Want Need Wear Read: The holiday gift strategy that works for my kids

By Amanda Morin

Picture a room strewn with crumpled-up wrapping paper, ripped-open boxes, and new toys with little parts broken off them.

Now add the soundtrack of overwhelmed kids crying. Cue up relatives loudly giving their opinions about how we should handle it.

That’s what our holidays used to look like.

My boys, 5 and 13, have learning and thinking differences. The younger one can be impulsive and excitable. The older one can get anxious and has a hard time with social situations.

Each holiday season, the boys faced an unorganized mountain of presents from us and from extended family. They had no idea what they were getting. They would literally shake with anticipation!

When it was time to open gifts, each boy would claw and grab, trying to get whatever was his. Taking turns? Forget it.

Then there was the disappointment.

My kids often have very specific ideas of what they want for the holidays. So when they didn’t get exactly what they wanted, it meant a tantrum or a meltdown. It didn’t help that our well-meaning relatives often gave gifts that didn’t make sense for the boys. (Transformers are great, but not for a 5-year-old who hasn’t mastered fine motor skills.)

So despite all the gifts, nobody was enjoying the season.

It got so bad we actually considered skipping the holidays, with no mention of gifts at all. But I don’t think the boys would have gone along quietly with that plan.

Plus, we wanted them to appreciate the spirit of the holidays. We wanted them to know the joy of spending time with family and understand why it’s better to give than receive.

So instead of giving up the tradition of presents, we decided to simplify with a new strategy toward gift-giving.

It’s called Want, Need, Wear, Read.

The idea is that you only give four gifts to each child: Something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read.

This allows you to bring your kids into the decision-making process. Ask them, what do they actually want? Depending on your child’s issues or age, you may have to help guide the choice. Everything is transparent — they know exactly what they’re getting.

For us, each type of gift is a great way to think about the needs of our kids with learning and thinking differences:

  • WANT: A “want” gift gives us the chance to really listen to our kids and understand their passions. Instead of buying the hot toy of the season, we try to find out what makes them happy. We give them something they’ll really enjoy and use, and also avoid the meltdowns that can come from “gift disappointment.”
  • NEED: The “need” gift allows us to give our kids something they need that might relate to their learning or thinking difference, without it being unexpected or a big deal. For example, a new set of noise-canceling headphones or a backpack that’s easier to organize.
  • WEAR: A “wear” gift is when we can take into account each kids’ unique sense of style and any sensory issues, too. It may take a little more effort to find a soft, tag-less Batman sweatshirt, but it’s worth it!
  • READ: A “read” gift gives us a chance to choose titles and books that speak to their interests. We can think outside the box and not worry about making sure they’re getting traditional reading materials. They’re excited to receive graphic novels, books of LEGO-building ideas, and even cookbooks.

Want, Need, Wear, Read has meant less chaos, clearer expectations, and less disappointment for our family. And even with fewer gifts, both boys are now happier because they know they have a direct say in what they get.

There are other benefits too. The other day, when I asked my older son what his “want” present should be this year, I was pleasantly surprised by his answer.

“I can’t think of anything I want that I don’t also need or wouldn’t read,” he said. “But what do you want, Mom?”

Read more great tips about making the holidays more manageable for your kids.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.