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Just wanted to find out what the proper etiquette is when hosting a child's birthday party. Should the gifts be opened during the party?

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In my experience (in the US), it is appropriate to at least open the gifts given by the attending guests, whether the guests are friends or family. This behavior is also reinforced in media portrayals of birthday parties. (Toy Story, for example, had all the gifts being opened at the party.)

Indeed, one of the most exciting things at birthday parties is the chance to see what all the person received, and to see their reaction when they received it. I would hazard to say that it's also expected by many people.

The potential downside is your child receiving a gift they aren't enthused about, or already one they already own. While most adults can be understanding of this, the giving child may be disappointed if they notice the birthday child wasn't very thrilled. This can be mitigated by the birthday child thanking everyone after they receive each gift, and by the fact that guests will often clamor to have their gift opened next (which will shift everyone’s focus). Opening the gift(s) from the parents is not always done at the party. It can be done during a private, family celebration of the birthday. Reasons I would do this are:

  1. The gift is one of a more personal/sentimental nature, and thus not appropriate or exciting for guests.

  2. The gift is of much higher value than those expected to be received by the guests. However, some high value gifts (such as a new video game console) would be appropriate to give at the party if you coordinated with the guests and knew they were getting the child something to go with that gift (such as games or accessories for the console).

  3. The gift is something that may put off other parents because they don't want to have to explain to their child why they can't have one (such as a first cellphone).

Update:
Multiple other answers have given many reasons for not opening presents at a birthday party. The reasons are valid, as cultures do vary. To account for the varied expectations of your attendees, you can make plans regarding your specific decision. A few options I would suggest:

  1. Inform the attendees sometime during the party of your decision. This can be easily be done during a general “agenda” announcement. “First, we’re going to do XX, then YY. At Z o’clock we’ll eat, followed by cake and ice cream. Afterwards, we’ll have a gift-opening ceremony.”

  2. Make attending gift-opening optional. “At the end of the celebration, if you would like to stick around, we’ll be opening the gifts.”

  3. Have some gifts to open (such as those from the parents), but don’t open any of the guest gifts. These “prop” gifts could actually be things to be used/consumed at the party, along the lines of party favors, instead of typical gift items.

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    +1 - Also, coaching a child thoroughly on how to graciously accept even disappointing gifts is always desirable. Even with unexciting gifts, someone cared enough to buy (or make) him something. That matters. – anongoodnurse Nov 11 '14 at 3:42
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    Indeed. However, one can still notice that the child was obviously more excited about gift X. Even though they were very gracious about gift Y. I find that even adults (myself included) have a hard time masking that a gift wasn't a good fit. even though I express genuine thanks for all gifts. – user11394 Nov 11 '14 at 3:50
  • Regarding the last point, that problem isn't mitigated by this approach either way, because children still compare themselves to their friends. Whether they see it being given at a birthday party or the first time they come to play over, in the end it's exactly the same thing. – David Mulder Nov 11 '14 at 14:07
  • Yes, but at least it won't come up during the celebration. If people are going to be upset, it'll happen no matter when they find out. You at least have some control over that. I'd just recommend avoiding conflict during the event. – user11394 Nov 11 '14 at 14:29
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I've dealt with this on a personal level with my children. We are a mixed race couple, and on my side of the family (white), family and friends all expected gifts to be opened. On my wife's side of the family (Asian), family and friends did not expect them to be opened. We too fell into agreement with our respective sides.

It seems to be driven largely by culture, so the safest bet would be to make note of the customs observed by your children's friends, and follow along. Assuming you don't have strong opinions yourselves on the matter.

As for us, we've decided to alternate years. Even years we open. Odd years we don't.


One final note: if you don't open presents in the presence of the gift giver, be absolutely, 100% sure to send thank you cards. Not that you should avoid it if they are there, but it's extra critical if they aren't.

  • You make an excellent point about the thank you cards. Do you have the children do them? Or do you do them on their behalf? I've seen them where the child signs it (as best they can lol) – VictorySaber Nov 11 '14 at 9:01
  • That's a nice idea about the child signing it. My kids only have a total of two birthdays between them so far, so I can't yet answer that from experience. :) – mhlester Nov 11 '14 at 9:37
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We switched to opening them after the party and sending thank-you notes after our first attended a party around second grade where the host family did it that way. We were especially appreciative, as we were definitely the least wealthy people at the party, and likely had brought the least expensive, least ostentatious gift by an order of magnitude.

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At birthday parties here for children from about 4 to about 14 presents are not opened. The are received with thanks as guests arrive, sometimes with cards being opened, but then the kids want to play, run around, face paint, whatever.

Benefits of this include:

  • being able to properly record who gave what - making organising thank you letters much simpler
  • less mess to tidy
  • no presents getting lost/taken/broken
  • no bored children waiting around while presents are being opened
  • "being able to properly record who gave what" - that hinges on the gifts somehow indicating who is their originator. If they do not, opening them makes it much easier to remember who gave what than ending up with a set of nondescript wrapped boxes. – O. R. Mapper Aug 12 at 0:16
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I think it depends upon the age of the children.

If the birthday child is mature and restrained enough to make appropriate comments when opening gifts that he or she is not enthused with OR when opening duplicate gifts, then it is nice for the kids to participate and feel involved in the gift opening. Additionally, if the children are old enough to have been involved in the selection of the gift, then they have a more vested interested in seeing it opened.

Alternatively, the most important message in gift giving is the thought that the gift giver put in to the gift and gratitude from the recipient. This is sometimes best achieved in a private gift opening post party where a parent can articulate the good intentions of all gift givers and heartfelt thank you notes can be written.

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I think it is up to the parents or the child. We've been to two parties, and neither opened presents there; some of that may have been the ages (3). Some also was the venue - limited time means removing boring parts.

Ultimately there is no obligation to open presents there; it can be fun but it can also be boring and stressful. Choose what you are comfortable with and then send out thank you cards.

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Note that the pressure to open gifts, as evidenced by the other comments, may be outside the realm of the gift givers or receivers. (That is, it's up to the parents. The kids will go along with whatever.)

If the gifts might be used as part of the social gathering, -- Hey, let's play with the new toys! -- then it might be okay to open at the party, especially if it's a multi-player game. Whatever happens, don't forget to send thank-you cards.

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