Tip No. 5: Gift Opening

            You’ve seen it happen — probably more than once.  Someone mentions presents. The birthday child races to pick up the first present and the partygoers stampede like wild buffalo. Children shove presents toward the birthday child, then push, shove and climb on top of each other to get a better look at what just got opened. Some children open presents before the birthday child can get to them; some children begin to play with the opened presents just as if they were their own. Paper flies through the air, ribbons shoot skyward like fireworks and at least one child begins to scream. Who know whether it’s caused by outrage or injury? It’s tough to see exactly what is going on in that frenzied swarm.            

                 Is it any wonder the latest trend is to drop presents from the party schedule?

                 The truth is, it would be a great deal easier on my staff  if we simply shortened the length of our parties and sent unopened presents home with the birthday child.  But I can’t bring myself to do that because it would simply be rude.  Aren’t we a rude enough society?

                  Here is an inescapable fact. If someone has gone through the trouble of spending a little money on your child, or has made something special for your child, your child needs to reciprocate by opening the present and offering thanks.  Guests who show up with presents in tow expect to see them opened.  This is especially true of young children, who may be very excited about the opportunity to present a special doll or pirate ship or pajama set that they selected for the birthday child. 

             Anything else is just bad manners.

              My friend Sarah, who has recently moved to this country from England, tells me that just the opposite is true in that country. She explains that children’s parties there are much like weddings, where gifts are presented in honor of the occasion but never opened in front of guests.   Gifts are acknowledged later, via thank-you cards.

              It certainly seems like an appealing idea, doesn’t it? To simply drop present opening from the party program altogether, and do the opening later, in private. No headaches, no frrenzied scenes, no chaos.

                But it seems to me that  gift opening at a party offers the perfect opportunity for adults to teach young children how to behave. I understand that many parents are reluctant and would prefer to avoid the situation entirely. But how on earth are these children to learn the correct way to behave unless they experience it?

         I remember the first time I attended a birthday party where gifts were not opened. This was many years ago, when my own daughter was still a toddler. She helped me select a gift for the little boy who was having the party. We spent a long time discussing party manners, what would happen at the party and what was expected of her. She understood that she was supposed to give the little boy the present she had picked out. In fact, she tried to give it to him as soon as we saw him at the party! She kept whispering, “Now?” to me throughout the party. As we finished cake and ice cream, I whispered to her that she would soon be able to give the birthday boy his special present. But to my surprise, the father of the birthday boy began to carry presents out to the family car. Nothing was said; no one was thanked for a gift. The presents simply disappeared. How frustrating! This family did make a personal phone call to us later that evening to thank us for the present, and I did appreciate the phone call. But I would have preferred for my daughter to begin to learn party manners by presenting her gift to the birthday child.  

              Having supervised gift opening at hundreds of parties, I can tell you that it most certainly is possible for children to sit quietly and patiently  — and enjoy doing so — while the birthday child opens presents. This behavior rarely occurs on its own, however. We have to encourage it, create the ideal conditions for it, call children to it, and be quick to step in and redirect the situation when it inevitably begins to move away from the desired behavior.     

        If you’re having a party in your home, I encourage you to have the grace and good manners to open gifts that guests are kind enough to bring to your child. Even if it doesn’t go as smoothly as it might with a professional party planner, you will be doing your own small part to set a good example!

         Here are some tips to help you control the chaos:

         1. Set up a gift opening station. Place two chairs side by side, one for the birthday child and one for the child presenting the gift. This works very well, and offers the added advantage of allowing you to make a photo of the two children sitting side by side.  Your station also needs a pencil and pad for recording who presented which gift. a small pair of scissors to snip through stubborn ribbon and a large trash bag to hold wrapping paper; you certainly don’t want to have to go looking for any of these items during this portion of your party or things will get out of control while you are gone! 

          2. Ask someone else to record the gifts for you. This is a great job for a friend who asks how she can help. Your full attention needs to be on supervising the children, keeping them seated and waiting patiently for their turn.

         3. Discuss the procedure in advance with the birthday child.  Have your child help you set up the gift opening station before the party. She will be looking forward to this part of the party, and will probably be eager to help select the perfect spot to hold presents. Take this opportunity to explain to her exactly when the gift opening will occur, and what is expected of her. Be sure to caution her NOT to run to the gifts and begin tearing into them. Make sure she understands that she will need to sit nicely on her chair while each friend has a turn to sit beside her — and wait for that friend to hand her the present he or she brought to the party. 

        This is also the perfect time to remind your child that she needs to say thank you to each guest – even if she does not really like the present! Caution her against saying things like, “I already have one of these!”  Children need to be reminded of these very basic things because they haven’t had much life experience yet and tend to forget basic good manners in the excitement of the party.

         4. Before you allow the present opening to begin, state clearly for the children how it will work. This is probably the single biggest thing you can do to control the chaos. At the parties I stage, I always smile inwardly when I explain to the children exactly what is about to take place, only to turn around and discover an eager little guest already standing beside the birthday child with present in hand, wanting to go first.  I just repeat everything I just said, and gently send that child back to the crowd.

            The moment you say something like “Why don’t we let Cindy open her presents now?” you’ve opened the floodgate. Never announce that it’s time to open presents without leading up to it by telling the children HOW presents will be opened. Establish the rules AS you announce that it’s time to open presents. Here’s an example of how to do this: “Do you see the two chairs together by the fireplace? We’re just about to let Cindy sit there to open her presents, BUT FIRST  I wanted to take just a minute to talk to you about how we’ll need to do this.  Do you see that there are two chairs there? We’ll ask Cindy to sit in one, and the rest of you will each get a turn to sit beside her while she opens your present. Now, if it’s not your turn, please don’t sit in the chair beside Cindy. Wait until it IS your turn to go sit beside Cindy. We’ll tell you when it’s your turn. Please sit over here, in the floor, until we call your name. Why don’t you all move over here right now, and have a seat, so we can see who will get to go first. We’ll only call your name if you’re sitting quietly with the group.” I promise you that this simple direction will get most of the guests where you want them to be. And since children are like sheep, the rest will follow. Gently redirect the one or two children who didn’t listen and still wander over to the birthday child. When they see the other children sitting, they’ll follow suit.

        5. Be quick to correct any deviation from the instructions.  This is no time for timidity.  If a child inches forward to get a better look, two more will follow right behind her. Act quickly, speak firmly and keep a smile on your face as you say, “Mandy, dear, it’s not your turn yet. Could you move back with the other girls so that we can all see what Louise is giving Cindy?”

           6. Don’t allow a brother, sister, cousin or best friend to stand beside the birthday child during gift opening — even to “help.” I know why you want to do this, but resist! Trust me when I tell you that it will just open the door for chaos. If the other children see one child sitting there, they’re not going to understand why they can’t be beside the birthday child, too. Your best and safest policy is to allow only one child at a time to sit beside the birthday child. Children understand rules like this; they seem innately fair.  If you want to give a little brother a “special” job, ask him to take the wrapping paper to the trash bag for you each time. An older sibling might be the one to record gifts. If you’re worried about accuracy, assign Grandma or Aunt Susie to help the sibling record gifts.


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