When Adam Youines was learning how to talk, he was given a toy that his mother--and unfortunately, Adam--will never forget.
It didn't do very much. In fact, it did only one thing. It screeched: "You're an idiot! You're an idiot! You're an idiot!" over and over and over again.
Adam's mother trashed the voice box as soon as she could pry it out of his little hands, but it was too late. "All he said for probably the next three weeks was, 'You're an idiot! You're an idiot!' recalls Heather Youines. "Let's just say this was not helpful to Adam's verbal development."
Of course, the gifts parents fear most are those that maim or kill. And every year, just in time for the holidays, several consumer groups publish lists of such toys. But what many parents dread almost as much are the toys that go on giving . . . day after day after noisy, annoying, hair-pulling day.
While it is not a capital crime to give drum sets to children, there are many parents, and their immediate neighbors, who believe it should be.
Just ask the father whose son received drums in each of his first three years of life--tom-tom for the first birthday, bongos for second Christmas, and full drum set with bass pedal and symbols when he turned 3.
"Please don't use my name," said the daddy, a New York executive, "because, really, the people who gave us the drums meant no harm. Or at least I don't think they did . . . ."
The child was allowed to keep--and despite the racket, play with--all the drums because the givers were close to the family.
According to "Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children," this is as it should be. Under the heading "Presents, hideous," author Judith Martin says such gifts "should be displayed and cherished in direct proportion to the sacredness of the bond between giver and receiver, divided by the number of miles they live apart."
Of course, there are exceptions.
Take live animals, for example. Or rather, don't take them. No matter who gives them, there are few surprises less well-received (by parents, not children) than the gift of a "toy" that must be fed, housed and cleaned up after.
"The year my in-laws gave Jenny a pony was the year my marriage started to go down the drain," says a suburban Chicago mother.
Not that ponies have the corner on clean-up problems. A hot gift of several years ago, the infamous Baby Uh-Oh, makes its little doll diaper turn a, uh, realistic color. The doll also develops diaper rash. "Some of the parents who found that one under the tree were pretty horrified," recalls a toy industry veteran.
And speaking of horror, how about that plastic phlegm you can buy and throw up against the wall?
Former Mojave publishing executive Karen Pollock is a liberated mom, so she didn't throw away the fake phlegm. But she wants the world to know her son, Alex, doesn't need any more. "This stuff absorbs the oil from your hands and the junk from your carpet," wails Pollock, "and then it leaves a big, greasy stain on the wall that you can't even paint over."
When asked about gross toys, Josette Schwartz of Arcadia generally mentions son Aaron's canned ooze, the stuff that supposedly mutated the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
"It really has no function except to pour over things and make them gross. It's very green and slimy," says the former elementary teacher. "All you can do with such toys is sit around and eat pizza and do warring things (like the Ninja Turtles themselves)."
In her notes on "proper toys," Miss Manners divides all the toys in the world into two distinct categories: "Those parents like, and those children request . . . " Occasionally, she says, these overlap. But don't count on it.
Cindy Raffles, program director for the Institute for Injury Reduction, a consumer protection group in Washington, D.C., says she is "a fanatic about cleanliness and having a neat house." Yet, most of what Raffles' sister gives to her 5-year-old niece, Leah, is extremely messy. "Last year, she gave Leah a big bucket of finger paints. Well, I took it right outside, but even there I was totally anxiety-ridden," says Raffles.
Toys that don't work, or don't work like they do on television, are many parents' nightmare.
"Toys that don't work drive me crazy and can break a child's heart," says Beth Miller, a Pasadena mother of two. "There was a time when the only toy my little Katie wanted in the whole wide world was this doll called Baby Skates. On TV, she skated beautifully but in our house, she fell down on every surface we tried."
Anna Greenberg, 5, is still outraged over the stick-on fingernails she was given that didn't perform as expected. In warm water, said the instructions, the applied nails would reveal a secret message. But in warm water, the nails also fell off. "I was really mad!" recalls the L.A. area kindergartner.
But the real toys from hell, insist many parents, are the weapons--the sophisticated, battery-powered weapons of the '90s.
Downtown legal secretary Jeanne Kelley's son Justin, 12, recently received a little device that issues three different sounds of violence. There is the sound of laser guns firing, shells going off and a bomb exploding--"each one more loud and more irritating than you can possibly imagine," says Kelley.
When the son of UCLA biologist Laura DeFrancesco found a toy gun among the presents at his fourth birthday party, the adult who gave the gift apologized immediately to his parents.
"She said, 'I know you don't have guns in your house but I thought Ariel would like this one,' " recalls DeFrancesco. "Well, of course, he loved it, and still does. Its noxious sounds can be heard throughout the house."
In the newest edition of the classic "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care," Benjamin Spock reverses himself on whether gun play is bad for children. Although he once advised parents it was harmless, he now believes the violent American climate demands that parents "firmly stop children's war play or any other kind of play that degenerates into deliberate cruelty or meanness . . . ."
Then again, notes Spock, "If I had a 3- or 4-year-old son . . . and his uncle gave him a pistol or a soldier's helmet for his birthday, I myself wouldn't have the nerve to take it away from him."