Dear PoPville – Opening Gifts in Front of Others at a Party – Normal or Déclassé?

Photo by PoPville flickr user ekelly80

“Dear PoPville,

I recently attended a children’s birthday party and was surprised that the child didn’t open her gifts at the party/in front of her friends. One of the other mothers said that not opening gifts publicly is the new “yuppie” trend. Further, the child didn’t even open gifts from family in front of family back her house. I love giving gifts and I love to watch people open my carefully chosen/wrapped gifts. Is this the new normal? Is opening gifts in front of people déclassé?”

84 Comment

  • As a child, I never opened my gifts at my birthday parties. They were set aside to be opened later, after everyone had left. [This was the 90s.]

    • So, I have a question about this. Did your parents then send ‘Thank You’ notes to all of the parents/kids who brought you a present? I came from the ‘public cake & presents’ tradition and the exuberant ‘thank you’s’ happened face-to-face and in the moment without any written follow-up after the party.

      It would seem that opening presents after the party would then require an additional and more formal etiquette gesture of ‘Thank You’ notes following the party. Just curious how that was handled.

      • yeah, we always sent out thank you notes after the fact.

      • Thank you notes are required in both cases: opening the present and thanking the person verbally does not let you off the hook. As to the original question, I remember a combination of when to open gifts – sometimes in front of others, sometimes they were taken and put aside to open later (from when I was a kid, a long time ago)!

        • KSB

          I always thought that opening a gift in-person and thanking verbally excluded the need for a written thank-you note. That’s always been my rule of thumb.

          • saf

            That is what both Miss Manners and Emily Post say.

          • Emmaleigh504

            Yep. If you can thank them in person when you open it, you don’t need to write a thank you unless you really want to or it was an exceptionally nice gift. If you can thank them in person later, to me, you still have to write a thank you note, but you could hand deliver it.
            Most of my relatives lived out of state when I was a kid, so I remember drawing pictures to send with thank you notes I dictated to my mom before I could write. Then there are the hilariously misspelled notes, that got less hilarious as I got older. And sometimes I still draw a wee picture with the note 🙂

        • Sparta


          Why is it so hard to write thank-you notes? Should be done regardless. Common decency. If someone spends the time and thought process to come up with a gift, the least the recipient can do is write a few words of appreciation. I have always written notes for every gift I received.

          As for kids out of town to whom I send gifts, if mommy and/or daddy doesn’t have the civility to teach them to write thank-you notes, no more gifts.

          • I don’t really see thank you notes as a “matter of common decency.” Especially if a heartfelt appreciative in-person or verbal thank you is the alternative. I’m going to guess that 99% of all thank you notes are impersonal “thank for the gift. love, XY” type notes. Where as a kid jumping up and down shouting thank you thank you thank you over his new toy — totally heart felt. I totally agree parents should teach thank you note writing etiquette but making them “a matter of human decency” is stretching it.

          • Sparta

            Reply to K:

            Perhaps a rephrasing would help: “a decent thing to do.”

          • When I give gifts, I do it for the pleasure it will bring to the recipient, not in anticipation of the gratitude it will bring me. It would not occur to me to punish someone of whom I thought well enough to get a gift by withholding future gifts.
            That said, I grew up with southern women, so I have a stash of pretty notecards and always drag myself through the proper forms.

    • In the 80s we definitely opened them.

    • In the 70s, we always opened gifts at the party, never sent thank-you notes, and never gave gift bags to the attendees. I have a 7-year-old, and it’s the opposite: no one opens gifts at the parties, everyone sends thank-you notes, and everyone distributes gift bags at the end. I wish it would go back to the old way.

      • justinbc

        I find the idea of giving someone a gift to show up at your child’s birthday party quite hilarious.

        • Agreed. If it’s a “No gifts, please” party, why are the host parents sending kids home with gift bags of cheap crap? Have a good time, provide some good food and drinks, provide booze for the parents, plan some activities, and keep it simple.
          Sending the kids home exhausted is the best gift you could ever give to the parents 😉

  • I don’t know about declasse, but prolonging a party beyond children’s energy limits is disastrous. Hence, presents from other children often get opened later, after kids departee with their goodiee bags in hand.

