Inside: Recapture the magic of the holidays by giving just 4 gifts for Christmas! Here are the “gotchas” to avoid plus the best “want need wear read” gift ideas.
One Christmas when my oldest was a preschooler, something shifted compared to previous holiday seasons. Instead of getting a couple cute onesies and board books as gifts from loved ones, she got piles and piles of presents.
Grandparents on both sides sent gifts. Extended relatives. Family friends.
Not to mention the gifts we’d gotten her ourselves.
That Christmas morning, it took forever for Abby to get through opening all the toys and gadgets and gifts. Then about five presents in, the light went out in her eyes.
She would carefully undo the tape on the wrapping, open the box, pull out the gift, and set it on the teetering stack next to her. Then she’d look up with a small smile, say “thank you,” and move onto the next gift.
She could no longer get excited because she was absolutely overwhelmed.
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We Had to Make a Change
That night lying next to each other in bed, my husband and I talked about how Abby became almost robot-like when she hit that point of overwhelm.
That’s not what we wanted our holiday season to be about – overloading our child with gifts until she has to shut down just to cope with the excess of stuff. Plus, we wanted to try to have another baby one day, so we knew that sort of gift-giving free-for-all wouldn’t be sustainable as our family grew.
That night, I Googled “how to keep Christmas from getting out of control” and stumbled on the tradition of giving 4 gifts for Christmas – a simple guideline that’s supposed to help you keep the holiday season focused on what really matters. With the 4-gift rule, each person gets just four gifts for Christmas:
- Something you want,
- Something you need,
- Something to wear, and
- Something to read.
Not just a catchy little rhyme, the 4-gift rule for Christmas promises to help keep your holiday season from devolving into a materialistic frenzy of more, more, more and helps you stick to a reasonable budget.
But more important than that, many parents report that giving just four gifts for Christmas can help you raise kids who appreciate what they have instead of following in Dudley Dursley’s footsteps and throwing a temper tantrum when they end up with 36 presents instead of last year’s 37.
This Is What Giving 4 Gifts for Christmas Really Looks Like
We were excited to start the “want need wear read” tradition, but we had to wait a whole year. Starting in July, we were already thinking ahead to what special gifts would make the cut with the 4-gift rule.
But by the time November hit, I started feeling a little panicky. By shifting so abruptly from the excessive haul of gifts last year to just 4 things for Christmas this year, would we ruin the magic of Christmas for Abby?
My husband and I were relieved to have the 4-gift rule to rein ourselves in when it came to buying gifts for each other because we tended to go overboard with each other, too. But we couldn’t shake our worries about what the 4-present rule would do to our daughter’s experience on Christmas morning.
After lots of debate and second-guessing ourselves, this is what we ultimately decided on for her 4 gifts for Christmas that year:
- What Abby wanted most of all was an American Girl doll, so that was her “something you want.”
- A big package of colorful socks for her growing little feet was her “something you need.”
- For “something to wear,” a pretty new dress.
- And for “something to read,” a set of classic Beverly Cleary paperbacks.
We didn’t completely get the grandparents and extended family bought into the 4-present tradition, but they did tone it way down compared to the previous year. Their gifts tended to be mostly books and clothes instead of plastic toys that would end up collecting dust on a shelf within a week.
So…Did We Ruin Christmas Morning?
That was Abby’s last Christmas as an only child, and the three of us stayed in our jammies that morning while opening presents. Her pile of presents was easily a fourth of the size of the previous year’s massive pile.
My husband and I sat on the floor next to her, sipping our coffee. Because we didn’t have a huge stack of presents to get through ourselves, we could afford to pause with her after each gift to appreciate what it was and who it came from.
And the light never went out of her eyes.
She didn’t hit that point of overwhelm. She didn’t turn into a robot going through the motions of opening presents. She stayed in the moment with us, enjoying the delight of a few thoughtful surprises.
Ever since that holiday season, we’ve stuck with the 4-gift rule, and it’s been a game-changer for taming the excess of the holiday season.
We especially love how the “want need wear read” tradition brings a sense of intention to our gift-giving. Because when you’re giving just 4 gifts for Christmas, they end up being incredibly thoughtful gifts – not random gadgets or trinkets you get just to get something, even though you know they’ll soon end up shoved in a closet or somewhere else out of sight, forgotten and collecting dust.
