidstrup quickly wrote a check for $21.16 to cover her son's tab.

Jeanette Pavini, a shopping expert with ShoppingList.com, an Internet referral site for consumers, said small shopping sprees without parents tagging along teach youngsters about gift-buying.

"The kids really get the full experience of gift-giving," said Pavini, who is based in Sunnyvale, Calif. "They get a great sense of pride. For adults, we go out and just spend the money. But for kids, it's not so much about the gift, it's the fact that they picked it out and decided that this is what they want to give someone.

"So what if it's a pink fuchsia-colored pot holder?" she said. "It's from them, and it gives them a sense of pride."

Ryan Page, 8, and his sister, Ava, 11, of Arlington, said that shopping at Colvin Run is a long-standing tradition for them and that saving their $15 monthly allowance to buy presents requires some restraint.

"I really wanted to spend my money on other stuff like toys, but I also really wanted to save for Christmas," said Ryan, who parted with $30 yesterday and took home 14 gifts.

Eliot Toy, 11, of Fairfax, and his sister, Sarah, 8, were making their third annual visit to Colvin Run. The siblings are not spur-of-the-moment shoppers. "You've got to think about the person's personality," Sarah said. Added Eliot: "And their jobs, too."

Reviewing what was on the shelves, Eliot said, "It's a pretty good variety of stuff, and the merchandise changes, so it never gets dull."

This year, they got candles and a candleholder for their Uncle Conrad and Aunt Joy, who are both artists. For Aunt Lucy the lawyer, Eliot selected a hand-blown glass trinket that resembles a piece of candy.

"It looked great," he said. "Plus, I couldn't find anything else for a lawyer. I saw some nails for 20 cents, but it's Christmas."

CAPTION: Eliot Toy, 11, checks out Virginia honey with the help of volunteer Patrick Horan, 13, at the Children's Holiday Shop at Colvin Run General Store.

CAPTION: Children examine potential gifts while volunteers look on. Most of the merchandise at the Children's Holiday Shop sells for less than $10.

CAPTION: Volunteer Harriet Hunt points out items to Ben Kishore, 2. The shop is designed to allow young children to buy gifts in secret, while parents wait.