    It’s different for relatives and family friends, whose presents are typically opened in their presence.

    • +1 to this. It’s about the personal-level between the people. Much like you don’t open wedding gifts at the wedding, but your best friend’s gift might have been given to you a few days before in private.

  • I’m interested to hear responses. I don’t think it’s déclassé, but I find it awkward to open a large number of gifts to me in front of gift givers and my own feeling that I need to really react big to show that I appreciate each gift. But, then I’m shy. It’s also kind of boring for the gift givers to watch. However, other than insisting people not bring gifts, I think you still should open in front of people. Otherwise, it seems to lose the point of it.

  • I am in my 40’s and when I was a kid I opened my presents in front of everyone so I don’t think it is anything new. I don’t have kids but I want to say I had heard a few years ago that the then trend wasn’t to open them at the party but I don’t know if that was wide-spread in an effort not to hurt any feelings if one child’s gift was some how not up to snuff. Of course I don’t know that kids care as much as their parents though that may be different for different age groups and maybe even for certain socioeconomic groups.

  • I was at my niece’s birthday on Sunday. It was a picnic and we bought her a kick ball and some books. We figured she would get to give it a kick. Instead all of the gifts were left unopened and the parents gave gift bags to all of the children. It was as if everything had to be equal. We drove 8 hours round trip and didn’t even get to see her open her presents. What’s the point of giving a gift to a kid at a birthday party if you can’t see them open it up? That’s supposed to be the highlight of the party. I realize that kids reactions are somewhat unpredictable but that’s what makes it fun.

    • I completely agree! I cant believe that children not opening gifts is a ‘thing’. They are kids. Should be opened immediately. I can’t imaging having to wait.

    • This. For a kid’s party – open the gifts. (Because before the party you have schooled your kid in how to be gracious and enthusiastic even if it isn’t the star gift!) Just invite real friends, not everyone you know.

      For close friends, I put a lot of effort into making or finding very cool & unique gifts and I kind of like to see people reacting to them.

      And does anyone else remember when a party favor was just a little frilly paper cup full of mixed nuts? And we loved it!

  • Why does this remind me of the scene in ‘Mommy Dearest’ when Joan tells Christina that the doll is the only present she can keep from her own birthday party? I know it’s a very tangential correlation but there’s something about forcing a child to suppress their own joy on their birthday that calls this up for me.

    • Exactly. Though, this fits in squarely with the American WASP’y ideal of self-denial. Just another leftover from our Protestant (including shamefulness of sex).

  • I think it’s personal preference depending on how you were raised. I grew up in Europe where you never opened gifts at a party. it was considered a bit rude or ostentatious. I’m still very uncomfortable at events where everyone sits around and watches a person open their gifts. I understand that it’s a tradition in the US to set aside a portion of an event’s time to watch the guest of honor open gifts, so I’ve become more accustomed to it over time. While I choose not to open gifts in front of others at a party (you will get a nice handwritten thank you note after it is opened later) I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who would do so at a party hosted in their honor. In a similar vein, my office had a young intern from China who was pressured into opening her farewell gift in front of everyone at her good-bye party (something that is frowned upon where she grew up) and was so embarrassed that she was apologizing while opening it and had turned bright red. Our team was incredibly insensitive to her desire to open the gift in private, and a nice gift that was meant as a thank you for her hard work will probably always remind her of a terribly awkward moment instead.

    • I agree on the personal preference, but I’m not sure it’s an American thing. My parents are both European (well, one is british and one is eastern european) and I was raised abroad and always opened gifts in front of the attendees. As I remember it, the schedule was kind of: activity > food > cake > presents > free play with new presents until everyone goes home.

      • Same order of events here. American with my childhood birthday parties occurring in the late 70’s, early 80’s. One of the best gifts I ever got was a Princess Leia wig for my 6th birthday in 1978. Had we not opened presents in front of the guests, I would never have the hilarious pictures of me running around a crowded room with Princess Leia buns on my little head. Ah, memories.