All this to say: Our new tradition of giving each other just 4 gifts for Christmas didn’t ruin our Christmas. It saved our Christmas.
But What About…?
As with any family tradition, you’ll have to make the 4-gift rule your own so it feels right to you and your family. But here are some common “gotchas” with shifting to giving 4 gifts for Christmas and suggestions for how you can avoid them.
To be clear, I’m certainly not the be-all-end-all expert on this topic. But I have picked the brains of every family I know who’s started giving just 4 gifts for Christmas. Below, you’ll find the culmination of tips and tricks from many, many families who’ve adopted the 4-gift rule. For example:
- Do you follow the 4-gift rule for stockings, too?
- How do you handle it when your kids expect more than 4 gifts for Christmas?
- What about gifts from siblings to one another?
- How can you get grandparents and extended family on board with limiting gifts?
- How do you handle Santa gifts?
After that, you’ll find a list of the best “want need wear read” gift ideas. Enjoy!
Do you follow the 4-gift rule for stockings, too?
Just like with too many gifts under the tree, an overflowing stocking can be overwhelming for kids, too. Instead of filling your kids’ stockings with small plasticky junk that will end up broken or lost within a few days, consider going for quality over quantity.
A few ideas for how to get a fun (but less overwhelming) mix of stocking stuffers:
- Replace several “stuff” gifts with one or two of these small but meaningful gifts that make the perfect stocking stuffers for kids. One of our kids’ favorite stocking stuffers were these family conversation starters. We still use those conversation starters every night to reconnect as a family, and the answers we get from our kids are pure gold!
- Make a special treat, like your child’s favorite kind of cookie or a chocolate goody. Or if you’re not great in the kitchen, pick up a special ready-made treat like a chocolate bar from the fancy chocolate section of the grocery store. One high-quality treat can teach little ones to savor what they have instead of a whole bag of junky treats that they inhale without really appreciating.
- Add a card game that will be fun for the whole family to play. You can check my list of the best board games and card games for all ages for ideas, but to save you time I’ll list our favorite card games here real quick: Sleeping Queens, Sushi Go!, Rat-a-Tat Cat, Create a Story, and Spot It!. Also, Travel Qwirkle isn’t a card game, but it’s oodles of fun and small enough to fit into a stocking!
Bonus: All game orders placed in our family-owned shop get a $7.99 bonus credit after purchase to spend on instant downloads!
"My daughter and I love Sleeping Queens! It teaches them math without them even realizing it – or me, for that matter. I remember my daughter laid down a sequence that was like 1 + 3 + 5 = 9, and I thought 'How did you know that…?' Then I realized she just figured it out from doing math in the game. So cool to watch her learn right before my eyes." – Ann
How do you handle it when your kids expect more than 4 gifts for Christmas?
If your kids are young, they likely won’t even notice the shift to 4 gifts for Christmas. Our daughter was almost five when we made the change, and she didn’t think anything of it.
Some kids end up loving the smallest, least expensive gift most of all anyway. Not to mention that toddlers and preschoolers tend to be happiest playing with the cardboard boxes the gifts came in!
But if your kids are older and tend to be concerned with how many gifts they get each year, you may want to get them on board upfront to head off any hint of disappointment on Christmas morning. If your kids are old enough to remember how many gifts they got last year and to expect the same or more this year, they’re old enough for a frank discussion about gift giving and what’s most important during the holiday season.
You can do this in a few different ways, depending on what will resonate best with your kiddos:
- Reminisce together – One night at dinner, start a conversation about gifts and the ones that stick with you. For example, you can try asking, “What’s your favorite gift you’ve ever received? Something you still remember, even if it was a while ago?” Go ahead and share your answer, too. You may find that everyone’s favorite gifts were the kind that give you treasured memories, not gifts that come from a store. That can open the door to a discussion about how you can give each other that kind of gift this holiday season instead of just a bunch of stuff that will be forgotten.
- Give them a higher purpose – As a family, read a children’s book about how some people may not have all the same things your family has. One picture book that made a huge impact on my kids was A Chair for My Mother. In my preschooler’s words: “I liked it when the whole town helped the family.” For tweens and teens, you can watch a documentary with them like Living On One Dollar. Then you can start a discussion about how some others may not have enough food for their families, or a home to keep them warm, or shoes that fit their feet. You might try asking your kids something like, “This Christmas, how could we help people who need food and clothes?” If they don’t take the bait, you can go ahead and plant the seed: “Could we save some money that we usually spend on gifts for ourselves to help others who need it more than we do?”
