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Helping Younger Children Celebrate Valentine's Day

Affairs of the Heart
Valentine's Day is a wonderful opportunity to show appreciation for people we love. But many of us also approach this holiday as though we are facing the fate of St. Valentine, the Christian martyr who was beheaded on February 14, giving the holiday its name.

We probably all have painful memories of at least one Valentine's Day that left us full of heartache rather than joy. And these days, when we are bombarded for weeks with commercial messages insisting that love is a heart-shaped box of candy, it's a tough holiday to escape. As parents, we can do a lot to help our children put Valentine's Day in perspective.

School celebrations
For many children, Valentine's Day first becomes important in kindergarten. Some teachers encourage kids to make and decorate individual boxes to hold anticipated valentines. Others have a single box in which children can deposit valentines for other people. Sometimes, the holiday is used as a way of teaching children about sending and receiving mail. Time is also spent making valentines for family members. Frequently, there is a class party and great excitement as valentines are distributed.

It's an event fraught with possibilities for hurt feelings because it becomes a competitive measure of popularity. What if one child gets more valentines than anyone else? What about the kids who get only a few? What if a child doesn't get any? In the younger grades, many teachers cope with this dilemma by insisting that kids who give valentines must give them to everyone in the class.

The spirit of equal-opportunity valentines is the best solution for a classroom, but giving valentines to people for whom you don't have special feelings -- or whom you may not even like -- does send a confusing message to children about meaningful gift-giving. You can use this broad gift-giving as a way to help teach children tolerance and an appreciation of differences among their classmates.

Making the most of the holiday
You can also use Valentine's Day to examine your own attitudes towards the holiday -- the way you celebrate it in your family and the effect it has on your children.

  • First, be clear about your own feelings about Valentine's Day. Is it a holiday that's important to you? Do you expects gifts or cards from family members? Do you give them? How do you feel about the increasingly commercial aspect of the holiday?
  • Talk with your children's teachers about their Valentine's Day policies. If your child is expected to give valentines to every child in his class, then make sure he does so. If he doesn't want to do that, talk with him about the reasons for the rule -- that lots of adults remember having their feelings hurt on Valentine's Day and they don't want their children or students to have the same bad experience. You can also suggest that the spirit of the holiday should be one of expressing affection toward the people in our lives.
  • Share your own experiences of Valentine's Day -- both the good and the bad. Do you remember counting the valentines you received? Do you remember noticing which children got more than you and which kids got less?
  • If your child balks at giving a valentine to a classmate that she doesn't like, listen to her feelings. It's unreasonable to expect your child to like everyone in her class, but if the classroom rules for Valentine's Day necessitate that she gives a valentine to everyone or to no one, it's important for her to comply.
  • If your child decides not to give valentines at all, don't make her do it. However, it's important to find out why and to help her think through how she may feel if everyone else in the class gives valentines and she doesn't.
  • If you are concerned, as many of us are, about rampant commercialism, encourage your child to make his valentines. Buying gifts for classmates should be discouraged. Stock up on art supplies -- crayons, markers, construction paper, paste, glitter, and doilies. Make sure that your child starts early -- the night of February 13 can be pretty stressful if a child is trying to make 20-plus valentines in one sitting!
  • If your child wants to do something special for a best friend that extends beyond a valentine in class, make a special time for them to get together outside of school.
  • Children and parents often exchange cards to emphasize their strong bonds of love. You may want to initiate this to help your child understand family love as part of the holiday.
  • Remember that as parents, we transmit values to our children through our behavior. If we celebrate Valentine's Day by exchanging expensive gifts, it is likely that our children will want to do the same.
  • Finally, it's never too early to help children express love and friendship in ways that transcend materialism. Because young children are concrete thinkers, it's hard for them to understand a concept that can't be represented by objects. But by watching you give gifts of kindness, time, compassion, respect, and thoughtfulness to the people you love --- not just on holidays but throughout the year -- they will learn that "I love you" means so much more than three words inscribed on a candy heart.

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