Valentine’s Day Heartbreak

Preventing Pain on February 14

Although she’s a grown woman now with two children of her own, Jennifer Woods still remembers the heartbreak of Valentine’s Day as a young student.

“I remember in second grade I got only 10 valentines,” Woods says. “There were more than 25 kids in class. It was embarrassing not to get one from everyone. It was like being picked last in phys ed.”

Even children who did give a valentine to everyone in the class chose the types of valentines they sent according to whether the recipient was a best friend, just an acquaintance or someone they didn’t like. And everyone knew it.

“Kids would give heart candy or chocolates to the ones they really liked,” recalls Woods. “They would keep the candy if they didn’t like the person.”

Even worse, some of her teachers would play favorites by giving valentines only to a select few students. At the end of the day, it was painfully obvious who were the winners and losers in what amounted to an annual popularity contest.

School Policies

Exchanging small tokens of affection on Feb. 14 each year may seem charming or even trivial, but as Woods found, the pain of being publicly rejected on Valentine’s Day can linger for years. As Woods’ children approached school age, she began to wish that schools celebrating Valentine’s Day would mandate that children who participate give cards to everyone in class.

Fortunately for Woods’ children, today such policies are the norm. An informal survey of members of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) found that most elementary schools today have fairness policies in place.

l>“Valentine’s Day is a great time to talk about respect, caring and fairness,” says Nancy Moga, an elementary school principal and member of NAESP. Teachers in her school who wish to celebrate with their classes send home a list of the names of everyone in class so no one will be forgotten. And teachers are also aware of the danger of some families being left behind for financial reasons.

l>“Some parents look out for the less fortunate and buy two sets of valentines and send one to school for the teacher to give to a needy child,” says Moga.

l>Potential for Heartbreak

l>Ideally, school Valentine’s Day celebrations make all feel welcome, accepted and appreciated. But sometimes it doesn’t turn out that way, according to critics of the tradition.

l>“It’s one thing to live your social life in a way that includes some and excludes some. That’s totally normal,” says Kenneth Rubin, Ph.D., director of the Center for Children, Relationships and Culture at the University of Maryland. “But here’s a case where you’re asking kids to distinguish among their peer groups through valentines.”

l>No one expects kids not to have special friends – as well as peers they’re not crazy about – but it can be very damaging to have those preferences spelled out clearly for all to see, according to Rubin, who is the author of The Friendship Factor: Helping Our Children Navigate their Social World.

l>Some believe the practice of exchanging valentines should be eliminated altogether.

l>“If I were a school principal, I would not allow it,” says Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence. “On the face of it, it’s a really nice gesture, but the problem is it often isn’t used that way. Often it’s a competition to see who gets the best ones and who has the most friends. It’s used to make kids feel bad,” she says.

Wiseman believes schools should remove the burden of complaining about the tradition from parents by abolishing the exchange of valentines.

Making Valentine’s Day Fun

Despite the potential pitfalls, many feel Valentine’s Day is worth celebrating because it can bring a sense of warmth and community.

“Schools need to be fun,” says Truett McCurry, an elementary school principal and member of NAESP. “I love seeing children being children. Holidays are wonderful times in their lives.”

Moga agrees. “Children are usually very excited about the valentines. Most teachers have the students make a personal box or bag at home or at school to use for their cards,” she says.

One teacher recycles cereal boxes for this purpose, which is also a way of reducing the commercialism that can characterize the occasion. Some teachers encourage children to deliver the cards to each other, a way for younger students to practice reading and other skills.

What You Can Do

If the annual Valentine’s Day exchange is going forward at your child’s school and you have concerns, talk to the teacher.

Ask about policies. Will those who participate be giving a valentine to everyone in class? Are children able to opt out of the celebration altogether if there are religious or other objections? Is there a plan in place to address equity? (This could include help for families for whom buying valentines is a financial burden, or it could mean that everyone must make the valentines – one for each child – in class.)

Ask about curriculum. What are the children taught about this day? Is the emphasis on expressing respect and appreciation for everyone? Do teachers use the day as a launching point for discussion about friendship and fairness?

Suggest new Valentine’s Day traditions. See “Alternative Valentine’s Day Celebrations” for ideas.

Pain at Any Age

If the worst happens and your child doesn’t get many or any valentines, discuss the situation without minimizing your child’s pain. Resist the temptation – whatever your child’s age – to call another parent and make an issue of it. Valentines are highly significant to some children. You can’t take away the hurt but you can offer sympathy and understanding.

Should Schools Celebrate Valentine’s Day?
Read guidelines from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

It doesn't have to be this way...
Consider some alternative Valentine's Day celebrations.

Lauren Paul is a freelance writer and mother of two.