The Pros & Cons

Birthday Party Etiquette Debate: Should Your Kid Open Gifts In Front Of Their Guests?

Etiquette expert Daniel Post Senning (and great-great-grandson to the decorum extraordinaire Emily Post) shares his thoughts.

Girl with present on birthday
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Before becoming a parent, I had no idea how complicated and stressful children's birthday parties could be — not just for the hosts, but also for the guests. Nowadays, everyone is divided on what is and isn't OK when attending these types of social events. It's a psychological landmine of dos and don'ts, and no one can seem to agree on a solution. Back in April, one mom went viral on TikTok for refusing to stay at kids' birthday parties, which led to a rather interesting debate on what protocols should be followed and why.

But the discussion shouldn't just end there. There's another question about kids' birthday party etiquette we should ask ourselves: Do you have your kid open gifts in front of guests? And just like with the stay-or-drop-off dispute, an argument could be made for both sides.

The Cons

When I was growing up, it was fairly customary for one portion of the celebration to be dedicated to watching the birthday girl or boy open every card and gift they received that day in front of everyone at the party. Until recently, I never really thought much about the tradition, but with all of the recent discussions on the topic, it's made me start to question if this is a custom that should be tossed by the wayside. Because as innocent as it all may seem, some parents may fear it could lead to unexpected repercussions.

For example, opening gifts in front of everyone could make some of the other kids feel bad or uncomfortable if they feel their present doesn't measure up to what others have given the host. And what if one friend couldn't afford to bring a gift or accidentally forgot it at home? The gift-opening would bring unwanted attention to that child and potentially make them feel hurt or excluded. Then, of course, from a parent's perspective, the wrapping paper and excitement over new toys could create a chaotic situation you'd rather just avoid altogether.

The Pros

Yet there are some, like etiquette expert Daniel Post Senning (and great-great-grandson to the decorum extraordinaire Emily Post), who would argue that the act of gift-opening serves as an important part of the celebration process for both the host and the guests. "The process of gift-giving at kids' birthday parties in particular, it's a real learning opportunity," Senning told Scary Mommy in a recent interview. "There's a chance there for growth and development."

And while Senning concedes that it's not something you absolutely have to do, he adamantly believes it to be a helpful chance for children to begin understanding the social courtesies and aspects of gift exchange.

"We like to encourage parents to think about doing it and not just throw their hands up in the air and say because this is hard, we're going to skip it," he explained. "Because in some ways you're skipping that opportunity to have those experiences in that structured and controlled environment — to do it in ways that really teach important social lessons like how to give a gift a well, how to receive a gift well, how to thank someone for something, how to think about someone ahead of time and pick a gift that would be meaningful for them or you or for the relationship."

Other Considerations

For those worried that feelings could get hurt if their gift isn't well received or that the birthday kid could experience a meltdown if they don't get the gifts they want, Senning says it's all part of the learning process of growing up. Kids' birthday parties are meant to be chaotic and messy (literally and psychologically), so don't expect things to go perfectly because they most likely won't. But that doesn't mean you should avoid the gift-giving ritual altogether. Of course, the child's age can and should be a factor when making the final decision.

"You plan accordingly," said Senning. "If you're going to have a party where 4-year-olds are exchanging gifts, you know, you may not invite 15 people to it. That may just be too much. That might be overwhelming." He went on to add that location of the event may impact how you proceed as well: "The heart of a lot of good etiquette is practicality, and if the venue or the nature of the event doesn't allow for it or doesn't make it something that's going to be likely to go well, you can bypass it."

Personally, I don't ever remember the gift-opening process at birthday parties ever being the center of any drama when I was young. (Not that it's been a long time since then or anything… moving on!) But at the end of the day, it all boils down to what you think is best: for you, for your child, and for the party as a whole.

No one knows your kiddos like you do, which makes you the best judge to understand what they can or can't handle. It won't stop children's birthday parties from being utterly exhausting. Still, hopefully, now you can at least feel more prepared about how to navigate this particular element of the birthday terrain.