My daughter, Hope, recently turned four. Of course, we wanted to celebrate her well, with a duo of Frozen themed parties, one for friends and family, and one for a handful of her school friends.
Having gone to a number of toddler parties in recent years, we’ve seen a growing trend in which people do NOT open their gifts at the party itself. To be honest, this trend bothers me. I mean, on the one hand, I get it. As a parent, you never know how young children will react to gifts. You certainly don’t want to sit in fear that your kid will say something inappropriate in response to a gift that someone has graciously given them. Opening a slew of gifts can also feel embarrassing, especially in suburban contexts where kids already tend to have more than they need.
As I wrestled with these things, however, I realized these fears are really about us - not our kids. They're about worrying that other people will judge our parenting.
After realizing this, my husband and I decided there is a great deal of value in having kids open their birthday gifts publicly, especially since we’ve left parties where Hope has been disappointed because she spent time carefully selecting a present for one of her friends but didn’t actually get to see their reaction to it. So, we went for it. We broke all the rules and had Hope open her presents at her party.
I’m so glad we did.
Here’s what we observed.
1) Publicly opening presents gave Hope’s friends the chance to show their excitement over the gifts they chose for her. Sure, there was some, “My gift is the best!” but for the most part, kids were genuinely excited to give Hope their gifts AND to see how she reacted to them.
2) Opening presents quickly became a communal affair in which Hope’s friends helped open her cards and gifts. This allowed lots of people to be engaged in what was going on while at the same time, giving Hope the opportunity to practice sharing the spotlight (and her new toys). She didn’t always get it right… But more often than not, she did. And even when she didn’t, she learned and grew.
3) Publicly opening presents gives kids the chance to practice gratitude. Before her parties, we spent time talking with Hope about how people had carefully chosen her gifts. We also walked through how to say thank you for those gifts – even if she didn’t particularly like something or if she already had it. Doing so was a very practical way to talk about and teach Hope gratitude… And also give her the chance to thank every person for their gift (something that’s important… especially given how long it takes us to get thank you notes out in our house.)
Present opening was not the central focal point of Hope’s birthday parties… But it was an important part of them. One I’m glad we did publicly – with those who love and care for our daughter.