February 14th is Valentine’s Day, and in many schools, kids hand out cards to their classmates to celebrate. It may seem like harmless fun to some, but mandatory Valentine’s Day homework in her son’s kindergarten class has put parent Cara Paiuk in an awkward position, and in this post, she explains why. Paiuk is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, and other publications. She is also an entrepreneur, photographer, and the mother of “a gaggle of ragamuffin redheads.” You can follow her on Twitter @carapaiuk. This appeared on Kveller, and I am publishing it with Paiuk’s permission.
By Cara Paiuk
I never wanted to be one of those stereotypically hypersensitive parents who takes umbrage at the slightest hint of political incorrectness, demands special treatment, or nitpicks about the curriculum. Yet once again I find myself in the peculiar situation of disliking a school policy: My kindergartner received a mandatory homework assignment from his school for Valentine’s Day.
Do I speak up and cement my reputation as a party pooper, or do I suck it up and get an ‘A’ in “gets along and plays well with others”?
The homework instructions listed the names of his classmates so we could create a Valentine’s Day card for each and sort them into alphabetical order. I don’t have a religious objection to Valentine’s Day, although I’m sure others do. Rather, in our family, we just don’t wish to attach significance to holidays we don’t find meaningful or sincere.
To my husband and I, Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark holiday: a fabricated, hyper-commercialized event designed for retailers to peddle their wares and restaurants to fill seats. I also feel that it pressures couples to conform to a saccharine social norm while deprecating singledom, and I’ve seen people both in and out of relationships struggle with living up to the romantic expectations conjured by this collective cultural fantasy.
Usually I can find a work-around for these Hallmark holidays. On Mother’s Day, for instance, I show appreciation for any gifts the kids crafted at school, but I also explain that we don’t need a specific day to say, “I love you.” But this time, there is no easy escape from the hype. I feel trapped by circumstance.
And yet, I can sympathize with the school’s conundrum. If they don’t make the cards mandatory, then some kids would show up with cards only for their friends, making the other children feel left out. If they ban the cards, some parents would get upset and make a fuss about the Culture Wars. Moreover, someone would almost certainly ignore the ban (perhaps even unintentionally—it’s easy to miss notes sent home from school) and challenge its defensibility. In this context, making the Valentine’s Day cards mandatory may seem like the best answer to a poorly worded multiple choice question.
I know it can seem that Valentine’s Day cards are just small pieces of paper and I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I wouldn’t want to convince anyone not to celebrate Valentine’s Day even if that were possible. But I also don’t want to be forced to celebrate it against my will. I can already anticipate what others who like celebrating Valentine’s Day will think of me: Why is she getting so upset? What’s wrong with teaching kids to be kind and affectionate with one another? Why can’t she see that it’s just harmless fun?
Emotions can run high for such harmless fun. Every holiday, no matter how well-intentioned, leaves someone out or makes them uncomfortable. Think of Christmas for non-Christians, Thanksgiving for vegetarians, Father’s Day for the fatherless, Columbus Day for Native Americans, or Veteran’s Day for pacifists. No holiday has universal and unambiguous meaning for all of us. We live in a pluralistic society where we protect the rights of individuals against the tyranny of the majority, and we don’t get to pick and choose the exceptions to religious liberty and freedom of expression.
Valentine’s Day is a cute and fun celebration of love to some, but it is a searing reminder of rejection, loneliness, and unrequited affection for many others.
What if there is another way to handle Valentine’s Day, an option to mark “D—none of the above” on the multiple choice test? I think there is.
Here is just one idea: Before Valentine’s Day, parents are polled whether their children will participate. As guardians, parents get to decide if and how to weigh input from their children and be responsible for handling the conversation. Then, a list of participating families would be distributed to one another, and cards would be mandatory for each participant. In the classroom, teachers would have the opportunity to speak to both groups of kids—participants and non-participants—and reinforce that both choices are perfectly acceptable. I know kindergartners are young, but I’m sure we would all be impressed by the maturity of the classroom discussion if parents and teachers worked together to talk to children about their choices.
I will not be running a one-woman boycott or picket line on Valentine’s Day. I don’t think the moral victory outweighs the social costs. However, my family is going to make the celebration our own as best we can. Come over to our place this weekend if you want to make gratitude bookmarks with us! And in the meantime, I am going to push for change, one heart at a time.