How to open gifts at a birthday party without making guests feel awkward

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Kids' birthday parties present all sorts of opportunities for social awkwardness. For example: opening birthday presents. It's a big moment for the birthday kid and the party guests, but it can also lead to squirmy feelings.

Ellen's simple, thoughtful solution for opening birthday gifts at a party is mindful of everyone involved: the honoree, the guests, and their parents.

At my daughter's third birthday party, we quietly tucked presents into a side room off our entry hall when guests arrived so as not to embarrass anyone who didn't bring a present.

Whenever a family indicated they were about to leave, we took them and our daughter into the room and had her open the present.  This allowed the gift-givers to experience the fun of seeing her pleasure and it let our daughter enjoy each present individually.

Unlike a communal present opening, this prevented the other children from being bored or envious and it spared parents the worry that they spent too little. (Our daughter was just as happy with dime store bubbles as name brand toys.)

I am in love with this hack! Thank you, Ellen.

We've been talking about birthday parties here at Parent Hacks for years. Some good links for you:

Christine also recently posted a fantastic series about simple birthday parties over at Boston Mamas:

What are your thoughts about opening presents at birthday parties? What works for your family?


  1. says

    I love this idea. I’ve been wondering how I’m going to deal with gifts at future birthday parties. At all the one-year-old parties I’ve been too recently (including my daughters), gifts weren’t opened in public, but then people don’t get the joy of seeing the gift they brought opened. And on the simple party ideas, here are some more ideas for frugal birthday party activities

  2. Heather says

    It’s a great idea, but I’m wondering how you keep track of whether or not people brought a gift in the first place. It’d be really awful to ask if they brought one, and trying to remember it all during the chaos of a birthday party sounds difficult.

  3. Asha Dornfest (Parent Hacks) says

    @Heather: you could just ask as they come in. If they drop off a gift, ask “were you hoping to be with X when she opens it? If so, let us know before you go and we’ll open it together.” Build in a little reminder!

  4. Theresa says

    I like this idea, but I would still prefer to open presents after the party.

    Local party “culture” varies — I’ve been to many birthday parties with my kids in the last 6 years and *nobody* has opened presents at the party.

    Besides avoiding embarrassment, competitiveness and envy, it reduces the chance of losing or breaking the presents amid the party chaos.

  5. says

    We just open the gift as the guest arrives with it, say thank you I love it or whatever, put it in a safe place, and leave it at that. The guest knows the child got the gift and gets some feedback. I hate it when my child comes home from a party and I say “Did your friend like their present?” and my child says “I don’t know. They never opened it.”

  6. Ellen Spertus says

    In the case of my daughter’s party, every family brought a gift, so it was no problem remembering who to catch on the way out.

    I like Asha’s suggestion. I realize that a problem with my original idea was that a family might really have to leave right away when they say goodbye.

  7. John j says

    Who would be rude enough to send their kid to a birthday party without a present? What, are you just there for the free cake and the swag bag? WTH?!

  8. Heather says

    @Asha Brilliant idea. Helps to take some of the responsibility off my shoulders while also giving everyone a heads up to how things will go. And non-gift-givers (and I encourage those!) won’t feel singled out in any way.


  9. Holly says

    When I started having bday parties for my daughter, my mom pointed out that opening gifts in front of the guest who brought it is important so that the birthday child can LEARN TO SAY THANK YOU. That really struck a chord with me… If they don’t open gifts in front of the giver, not only is the giver disappointed about not getting to share in the excitement (or tell the receiver about why the giver chose that gift!), but the birthday child loses a valuable opportunity to practice looking at the giver in the face with eye contact and expressing gratitude! This is a small character quality that is important to cultivate in our future generations. I have also been to parties where the parents don’t manage the gift-opening time very well and the birthday child just tears through gifts at a rapid pace and throws them aside to reach for the next one without even acknowledging the giver. I think it’s a parent’s responsibility to train their child in expressing gracious gratitude! :-)

  10. says

    I actually love the idea of waiting until the party is over to open the gifts. At the last birthday party I brought my daughter to, there was a noticeable discrepancy in the costs of gifts. I could almost feel the awkward in the air. Luckily, kids can’t tell the difference. I think I’ll be avoiding the big present opening show at the next party I host.

  11. says

    Kiddie parties will always be an occasion to enjoy fun, food, sweets and games. However, it can be a bit tricky, especially if your kids have different preferences. My youngest loves wholesale balloons, while my oldest wants magic tricks and cool games. I will always have to find different resources for their wants and needs.

  12. Amanda says

    I absolutely love this idea, but wish I had seen it a month earlier. My family’s birthdays are really close. Especially my daughter’s and two nephews’. There were two big problems with opening the presents in front of everyone. The first problem, was that the children are not at the age, that they really get the concept of it’s not their presents. They all got jealous, when the others were opening their presents. Also the other children wanted to play with the presents, and one actually got wrecked within 5 minutes of it being opened, by another child. I think I will incorporate this idea next year!

  13. says

    We’ve always been advocates of the “no presents” kid party because of all the present-related strife. Inevitably, some kind souls still bring presents and we handle them just this way. It’s discreet, and it works well.

    After years of doing this, I’m beginning to realize that for some people it’s incredibly awkward not to bring something, so next birthday, I’m going to let the birthday kid choose something that matters to them (one of my kids is really excited about Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals’ gaming marathon, another is really proud of her preschool’s partnership with a food pantry program), so I will offer guests the option of bringing a small donation.

    My kids love presents, and they always get more than enough from family and close friends.

    Here’s our rationale for no present parties:

  14. Coral says

    I grew up in south america and presents were always given and opened with the giver when they arrived. I always feel awkward sitting around watching presents being opened, especially when kids get a lot of presents and year into one after another without much thought. I often feel like they are just looking for the one thing they really wanted and the parents make them thank you (which is good) but the gift is forgotten when they rip in to the next one. Oh well, local customs vary!

  15. Tony Todd says

    I find it odd someone would go to the trouble of having people not be embarassed for not bringing a gift. Why would you show up to a birthday party without a present? That’s rude. I wouldn’t want to draw attention to a guest’s rudeness but I wouldn’t go out of my way to help them “avoid embarassment” and I certainly wouldn’t invite them to anything in the future. As for the one-on-one gift exchange, logistically it seems like a nightmare. Everytime somebody leaves the birthday guest of honor has to saunter off to open a guest so the gift givers can personally experience his/her pleasure at opening the gift. A) that’s a lot of interruptions and back-and-forth for a child, B) it seems that sort of intimate arrangement would make it even more awkward when the child opens a gift they don’t like. The easiest and most sensible thing to do is open presents after everyone has gone. No awkwardness, no hurt feelings, no interruptions of the festivities.