A Case for Letting Children Open Birthday Presents in Front of Their Peers


When I was a child, I opened my birthday presents in front of the friends who gave them to me. It was the best, most magical part of the party. All the presents! Unwrapping them! The joy! When I went to a birthday party, my favorite part of the party was watching my friend open the present I had picked out just for him (or her).

When my own children started to get invited to parties, I noticed that this is not the “way it’s done” anymore (at least, a lot of the time it’s not.) Now, it seems, the trend is to put the gift on a table and leave it there. The birthday child doesn’t have the joy of opening the presents in front of the friends, and the giver never gets to see the child open the present.  I think this is a shame, and worthy of closer examination.

Why opening presents in front of peers is good for the receiver (the birthday child): 

  • It’s pure joy… this is the most obvious thing that’s lost when the child opens the presents after the party. Who among us who had the opportunity to open a whole group of presents at a birthday party doesn’t remember the excitement? Why have we decided to take this away?
  • It’s an opportunity for children to practice gratitude: After opening each gift, we have the opportunity to teach children to look the gift giver in the eye and think of a unique way to say thank you for the gift they have received: “I love the color of this gift!” or “You knew that I loved Elsa and you picked it out just for me!” or “Thank you so much for thinking of me! I love it!”
  • It’s an opportunity for children to practice sparing each other’s feelings: I distinctly remember the first time I got a gift I didn’t like. It was from my grandma. I looked at her and said “Oh, grandma! Thank you so much!” I remember it, because I remember my mom taking me aside later and saying “I know you didn’t like that gift that grandma gave you, and I’m so proud of you for not letting her know. You made sure her feelings didn’t get hurt.” How can we expect children to learn these skills if we don’t give them the opportunity to practice when they are small? In the privacy of home, after the party is over and the children have gone, it’s easy for children to tear through a sea of nameless, faceless gifts and criticize them or toss them into a pile.

Why opening presents in front of peers is good for the giver (the guests): 

  • It’s pure joy: I remember the joy my preschool aged child had when he picked out a gift for his friend at school. “She loves Elsa” he said as we wandered around Target. He lovingly picked out an Elsa present, put it in an Elsa bag and couldn’t wait to give it to his friend. A parent whisked it away and put it on the table with all the other gifts and we never saw it again. I think he would have been so happy to have seen her open it. We went to a party a few weeks later where the birthday child was opening the presents and my children could hardly contain themselves. “When is he going to open ours?” they kept whispering. When the birthday child got to their gift, they were beaming with joy. They talk about it all the time.  It’s so much fun to give a gift to someone, much more fun than receiving a gift, even for most adults I know. Why do we rob our children’s birthday guests the joy of giving in this way?
  • It’s a reminder that it’s someone else’s turn to be the center of attention: “It’s not always about me” is a good reminder to have throughout life, is it not? When it’s time for the birthday child to open his or her gifts, it’s a reminder that it’s their special day, not your special day. What if the child feels jealous? All the more reason to practice this discipline, and work through it. As an adult I had plenty of opportunities to sit through bridal showers and baby showers when I was neither married nor expecting, plenty of opportunities to feel a twinge of sadness or pain, and plenty of opportunities to remember “It’s not about me today.” I think this was a lesson I learned in childhood.
  • It’s a chance to practice being content with what we have to offer: What if another child gives a gift that’s flashier or better or more appreciated than our gift was? It happens. I remember having very little money in seminary and having to give a wedding gift to someone that wasn’t expensive, or valuable, but thoughtful. I was proud of the gift, but still a little embarrassed. If we’re worried about the financial commitment of giving a birthday gift, we can teach our children how to put great thought and love in to making a gift for a friend or how to give a gift of time or experience. As an adult I’ve given close friends or family the gift of listing out reasons I love them, or lists of experiences we’ve shared together. They’ve been more warmly received than anything I could have bought.
  • Something is lost when we drop the gift on the table and run. We’re doing our children a disservice by “doing” gift giving in this way.

So… how did this tradition get started? Why aren’t children opening gifts in front of their peers anymore? 

A friend and I were talking about this awhile ago, and we couldn’t figure it out. “Maybe it’s because the parents think children will be upset if someone gives a better gift than they do,” she speculated. Key word there are the parents think. This is a projection of an adult feeling onto children, in my opinion and experience. For all the reasons listed above, gift giving at parties is great for children, both as givers and receivers.  I’m not sure how this tradition got started, or why, but I’m hopeful that we’ll go back to the way it was when I was a child, not because times were better back then, but because the “opening gifts part” is the best part! Bring it back!

I’m curious about your thoughts!


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