    • Europe is a big place. Are party traditions in Norway the same as Italy?

      • +1! No offense “European” anon above, but to refer to the way things are done in “Europe” is ridiculous. Spending summers with my grandparents outside Athens, we always opened things at the party. I have no idea how they do it in France or Spain! What is it with the assumption that “Europe” is a cultural monolith in opposition to the US??

  • I also opened mine after everyone had left as a kid. The only time I see presents opened at the party is baby showers and bachelorette parties…

  • A DC mom here with an 9 year old. Been going to birthday parties for several years here In DC. Not one kid opened gifts at the party. I do let my child open gifts from family when given – but we don’t at the birthday party.

    • This is the other thing that seems to have changed. When I was a kid, parents did not accompany their children to birthday parties, with the exception of maybe one very close friend/parent to help out.

  • I dunno, I always hated opening presents in front of people as a child. Mainly because I had to force a reaction if it wasn’t something I particularly liked. Maybe the parents are just trying to do what their child prefers?

    • justinbc

      +1 I still hate opening gifts. Most people are just terrible at gift giving, or only buy something because they feel obligated. It’s so impersonal, and I refuse to force a “happy face” just because it’s protocol. For a long time, even as a kid, I always told my parents not to get me birthday gifts.

  • It is the DC custom these days to not open presents at a kid’s party. Says the veteran of many, many kids birthday parties over the last 10 years here. Ascribe whatever meaning you want to that, but that’s the way it is.
    Bonus info: It is not considered tacky here to dictate what kind of gifts your child is to receive. “Ellington is having a book party! Please bring a favorite book.” or “No plastic, made-in-China toys, please.”
    Further: it is the norm here to give gifts to guests at children’s parties. A book, a goody bag of plastic junk and candy, a CD by the children’s entertainer who played the event… Even if you were instructed not to bring a gift for the birthday child, your child may expect to receive one him or herself.
    (This is all very weird to me, but I’m rolling with it.)

    • Oh! It is also fine here to hijack another event for your kid’s party! “My daughter will be 10 on Sunday so I’m bringing her to the (free, open to anyone, held in a public park) drum circle. Please bring food and small gifts to celebrate.” I kid you not.

      • I’m not sure what the issue is with that…as an adult, I’ve celebrated both myself and others at various outdoor (free) events.

    • Given the pretentiousness of so many things DC, I’d consider purposely breaking with convention. The whole goody bag thing also seems to beg for a response–what if you don’t want crap for your kid?

    • You can’t presume to speak for all of DC here.

  • if you are like me, you can’t hide your emotions on your face. a dud gift= hurt feelings for whomever bought it. better to open them later.

  • Capitol Hill mom here. Been to many, many birthday parties, and hosted 4 so far (my kid is 6). Every single party has been a “no-gift” party. We all have small row houses and no one wants more crap brought in. Our kids are already spoiled and entitled. Birthdays are an opportunity to host your friends. It sure makes life easier if you don’t have to shlep to the store before a party to purchase some made-in-china piece of crap. In fact, if you dared to have a present party, you’d get the side eye from the rest of us.

    • I get what you’re saying here and I don’t mean this as an attack but it really strikes me that in this scenario, the child’s birthday is now more about the parents than the child. It just seems that ‘no-gift’ policies are more about the convenience of the parents than acknowledging your little one’s special day.

      • or perhaps its about teachingtheir children to value people and not stuff….

        • +1 million. I don’t have kids but I applaud the parents who are teaching their kids it’s time spent with friends that is important- not amassing a huge collection of toys that won’t matter in another few months anyway.

        • justinbc

          Yeah, presumably the parents are giving their child all the things they really need / want. What is some throwaway thing from Lady X down the street really going to add?

