Miss Conduct

Good advice on gifting

Dictating a birthday-present policy. Plus, must you open packages at the baby shower?

How should I word the invitation for my son’s sixth birthday? We usually ask guests to do a book exchange in lieu of a gift. I always have gift-wrapped extra books on hand. Where does this fall on the rudeness scale? Between two kids we end up spending hundreds on gifts, mostly for kids we hardly even know.

T.P. / Boston

We are hosting a coed baby shower for friends who have asked us to allow them to forgo opening gifts at the shower. We’re inclined to agree — unless you strongly disapprove. We find the gift-opening ritual grueling, we don’t want the givers of modest gifts to feel uncomfortable, and some gifts will have already been sent directly. Would this be a serious breach of etiquette?

T.G. / Wellesley

Your letters arrived within days of each other, and I’ve never been more tempted to set a couple of letter writers up with each other like an old-country yenta. Of course you’re both already married, but you’d still probably have better chemistry than some of those Dinner With Cupid couples. Perhaps you could start a much-needed support group for gift givers and receivers. The topic causes endless angst.


The angst, in part, is because 21st-century Americans are in an odd historical moment in which everyone has too much stuff and not enough money. This makes gift giving extraordinarily tricky — if it weren’t such a fundamentally human activity, we’d probably give up on it entirely. You’re not the only ones trying to balance logic and generosity.

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And because that is very much what you both seem to be doing, I hereby give you leave to follow your instincts. (Be honored. Miss Conduct does not grant such blanket leave to everyone.) Some tips to keep in mind:

T.P., requests for no gifts or alternate gifts should, first and foremost, be clear. “Instead of a present, bring a book to swap!” is clear. “Please, no gifts unless you feel moved to make a donation to the Worthy Child Charity” is passive-aggressive and leaves everyone feeling confused. Keeping extra books on hand for those who forget or don’t like what’s on offer is a sweet idea, but why gift-wrap books that are meant to be swapped? Now that the kids are old enough to read, they might like to see the titles.

Also, while I don’t have children myself, I strongly suspect that you can cut back on the amount that you spend on presents for O.P.K. (Other People’s Kids) without suffering social sanction. I will have an open thread on my blog today at for parents who want to share economical gift ideas — see what other readers suggest for you!

T.G., if you forgo performative gift opening at your guests’ request, come up with a substitute activity or game that will get the whole group interacting and sharing for 30 minutes or so. Perhaps you could request that everyone bring a recipe or a picture or some kind of memento that would not be costly and share those instead. There may be a handful of gifts that the “new parents” might want to open at the shower — a large group present, for example, or an heirloom from a family member. You should emcee the event, making sure that the guests know what is going on. Put some labels and tape out on the gift table, so that gift-bringing guests can make sure that their cards are securely attached.


 Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.