I didn’t expect much of a reaction to my ban on Valentine’s Day. I direct a Jewish preschool, and recently I sent out an e-mail that said the following:
St. Valentine’s Day is next week and we hope your family celebrates it or not as your custom. However, at school we ignore it as we do not tell children they must love everyone. You need to respect people and treat them kindly, but love is not something we feel indiscriminately. So, please no valentines for the class.
I assumed that there would be a collective sigh of relief. Parents would be spared from having to spend the weekend cutting out Valentine’s Day cards and trying to remember the names of everyone in their child’s class. But not everyone was pleased. One of my parents even shared my e-mail with his workmates and found that it sparked a lively debate of the pros and cons of the ban. Some people were appalled by my message, arguing that to have one day a year when we love everyone is a great thing. Why the bah-humbug position? Here’s my longer answer.
Let me first state that I have no religious objections to the holiday. Yes, I know about the Valentine’s Day Massacre against the Jews in 1349, but that’s only thanks to Google. I don’t think people passing out candy hearts or going out to dinner have massacres on their mind. My immediate family happily exchanges valentines, and we firmly believe that candy offered as an expression of love is calorie-free.
But preschool is a different story. The children at our school range in age from 2 to 5. Two-year-olds are just beginning to understand that other people have feelings. It is not obvious to a young child that just because it hurts when someone hits you, the inverse also holds true. We spend a great deal of time teaching our children that other people have feelings and that everyone at our school has a right to be safe. For our youngest students, this means using words and not hitting or biting. For older students, it means understanding that words can also hurt. You can express anger, but there are appropriate and inappropriate words you can use. Our 4-year-old “superheroes” sometimes have trouble understanding that yelling “I am going to shoot you” or “I am going to kill you” might not be the best way to get a point across. Indeed, they have no real concept of what these words mean.
At the same time, we all know that not everyone you encounter is someone you need to love. Kids know this, in part because they already have some classmates they don’t love. Maybe a classmate is interested in different things, or plays too rough, or says things that hurt your feelings, or just doesn’t behave like someone with whom you’d choose to spend time. We have the same feelings about fellow adults, so why should we impose different standards on our children? Sure, we want our children to give everyone a chance and to treat everyone with respect. But we also want them to be careful about whom they love and to understand that making a commitment of love is a very serious thing. Encouraging children to say “I love you” to everyone does not lay the groundwork for critical thinking about future relationships.
So what is appropriate for a preschool child? In my view, Valentine’s Day is a wonderful time to enter into a family discussion about what makes each member of the family special and what you admire about each other. It’s a time to think about appropriate tokens of love—a special dish that someone loves to eat, a picture you create, a family outing. It’s a time to figure out what makes each family member feel appreciated. It’s a time to ask your children whom they like to play with and help them figure out what it is that they like about those people and why they are drawn to them. Not only does this help your child begin to think about what others add to their lives; it also helps you begin to understand if your child likes really outgoing people or prefers those who are a bit quieter. Don’t forget to share your own feelings: This is a discussion and not a grilling.
So, go buy those cards, flowers, and candy for your loved ones, or decide to ignore the day as a made-up imposition of feelings. And, if you attend the school I direct, leave the heart-shaped cookies and valentines at home.