I always imagined my parents exchanging Valentines all through elementary school: my father eyeing my mom's glossy black hair as he tucked heart-shaped cards into her shoebox; her tiptoeing over to his desk with candy hearts while he was at baseball practice. They met in first grade, went on their first date to the Sadie Hawkins dance in junior high, and married at age twenty.
I was born two years later and grew up longing for more attention from my workaholic father and my mother who was busy attending to my younger sister and our home.
Television shows like Happy Days and The Wonder Years—where swooning characters exchanged Valentine's cards with their “steady” sweethearts—taught me the basics of romance. It became my American dream, a solution to my loneliness.
So, despite my intelligence, drive, and success in school, music, and dance, I looked to romantic love as my final destiny for as long as I can remember.
I didn't need school to reinforce those values. Instead, I needed to learn how to love myself and others through lessons that weren't supported by the practice of Valentine's Day traditions.
And I wasn't alone.
During my school years, I saw multi-faceted downsides to the delivery of shiny, red greetings on February 14th in classrooms.
I watched popular children with sack loads of booty, while outcast kids sat with hollow containers on their desks. Some of the latter group received less-than-kind Valentines, scribbled with anonymous name-calling.
Schools also failed to teach children who didn’t fit the heteronormative, commercial image of Valentine's Day to love themselves despite their differences. At best, these kids fell through the cracks; at worst, they suffered isolation and bullying from the institution itself.
And then I cringed as these same traditions and their side effects carried down through my children’s generation.
When I worked at my daughter's school in a program to combat bullying, Project Cornerstone, we organized an alternate activity near Valentine's Day. Kids filled each others’ sacks with positive affirmations, "warm fuzzies," citing positive attributes about their characters.
Sure, I watched some kids goof around and dash off superficial adjectives like, “nice” on the page. Or they’d call me over and tell me they couldn’t think of anything positive to say about the person. But I also saw plenty of yellow construction paper covered in true compliments like “smart,” “good at sports,” and “a good friend.”
This may seem like a minor victory, but it was no after-school special.
Just days before, a fourth-grade girl from that same class spent Valentine’s Day blushing over a boy who gave her candy with a card, only to drift off later in math class, interlocking their names in hearts with looping, curlicue handwriting.
The Warm Fuzzy activity refocused kids to spend a moment thinking about the qualities they admire in a classmate—and to feel appreciated for what their classmates respect about them.
After spending the first twenty-three years of my life in pursuit of romantic love, my first marriage ended in divorce after less than three. The relationship had plenty of romance, but none of the things it needed to sustain it.
It wasn’t until later that I started learning how to be authentic in love and life.
I discovered the unquantifiable value of building a friendship from which romance can grow.
Common interests really can last a lifetime, while flashy good looks truly do fade with time—and besides, they don’t really help in the middle of a crisis.
Relationships with different kinds of people help you grow into the person you want to be.
I can’t even begin to express my delight when my fifteen year-old daughter said the other day, “The idea that you’d only date one person your entire life? That’s just crazy!”
Most important, I learned that alone is not the worst thing to be.
So, instead of instructing my daughters on what kind of “soulmate” they should be looking for, I try to teach them tools that will be practical at every age and stage of their lives, and whether they are in a romantic relationship or not.
Learn to talk to people; learn to listen; care for each other’s needs; and help pick up the pieces when other people are in need.
Most important, learn to take care of yourself and pick yourself up when you are down. You deserve it, and you won’t be any good to anyone else if you don’t.
My husband, for more than seventeen years now, hates Valentine’s Day. He calls it, “the Hallmark holiday.” Fighting the crowds at restaurants for a prix-fix menu, dressing up with boxes of ribboned candy we know we shouldn’t eat—we just don’t do it. Unless we can find a way to create some honest, neglected date-time together doing something we’d truly enjoy, we just skip the whole thing.
It’s not about fancy cards and candy.
Instead of teaching children to search for their soulmate in elementary school, let's teach them how to be loving—to themselves and each other.
Amy McElroy is the Essays Editor and writes a column, "At the Root of Things," for sweatpantsandcoffee.com. She also blogs about writing craft tips at amyjmcelroy.net. Find her on Twitter @amyjmcelroy.
More from parenting