When my kids were in elementary school, they enjoyed celebrating Valentine's Day — or, let's be real, any holiday — with their class. They decorated mailboxes and wrote out cards to give to each of their classmates. And on Valentine’s Day, there would be a party at school so they could distribute their cards, play games and eat treats. All three of my kids looked forward to these days.
But now, more and more schools are choosing to eliminate Valentine’s Day celebrations. The reasons vary, but many schools cite the need to remove religious holiday celebrations from school, the limited class time available for parties due to increased curriculum demands and also the ever-growing list of allergies/dietary issues that make it seemingly impossible to safely and fairly serve treats to everyone in class.
Is there a place for Valentine’s Day in today’s classrooms? Professional opinions are mixed. Dr. Maurice Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University, says, “Valentine's Day is linked with romantic love — this just does not have a place in the school, nor should it be ‘mandated’ in any way.”
But Dr. Michele Borba, author of the book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, disagrees and says, “Valentine’s Day is a cherished childhood tradition and should be celebrated in elementary schools.”
Redefining Valentine’s Day
Premade Valentine’s Day cards that have sayings such as, “Be mine” or “I Love You” do seem disingenuous and inappropriate for young children to give to their classmates. Says Borba, “A valentine that says ‘love’ is not appropriate in elementary school, but one that says ‘like’ is.” It may be better to have children design their own cards with more friend-centric messages. Borba says, “Making cards at home provides a great opportunity for an adult to briefly describe the difference between 'love' and 'like.' Parents also need to take time discuss the types of comments children can write in their cards to each other — and never assume they have that knowledge.”
Perhaps what schools should do is redefine Valentine’s Day to make it more appropriate for school-age children. Elias suggests, “Educators could use Valentine’s Day to create a day of appreciation. The focus for the school day would be showing gratitude and appreciation rather than the love/favorite implication of Valentine's Day.” With that simple readjusting of the day's mission, teachers could encourage kids to use Valentine’s Day to communicate what they really appreciate about each of their classmates.
For example, when my children were young, one of the school traditions they really enjoyed was being “star student” of the week. This included a ritual in which all the kids gave compliments to the honoree; the teacher would write those affirmations on a piece of paper for the child to keep. These genuine expressions of kindness from peers really made each of my children feel special and valued.
Participation optional, inclusion mandatory
First, if Valentine’s Day is celebrated in class, it’s important that participation be optional. No child should be forced to give or receive cards if it makes them feel uncomfortable. But if a child does decide to distribute cards, they need to be prepared to give one to every classmate who is comfortable receiving one.
“The foundation of a caring learning climate is an inclusive environment where every child feels welcomed," Borba explains. "Not receiving a valentine — if everyone else receives one — can be upsetting and humiliating to a child left out.” If a kid feels awkward about making valentines for everyone in class, they should be able to opt out of the activity entirely. Or, Borba suggests, they could be allowed the option of delivering their notes anonymously. Of course, if a child doesn't want to give a valentine to another child for a serious reason — that child has bullied them, for example — it's an issue that needs to be dealt with using the parents' and teacher's best judgment (and, again, an issue that would be avoided were schools to cease celebrating Valentine's Day altogether).
Elias believes that an inclusion-first Valentine's Day might also help kids extend that attitude beyond the classroom. “If Valentine’s Day is used as day of appreciation," he explains, "it can be an opportunity for students to show appreciation to support staff — secretarial, janitorial, security, kitchen, grounds crew, transportation. It would also highlight for the students just how many people it takes for the school to run well.”
Using Valentine’s Day to promote change
Whether or not schools choose to celebrate Valentine’s Day, teachers and school officials need to provide continuous interpersonal instruction throughout the year. “It is important that schools have sound social-emotional and character-development curricula," Elias says, "including proper and respectful ways to speak to and treat one another, regardless of gender or other characteristics.”
A July 2017 post by Susan Swearer on StopBullying.gov highlights the impact acts of kindness can have on the prevention of bullying in schools. Swearer writes, “Is it possible to create homes, schools, and communities where kindness is the norm? The answer is yes — but to make this imagined world a reality, we need to teach, model, and reward kindness.”
Borba agrees with this observation and says, “Children don’t learn how to be kind from reading about it in a textbook, but from doing kind deeds. It’s why we should encourage children to extend greetings, write thank-you notes or send a valentine — not as a love message, but as a gesture to let the recipient know they care.”
While schools should be promoting kindness all year long, Elias says that for young kid, "having a designated special day brings greater attention to this essential aspect of interpersonal relationships.” Valentine’s Day is a perfect opportunity to teach kindness, pure and simple.
So forget the love notes and sugary treats and instead share sweet sentiments. Because as Borba notes, "simple, reciprocal gestures also help kids learn one of life’s greatest lessons: that genuine kindness can make a difference in the world.”