"It's like, what do you do now?" said Helen Fischer, a Moraga mother of two. "You really have to think outside the box."
For many parents, the "hot toys" advertising, crowded malls and wish lists as long as the Toys "R" Us line on Black Friday make holiday shopping a challenge in itself. This year it has also become a search, says Fischer, for "something that won't kill."
Since summer, more than 25 million childhood toys have been recalled. And while lawmakers hold hearings and file lawsuits against major toy manufacturers and retailers, consumer advocates are saying this year's recalls are just the tip of the iceberg.
Months after packing up their children's Polly Pockets and lead-painted Fisher Price toys, parents find themselves once again on the front lines, this time doing damage control with Santa's list.
It's enough to make a parent "freak out," said Paul Banas, a San Francisco dad who runs the GreatDad.com blog.
He says most parents fall somewhere on an anxiety spectrum that ranges from low-grade angst to "absolutely crazy -- you do everything you can to check your toys for dioxin and lead, send splinters of plastic to be tested."
"My son lost about six or seven of his Thomas (the Tank Engine) toys," Banas said. "Then the (replacement) toy they sent had to be recalled. My son was
Banas has been checking the recall lists, buying from shopkeepers he trusts and choosing toys he remembers from his own childhood -- trains and slot cars.
But even old-fashioned toys may not be safe, said Alameda mom Mary Brune. The Brune family first changed toy-buying habits when reports emerged about toxic materials in plastic. Now, even their painted wooden toys are a threat.
"We avoid toys -- I hate to say that," said Brune. "We're scrutinizing where stuff comes from, focusing on European products. Any silver lining is, it's evidence that manufacturers are looking at the problem."
They're not the only ones.
A recent Consumer Reports poll found that 89 percent of the nation's shoppers were aware of the toy recalls and a large percentage were panicked enough to take proactive measures. About 36 percent told pollsters they planned to buy fewer toys, 70 percent said they would be checking labels and 30 percent said they would not buy toys made in China.
The customer help line at HearthSong, which specializes in European and hand-crafted toys and crafts, has been ringing off the hook this fall.
"They're a more aware consumer than we've seen before and better informed," said product safety manager Linda DeRose-Droubay. "They're asking for specific testing information, and they're very aware that the problems are not restricted to China and leaded paint."
Many parents are opting out of conventional toys altogether. Both Brune and Fischer are turning to experiential gifts -- lessons, activities, art, music, books, crafts and games.
Oakland mom Dana Young has been delicately steering the Santa conversation with her triplets, 5-year-old daughters with a passion for American Girl dolls, "High School Musical" and Shrek. Young does research online and shops locally with small, independent stores -- Rockridge Kids and the Elmwood branch of Sweet Dreams -- or online vendors she trusts. When she buys, she checks the recall list at the Consumer Product Safety Commission first.
"I like to 'kick the tires,'" she said, "before pulling out the purse."
Moraga mom Mylinh Paolieri avoids the issue altogether. Her preschooler plays "kitchen" with empty yogurt and spice containers, small pots and various dry pastas. An upturned cardboard box serves as his imaginary stove.
"I have seen play kitchens in toy catalogs," said Paolieri. "But why? He is happy with what he has. He doesn't need a separate plastic play kitchen simply because a toy manufacturer thinks to produce a replica of what is already there."
Although she said she's careful, she doesn't plan to lose sleep over the toy recalls.
"I am not going to have a problem with my starry-eyed children's 'Dear Santa' letters because I hope the foundation that my husband and I are building in them will produce deeper characters than those (who want) the latest and greatest. We can't live in fear. All we can do is think about what we are buying for our children."
TIPS FOR AN UNLEADED HOLIDAY
-- Sources: "Get the Lead Out," a Bay Area coalition of lead poisoning prevention leaders; National Safety