          • Er… To add an unnecessary and tangential complication… my kid usually appreciates the gift from Lady X down the street (in this case, a longtime resident who was pretty much the only one to welcome us to the block at first) more than the others, because Lady X gets her the brightly colored plastic toys that her 7-year-old heart desires, whereas stuffy old dad just gets her books and art supplies and other educational crap. I never ever gave her a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Man, does she love that lunchbox.

      • And the opposing view would be that with a mountain of gifts, the occasion becomes more about the stuff and less about the friends and family and “special day”.

      • In our case, it’s because our daughter goes to a diverse charter school, and a gift would be a burden for many of her friends, and might cause them not to come, or to feel bad, or whatever. Woudl much rather have everyone coime, guilt and stress free, than stock up on unnecessary gifts.

      • So the kid has to get a free toy from everyone who comes over in order to be acknowledged? A party with all his/her friends, and games, and cake & ice cream, and singing, and playing isn’t enough for the kid to understand that the day is special? Screw that perspective. Gifts are nice but gifts are not necessary to feel special – I feel a mix of sadness and anger for adults who don’t seem to understand that, but it’s probably because they were taught that when they were kids.

      • In every scenario in which the child is not old enough to wipe their own a**, I promise you the party is about the parents and not the child.

        • +1. I don’t understand the point of people having birthday parties for their one-year-olds. The kid doesn’t even understand that it’s a birthday!

    • Agreed 100%. There’s no room in our row house for more gifts, and my son already has taken over the entire first floor with his toys. Having people bring gifts just brings more stuff into the house, forcing us to choose to get rid of old stuff or the new stuff you just brought, and it’s a horrible waste either way.

      • I always like the parties where they say no gifts unless you’d like to bring something to donate to xyz shelter. Or do a book drive to donate to a school, etc. Maybe not if there are at need kids being invited, but I feel like more of the over-privileged kids in DC should be doing this!

        • That’s what we’re doing this year: No gifts unless you want to bring a pet item for donation to the shelter. My kid LOVES taking stuff to the animal shelter, and to have stuff that is “hers” to donate will be a big treat.

    • Some of my friends’ children have started getting gifts for charity instead of themselves. For example, one of the kids (age 7 or so) is super into animals so asks her friends to bring gifts for the animal shelter – food, cat toys, etc.

  • I think it’s fine, especially if you receive a thank you note afterwards. I don’t have kids, but I always cut my friends with kids some slack where “etiquette” is concerned. They have enough to deal with already!

  • I can’t speak on opening gifts at children’s birthday parties, but watching someone open gifts at wedding/baby showers and coo like an idiot about over-priced china or breast pumps makes me want to claw my own eyes out. Can we please just abolish this tradition? I’m pretty certain no one actually enjoys it and it takes up SO much time where you could be just exclusively focused on drinking mimosas. And if there aren’t mimosas then I don’t even know what the point of a day-time party is…

    • LOL. This made my day. We should be friends.

      • +1000!!!!

        • Men are so lucky they don’t have to put up with this bullshit. Plus, unless you’re like some sort of child bride, I’m pretty sure most people that get married nowadays have most of the household necessities so honestly, what is the point? I’m pretty sure the only reason we keep up these traditions is to make our grandmothers happy.

          • +500. I think people see it as an occasion to upgrade their stuff or get big ticket things they haven’t yet bought themselves (stand mixer, anyone?) Showers seem like a throwback to earlier times when people married younger, had more living space and entertaining formally was a more regular thing than now. These days things are more casual and people’s living space is at a premium, so asking for huge settings of china and crystal seem wasteful. But if you don’t specify what you want, then you’re left with a bunch of stuff you might not want or have room for, so it’s a catch 22.

          • I agree with your assessment. Wedding showers are kind of antiquated. I’m really not big on weddings, and even if I do get married I most likely will have a small backyard bbq with close friends and relatives. Being that my SO and I are already in our 30s, own our house and have been established for some time, there is no way we need anything else!

    • This!!! *1000

    • i hate that too. the whole idea of opening gifts in front of a crowd is extremely tedious and boring in a party – its fine in a small family gathering.