- Be upfront – If what led you to the 4-gift rule is the promise of keeping your holiday budget under control, go ahead and let your kids know. It’s good for kids to understand that adults have to make choices about how to spend money, and they’re not always easy choices – because they’ll have to make those choices one day, too. Just be careful not to stress your kids out with adult-level money concerns. For example, you might say, “Typically, we spend a lot of money on Christmas gifts, but that means when we want or need something next year, we may not have the money for it. So this year, we’re going to focus on giving a few awesome gifts instead of lots of just okay gifts.” If your kids aren’t familiar with the phrase “quality over quantity” yet, now would be a good time to introduce that concept.
You can also share a want need wear read Christmas list printable with your kids instead of asking them to write a typical free-for-all wish list. At the end of this post, you can download a free want need wear read Christmas printable that you can print and share with your kids.
Download: Free Printable 4-Gift Wish List for Kids
What about gifts from siblings to one another?
Encouraging siblings to think of others is a good thing, but giving one gift to each other should be plenty to help kids learn the art of gift giving. Our favorite way to get our kids excited about giving gifts to each other is the Sibling Super Secret Spy Shopping Trip.
Still, if you have more than two kids, every kid getting a gift for every sibling can quickly add up. In that case, you can have the kids draw names from a hat, Secret Santa style.
How can you get grandparents and extended family on board with limiting gifts?
This is a common issue for many families, so I put together a list of all the best ideas for how to politely request no Christmas gifts or fewer gifts. Because we all know simply saying “no Christmas gifts please” won’t cut it.
How do you handle Santa gifts?
Full disclosure: In my family, we don’t do Santa gifts. But here are a few ideas I heard from other families who do incorporate Santa into their holiday traditions:
- Follow the 4-gift rule for gifts from you to your kids, then give one special “Santa gift.” If your kids are used to more gifts than that, you can explain that Santa’s sleigh is only so big, and he has millions of children to visit every Christmas Eve, so he can fit only one gift per child. Watching a movie like The Polar Express can help reinforce this “one gift from Santa” message.
- Explain that every year, more and more kids are being born, and Santa is having trouble fitting bigger gifts in his sleigh. This year, he’s switching to filling stockings instead of leaving gifts under the tree.
- Make Santa’s gift an experience gift for the whole family. For example, Santa could gift your whole family a movie night in a box, a monthly subscription box, or everything you need for a family camping trip including s’mores fixin’s (even if it’s just in your own backyard or living room!). Our favorite subscription box for kids is from Kiwi Crates. These monthly hands-on projects are perfect for curious kids, kids who love science, creative kids, kids who love to tinker, and more…in other words, every kid. We received this as a gift last year, and my kids run to the mailbox on the day it’s due to arrive every month. To get 30% off your first Kiwi Crate subscription box, click here and use the coupon code SHARE30.
For more fun experience gift ideas, check out The Ultimate (Most Epic!) List of the Best Experience Gift Ideas.
28 Best “Want Need Wear Read” Gift Ideas for Kids
The first year we sat down to figure out 4 gifts for Christmas for everyone in our immediate family, we drew a blank on a couple of the categories.
In a free-for-all gift giving situation, it doesn’t matter if some gifts are duds because you have tons of other gifts to pick up the slack. But when you start the 4-gift tradition with your family, you may find yourself wanting to make sure each gift is stellar. If your child is getting just 4 gifts for Christmas, there’s no room for duds.
Because it can be a little more challenging to find the perfect gift to fit into each “want need wear read” category, here are a few “want need wear read” gift ideas for you.
Something You Want
For “something you want,” it’s your chance to give your child the one thing you know will make their little face light up. This may be the easiest category to tackle because a lot of kids have one wish list item they’ve been talking about for weeks (or months), whether that’s a toy, electronics, or a brand new art set to replace a hodge-podge mess of broken crayons and dried-out markers.
On the other hand, some kids – especially younger kids – may change what’s at the top of their wish list on a daily basis. In that situation, you know your child best and what will delight her. In our family, we try to go with a gift idea our preschooler has mentioned a few times rather than a gift idea she first heard about the week before Christmas.
