Stop party-present mayhem

Parenting is full of unexpected phenomena.

One of the craziest, if you ask me, is insanity that ensues when a young child opens his or her birthday presents at a big, public party.

It started for our family during the preschool years when we began having bouncy-house birthday parties for our son.

After jumping around like crazy animals for an hour, all the kids pour into the party room for pizza, juice, milk, cake and then, at the end of it all, presents.

It’s an obvious recipe for mayhem: Place your sugar-jacked, food-dye-infused 4-year-old in a giant inflatable chair with 20 presents to open. And then add in the 20 kids who brought the presents, which they, naturally, either desperately want to see or simply possess themselves. Ask those kids to sit calmly on the cold, vinyl floor.

Why a giant inflatable chair? Well naturally your child should feel like a king for his big day and he deserves a throne. But it’s also to create a safety buffer between his friends, who are hungry for presents like zombies are hungry for brains.

Grabbing hands come from all directions, scratching and tearing at the wrapping paper as you frantically attempt to see what the present is and whom it’s from as the formal birthday card is nearly thrown on the floor.

No one follows instructions to sit criss-cross apple sauce. Like a mob, the half-squatting children surge and retreat, surge and retreat, basking in the materialistic orgy, sticky hands at the ready.

What a way to celebrate!

Over the years, we’ve watched our son act the same way at other kids’ parties: “Sam, sit down! Sam, let him open his own presents! Saaaaaam!”

Then, this year, something interesting happened.

Sam, for his 6th birthday, had his party in one of the education rooms at the Science Museum of Minnesota. During the party — exceptionally well-executed by a teacher named Diane — I discovered what I think might be a better way to manage gift rioting: Instead of using a throne or a singular birthday-boy chair, you use two equally sized chairs — one for the birthday boy, and one for the giver to sit in when it’s his or her turn.


There’s still a mad rush to be near the presents to see and feel and even grab, but I thought the technique made it very fair for all the kids.

And it showed whom each present was from in a very easy, visual way — an ideal setup for writing the thank you note list  — or in my case dictating it into my phone, which I highly recommend. It also let our son really settle down and see who brought what. And, best of all, it gave him an easy-to-locate landing area for his obligatory verbal, “Thank you.”

I loved it!

Maybe it’s just that he’s older and more mature this year, but he seems to have remembered more so than any other year who gave him what.

How do you handle gifts at parties? Write me at

Sarah Dorison is the Editor of Minnesota Parent and Minnesota Good Age magazines. She lives in Golden Valley with her husband and their 6-year-old son. Follow her parenting adventures and photography at