  • We always opened up gifts at the party, usually during cake. One of my best birthday memories is when my friend’s mom came to pick him at the end of the party and up his little brother took back the toy that his brother had given me. He started screaming that his mom bought the toy for his brother earlier that day and that I was stealing it from him. I thought it was hilarious! His Mom, not so much.

  • Watching a kid or an adult open gifts is the MOST BORING thing ever. Don’t make the kids at a birthday party sit through that. And, like other commenters have said, it puts too much pressure on the recipient to react enthusiastically to everything and too much pressure on the givers to have their gifts scrutinized before the crowd. (It’s OK if the party very small or if everyone is opening gifts, like at family Christmas.)

  • jim_ed

    Here I was thinking that the article I read yesterday about short suits was the dumbest possible trend for yuppies, but here we are. I suppose this is the natural next step for people who spend too much time reading Dear Prudence at their desk, but the idea of a 6 year old writing thank-you notes and not playing with their new presents with their friends at their own birthday party strikes me as totally ludicrous.

  • It depends on the party. If it’s a kid-party – fourteen 7 yos – no way should you open gifts. If it’s a family party – grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins – I’d open them. If it’s a hybrid, use your own judgment.

  • This is ostentatious minimalism at its finest.

    It’s one thing for paents to have a no gift policy at a party or have a kid open his or her gifts afterwards to instill values, modesty, etc into their child/children. But to humble-brag and make haughty decrees suddenly makes morphs the party into a grandiose Kardashianesque affair.

    PS: Love the Mommy Dearest ref.

  • Vote for not opening gifts here. One reason to not open them at a child’s party is that not every family can afford to give a flashy gift and some kids may not have been able to bring a gift at all. There is real embarrassment for the child who brought a less desirable gift that gets only momentary consideration before being tossed aside. This was in the 80’s in the rural South where party dominance was won by the kid who gave the supersoaker while the kid who gave a bubble-wand was shunned. I can only imagine the crazy-level of parents trying to “win” at gift giving in DC.

    • We never opened gifts for that reason. Some of my friends were very poor and couldn’t afford to give me anything more than a pair of socks, while others gave fancy. No need to embarrass those who can’t give fancy, flashy stuff.


  • I think the most appropriate time to open gifts in front of guests is at baby showers and wedding showers. That’s because the whole point of the gathering is to help equip the honoree for a coming, very major, life-changing event. The community wants to know that the couple has what they need.
    I don’t have strong feelings about gift opening at children’s parties. I can see it both ways. Myself, I guess I’d rather not unless presents are more or less alike, like a book party where the quality and cost of the gifts is more or less equal.
    At parties for grownups I’d only open presents that are known to be gag gifts. Those are meant to be seen by the guests and engage them in laughter and warmth.
    Expensive birthday and wedding gifts should be put aside for later.

  • Until my niece arrived, I’d have said open the presents at the party. But she is not yet at the stage where she understands that not every present in the universe is for her, so seeing someone else open presents usually leads to a meltdown.

  • I don’t understand a lot of the hate here. I personally love the idea of someone specifying the type of gift, especially if it’s something that is very attainable and practical. I went to a baby shower where everyone was asked to bring a copy of their favorite book from childhood, and I found that to be incredibly charming and a pleasant alternative to the one-upsmanship that you often find at these things. And goody bags can be wonderful if they are thoughtfully built. Example – I went to a kid’s birthday party that ended at noon, and the goody bag was a little packed lunch for the kids to eat on the way home. Brilliant.

    But for all the people whose favorite part is seeing the birthday girl/boy opening gifts, you need to get over that. Nobody cares what your favorite part of the party is, it’s about the birthday girl/boy first and the other kids second. Adults don’t matter here, sorry. The kids don’t care so much about that stuff, and would rather be playing and enjoying each other. Plus, what if not everyone brought a gift, or can afford a super nice one? And what if some just suck? A child isn’t going to manage that social dynamic appropriately.

  • Watching someone open gifts is boring. Stop doing that. Just open mine later and send me a thank you note.

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