If they saw the words "Made in China," the box went back on the shelf.
The worries started back in June, when 1.5 million of the popular Thomas and Friends wooden railway toys were recalled because they contained lead paint.
That seemed to be an isolated incident. But soon, millions more toys by well-respected manufacturers such as Mattel and Fisher-Price were also recalled, again due to lead paint.
Then there were massive recalls of Barbie dolls and action figures because they contained small magnets. If a child swallows more than one magnet, the magnets will attract each other and can perforate the intestines.
Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, last month 4.2 million Aqua Dots bead kits were recalled because they contained a chemical similar to the "date rape" drug GHB, causing children who swallowed the beads to become comatose.
These dangerous toys all had one thing in common: They were made in China. But so are most of the harmless toys.
"There are very few American toy companies out there," said Kim Martin, coordinator of Safe Kids Gainesville/Hall County. "After these recalls came out, I went to stores and did some research. About 98 percent of the toys I’ve looked at are made in China."
This leaves parents wondering whether any toy is really safe to give this Christmas.
"Over the past month I’ve gotten quite a few calls," Martin said. "People want to know what brands to buy. And I can’t really say, because so many different brands have been affected."
She advises people to check the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recall list at www.cpsc.gov. But even if a toy isn’t currently listed, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe, because new recalls are issued every week.
Martin said some parents are avoiding toys altogether this year.
"They tell me they’re buying books, electronics, CDs and sporting equipment," she said.
But most of those gifts are not appropriate for babies and toddlers, who need playthings in order to stimulate their intellectual development.
Sandy Haynes, co-owner of the Lollipop Toy Store in Dawsonville, said parents seeking safe toys are turning to independent stores or to Internet sites rather than shopping at "big box" retailers.
"We try to provide products that are not made in China," she said. "There’s been a pretty big uproar about this. People are angry about China. I try to tell them that if we would support the American economy, we would have more toys manufactured here."
But, parents ultimately bear the responsibility for keeping their children safe. That means that not only do they need to be careful about what they buy; they also have to inspect any toys given to their children by relatives or friends.
"Make sure you buy age-appropriate toys," Martin said. "Small parts are the biggest hazard for young children (due to the potential for choking). Anything that can fit within a paper-towel tube is small enough to be swallowed. If you’ve got children of various ages, the older children’s toys need to be stored where the young ones can’t get to them."
Most toys come with a manufacturer’s recommended age range, such as "for ages 3 and up." But Martin said a disturbing number of parents ignore these guidelines and buy gifts that kids aren’t ready to handle.
"A problem we’re seeing now is children on ATVs (such as four-wheelers)," she said.
"The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend ATVs for anyone under age 16. It’s a motorized vehicle, and it can be very dangerous."
New bikes, skates, and skateboards can be wonderful Christmas presents, but Martin said if you’re going to buy one, you need to buy the accessories, too.
"The bicycle should have a helmet to go with it, and make sure it’s properly fitted," she said. "Skateboards and skates should come with elbow and knee pads. And you should supervise your kids while they’re learning to use these toys."
Martin said parents should scrutinize all gifts for small or loose parts, sharp edges, and cords or strings that could cause strangulation.
And even though economic times are hard, Martin doesn’t recommend buying used toys at secondhand stores.
"Most thrift stores don’t remove a toy from the shelves if it’s been recalled," she said. "Used toys usually don’t have any packaging or manufacturer’s information, so you have no way of knowing whether it’s on the recall list."