We're Ditching The 'Gift Opening' Birthday Party Tradition

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Granger Wootz/Getty

My almost nine-year-old daughter and I sat down last week for a birthday party planning session. She knew what she wanted. And what she definitely didn’t want.

We selected Minecraft plates and napkins, decided on chocolate donuts with green frosting, and chose our local gymnastics center for the location. After making a guest list and crafting an invite on my laptop, she made a request. There was one thing she wanted to be sure did not happen at her celebration.

“I don’t want to open my presents at the party,” she told me. I wasn’t entirely shocked, given her introverted personality. But I prodded her a bit. “Why not?” I asked. And continued, “I think your friends would like to watch you open the gifts they chose for you.” She responded with an adamant no.

Many parents and kids dread the gift opening session at children’s birthday parties—and for good reasons. So why don’t we just ditch the birthday tradition?

The more I think about her request, the more I get it. Because many parents and kids dread the gift opening session at children’s birthday parties—and for good reasons. So why don’t we just ditch the birthday tradition?

Not everyone brings a gift.

Not every child who attends the party is going to bring the birthday kid a gift. Let’s be real. Throwing a birthday party can be expensive, but so can attending a party. Showing up with a gift is expected—but realistically, many families cannot afford to honor every birthday child with a present.

I’m a big fan of the fiver birthday gift trend. I think it’s realistic and practical. However, I’m also mindful that even $5 is too much to ask of some families. I don’t want any child to skip my child’s party because they don’t have it in their budget to show up with a wrapped package. This isn’t a tit-for-tat where kids bring a gift and get to celebrate my child.

Gift opening sessions are annoying.

We all know how it goes. We have the birthday child sit at a chair with their back to a table of gifts. Then the other children are instructed to sit crisscross on the floor and patiently watched the birthday kiddo unwrap each gift while the parents snap pictures. Sounds serene, right?

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The reality is, this never, ever works out. Children inch closer and closer to the birthday child–eventually practically ending up sitting on the child’s feet. Some snatch gifts out of the child’s hand and rip open the packaging. Others decide it’s a good time to stand up or begin chanting, squealing, or crying. Parents then ask kids, one by one, to stop doing whatever rude or obnoxious thing they’re doing, eventually giving up since none of the kids are listening. The volume reaches an ear-shattering level, the birthday kid appears overwhelmed, and no one is having a good time.

The birthday child might not be good at gift opening.

I mean this kindly. Some kids don’t have the filters—either due to special needs, age, or simply because kids are who they are—to remember to throw out sincere thanks to their party guests. They also don’t hide their disappointment well.

Your kid might already have the gift they opened. Or they might open gifts painstakingly slowly. Perhaps your child opens gifts like a tornado—ripping through them in five hot seconds. The worst is when the child clearly doesn’t like the gift and all—and lets everyone in the room know it. Gift opening takes a very specific skill set that’s just too much to put on some children. I’m not advocating for raising manner-less children. But let’s be real–there are times that gift-opening expectations are too high.

We’re wasting time and money on gift opening.

Renting a party space for a child’s birthday celebration is expensive. For my daughter’s party, we have exactly one hour and 45 minutes. We get 60 minutes in the gymnastics center, and the remainder of the time is spent in the party room. Tick tock, people.

If we spend a good chunk of time opening gifts, we’re basically flushing money and time down the toilet. Instead, we want to use that time to play Minecraft BINGO and consume an obnoxious amount of sugary snacks. Then, after a too-long session of sensory overload, I want to send the little angels home with their parents, pack up the leftovers, and go home for a movie and a glass of wine. Because hosting a party is freaking exhausting.

Some children may not enjoy gift opening.

I’ve thought a lot about my daughter’s request to not open gifts at her party—and I get it. She’s never going to want to be the center of attention. Being among a group of friends in the gymnastics center is her idea of fun. For her, there’s safety in numbers. Opening gifts in front of a room of kids and their parents is anxiety-inducing. And that is no way to spend your birthday.

Parents can give their kids permission to be themselves—especially on their birthdays. It’s OK not to love being showered with attention, having all eyes on the birthday child while adults snap photos and kids act like they have no home training. My kid doesn’t want to be forced to perform at her party, unveiling each gift to the masses—and to me, that’s just fine.

The birthday party should be all about the kid and the fun they will have with those they choose to invite. The party shouldn’t center on gifts—whether it’s giving or opening.

Kids forget to say thanks.

Parties are chaotic—period. The time tends to fly by. Therefore, in the midst of the party fun, your child may not remember to do the most basic thing—say thank you for each and every gift to the correct party guest. It doesn’t meant they aren’t grateful or respectful. But parents are dramatic about it, aren’t we? We seethe a reminder at our birthday child, who then utters an embarrassed “thank you” in the general direction of their friend.

There’s a fabulous alternative that my friend recently did for her child’s party. They rented an indoor play place where the kids ran around for over two hours. Then they took a 15 minute break for pizza and cake. Her son opened his gifts at home, and his mom took a picture of him with each gift, sending the parent a thank-you text that included the picture. Voila. Easy and chill.

The birthday party should be all about the kid and the fun they will have with those they choose to invite. The party shouldn’t center on gifts—whether it’s giving or opening. Yes, presents are a fabulously enjoyable perk of turning another year older. But the party is more fun for all when we focus on the experience rather than the stuff.

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