But if your child doesn’t have a clear “want,” check out this huge list of The Most Meaningful Gifts for Kids Who Have Everything. To save you some time, here are the top 3 most popular gift ideas from that list:
- Make a date once a month. Most kids want nothing more than one-on-one time with the important people in their lives, so gift them a year of monthly “dates” of special one-on-one time with you.
How to Wrap It: Grab 12 colorful envelopes like these, label them with the months, and insert a card or brochure about each special day. Activities could include going out for ice cream, bowling, seeing a movie together, or anything else the child would enjoy doing with you. For more ideas, check out this mom’s story of how she put this gift together.
- Take them somewhere super fun. Get tickets to your child’s favorite local amusement park, theme park, or water park – or make plans for some other extra special outing like a bouncy house center, indoor rock climbing gym, trampoline park, bowling alley, miniature golf course, skating rink, or any other place they’d love to go. Your child will get the gift of an awesome day when you take them on this special outing, plus they’ll build memories that will stick with them for a long time.
How to Wrap It: Print a photo of where you’re taking them (or a promotional flyer would work too) and wrap that.
- Send a monthly box of fun. You can find a monthly subscription box for just about anything nowadays, from art projects to science experiments. And even though you’re technically gifting a subscription box to the kids, parents benefit too because you’re helping keep the kids busy with a new project once a month! Our favorite subscription box ever is from Kiwi Crates because the fun hands-on projects in their boxes are custom tailored to every age from newborns (yes, really!) to teenagers and everything in between. We received this as a gift last year, and my kids run to the mailbox on the day it’s due to arrive every month. For more subscription box ideas, check out The Most Meaningful Gifts for Kids Who Have Everything.
How to Wrap It: Typically, you can pick the date of the first box delivery and add a special note from you to the recipient inside the box to let them know to expect a new box every month.
Something You Need
If your family is blessed to be able to provide for your children’s needs when they crop up instead of waiting for birthdays and holidays, this category may be a challenge.
Here are a few ideas of things kids tend to need:
- Shoes to replace ones that are worn out or too small
- A sturdy backpack to replace one that’s falling apart
- If they play sports: sports equipment or gear like a new soccer ball, volleyball, and so on
- A bike helmet if they’ve outgrown their current helmet (same goes for knee and elbow pads)
- A winter coat
- A sleeping bag if they’ve outgrown the one they have
- A small wheelie suitcase they can use for family vacations and sleepovers
- Underwear, socks, and/or belts (by the way, Solmate Socks are my kids’ favorite because you can wear them mismatched!)
- A lunch box and/or reusable water bottle (we love the Klean Kanteen water bottles for kids because they’re all stainless steel and super durable)
- A cute container to keep their toys organized (we love the Stuff ‘n Sit, which looks like just a regular bean bag but is actually a way to store stuffed animals, so you get a tidy room and an extra place to sit)
- An art caddy to organize all their art supplies (one of my kids loves making art, so we got her this portable arts and crafts organizer, and she was on cloud nine!)
- Sheets or other bedding if their current set is getting frayed or has holes in it
- A nice annual planner or calendar to keep track of school deadlines and extracurricular commitments (my kids have always loved these Erin Condren planners designed just for kids)
Something to Wear
The obvious choice here is clothing, but here are a few creative gifts that also work in this category:
- Dress-up clothes for pretend play (this set of superhero capes from a couple years ago is something all three of my girls still play with regularly – here’s the version for male superheroes)
- A watch or an activity tracker to help them get enough exercise every day (my oldest won’t go anywhere without her Fitbit Ace for kids, and it motivates her to get at least 10,000 steps every day!)
- Perfume or cologne
- A purse or wallet (I know my kids love anything that makes them feel like a grown-up!)
- Noise-cancelling headphones so they can focus on schoolwork, especially if they have younger siblings
Something to Read
For kids who enjoy reading, this category is a no-brainer. The hard part may be picking just one book to gift!
Because my oldest tends to devour fiction quickly and doesn’t re-read it unless it’s an all-time favorite like Harry Potter, I try to gift books she’ll enjoy coming back to again and again, like how-to guides or project-based books. (This year, I’m considering getting her a copy of Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids, which she checked out from the library and loved.)
For my preschooler and toddler, I pay attention to which picture books we’ve checked out from the library and they ask to read again and again, then I’ll get them a copy of their very own so we can read that favorite to them anytime they want.
But if you have a child who doesn’t enjoy reading, don’t despair because here are a few creative ideas for the “something to read” category:
- Subscribe to a fun magazine. Kids love getting mail addressed just to them, and they’ll be building their reading skills without even realizing it. Plus, most kids’ magazines include activity and craft ideas for kids. And after the kids are done reading, they can pass the magazine along to a friend. A few ideas for you: Highlights, Ranger Rick Jr, or anything in the Cricket magazine family like Ladybug for 3- to 6-year-olds, Cricket for 9- to 14-year-olds, and more.
- Wrap a book with pictures. For older kids who don’t enjoy reading, remember that comic books and graphic novels totally count as “something to read,” too. You can’t go wrong with Calvin and Hobbes , and these graphic novels are perfect for kids: the Amulet series, Real Friends, Ghosts, and Invisible Emmie.
- Give them a book that transcends reading. Especially if the child doesn’t enjoy reading, get them a book they can put to good use. These books give the child projects and activities they can do or make, and they’ll likely find they do love books after all. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Kitchen Science Lab for Kids: 52 Family Friendly Experiments from the Pantry – This isn’t exactly a cookbook but more a collection of super fun science experiments you can do in the kitchen.
- Out of the Box – Projects kids can make using old cardboard boxes. Think of all the empty cardboard boxes on Christmas morning that they can reimagine into fun building projects! We recently got this for our preschooler, and she ATE IT UP.
- Rosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers and Iggy Peck’s Big Project Book for Amazing Architects and Ada Twist’s Big Project Book for Stellar Scientists – We’ve been drooling over these since they were first released, and we just picked up the first one and plan to get the next two as well. If the child enjoyed the companion picture books Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect and Ada Twist, Scientist, these activity books are the perfect fit.
- Share your childhood favorite. What was your favorite book as a child? Get a copy to share with the child, and write a special note on the inside cover about why it’s your favorite. That personal touch may be just the nudge they need to give it a go.
- Give them the best. We read a lot of kids’ books in my house. A lot. We check out at least 20 new picture books a week, and my oldest polishes off a chapter book every other day. And here’s what we’ve learned: Just because a kids’ book is on the Amazon bestseller list doesn’t mean it’s something kids will actually enjoy reading. Sometimes kids may not enjoy reading because they haven’t found the right book yet. Here are our top recommendations for each age range, approved by kids and parents:
- Board books – Bear Snores On, Good Night Gorilla, and Everywhere Babies. For more ideas, check out The Best Baby Board Books That Will Delight Your Baby (And You).
- Picture books – Our Tree Named Steve, Plant a Kiss, and Strictly No Elephants. Check out The Ultimate List of the Best Picture Books, Endorsed by Kids And Parents for more ideas.
- Chapter books – Because of Winn-Dixie, Harry Potter, The Penderwicks, The Underneath, and Wonder.
- Young adult books – Graceling, A Great and Terrible Beauty, Hunger Games, and Jellicoe Road.
Download Your Free Printable: A Wish List for Kids
To get my kids on board with the 4-gift rule for Christmas, I designed a printable wish list they could fill out.
This printable may seem simple, but it’s actually fostered some of the best conversations we’ve ever had with our children about “wants” versus “needs.” Plus, when you tell your child they can put only one idea in each box, they get laser-focused about what they really want for Christmas instead of getting hung up on junky toys they’ll lose interest in after a few days. Parenting win!
- Download the free checklist. Join my weekly-ish newsletter and as a bonus, you’ll get the printable! Just click here to download and subscribe.
- Print one for each child. If the adults in your family will be joining in on the 4-gift rule (and why wouldn’t they?!) go ahead and print a copy for them, too!
- Explain the 4-gift rule to your child if you haven’t already. For tips on this step, see the “How do you handle it when your kids expect more than 4 gifts for Christmas?” section earlier in this post.
- Ask your child to fill it out. The most fun is when you can spend a few minutes filling it out together and talking through each category, but your child can also fill it out independently and give it to you when she’s done.
Here’s a sneak peek of your 4-gift rule wish list:
If you’ve made the shift to 4 gifts for Christmas, what tips would you add? Share in a comment below!
I’m a mom of four, a recovering perfectionist, and the author of Happy You, Happy Family. Parenting is hard enough without all the guilt we heap on top of ourselves. So let’s stop trying to be perfect parents and just be real ones. Sound good? Join my mailing list and as a bonus, you’ll get 25+ incredibly helpful cheat sheets that will ease your parenting struggles.