Arriving as an immigrant to the USA, I found many holiday customs inexplicable: Halloween sweaters; piñatas ("So you buy this charming expensive decoration, and you do what with it?"); gingerbread houses. But nothing puzzled me so much as Valentine's Day. I stared open-mouthed as someone explained to me that my very young children were going to have to take part in this strange and incomprehensible ritual. We have Valentine's Day in England, but it is important only to those contemplating, looking for, entering into, or trying to sustain long-term romantic relationships. Thus, it does not involve children in elementary school.
Consider the implications for the under-12s:
Valentine's Day Math No. 1: A child in a class of 20-plus will send valentines to classmates, the teacher, the teacher's aide, and possibly to the school principal and admin staff. There is a well-intentioned rule that all children must send them either to everyone in the class or to none, and just about everyone does take part. So you're talking at least 25 valentines (oh, now I see the point of private school—small class size). In an elementary school of 400, this means in the region of 10,000 valentines are exchanged. That's in one school. There are 64,000 public elementary schools in the United States, and average enrollment is 478. So the final figure is mind-boggling: more than 750 million valentines exchanged by pre-pubescent schoolchildren.
Valentine's Day Math No. 2: Money is not the biggest issue here. You can buy a box of valentines for under $2; it is hard to spend more than $4 a box; and astoundingly they come in useful packs of 32 (rather than 20, which would mean buying two boxes). Some children make their own, with a small cost of materials. A $2 average per child seems reasonable, allowing for those who add candy to the card, giving $800 for the 400-child school. Of course that is $60 million nationwide: And we could all think of better things to do with the money.
Valentine's Day Math No. 3: Two weeks before Valentine's Day, parents all over America are saying to children, "Divide the number you have to do by the number of days left, to work out how many you need to write each evening if you start now. Not too many! Good idea, huh?"
Valentine's Day Math No. 4: Feb. 11: "How many do you have left to do? How many is that each evening? When are you going to find the time to do them?"
Sometimes the teacher will insist that each child write a friendly comment or compliment on each valentine. You can see the thinking behind this: a nice chance to build communal self-esteem, and surely the children will treasure these valentines forever. In real life, "You are nice/neat/cool" covers about 90 percent of the comments. The other 10 percent? Last year my son wrote, "You are the nicest girl in my class" to a particularly favored friend. I looked to see what she had written to him: "You have a clean desk." Not even true. (Another girl wrote, "You have a cool mom" as her compliment for him, so that may be a more promising relationship.) And there will be conversations like this one in my house:
Boy: "I can't think of anything to say about Stephen."
Mother: "Tell me something about him."
Boy: "He's an idiot-head."
Older Sister (helpfully): "Well, could you write 'You are not an idiot-head' as the compliment?"
Boy: "It would be a lie."
Mother (weakly): "You can't because it is not appropriate."
But for the most part, each child gives out 25 cards, each with two names handwritten on it, and receives 25 cards, with the same names reversed. This is a phenomenal waste of time, effort, and money, a monument of pointlessness. I questioned a good collection of third- and fifth-graders and none of them showed any particular enthusiasm for it (except for the candy included in some valentines), and they all thought it was a school rule that they had to write valentines. They had no particular understanding of what it was for or was meant to show. That they are all friends? Even a kindergartener knows that's a bright shining lie. The truth is, young children don't need to send or get valentines, and elementary schools should stop organizing this meaningless ritual.
Call me an old romantic, but Valentine's Day should be taken away from the under-12s and kept where it belongs: with sexually active teen-agers. I asked one friend, not long out of school, what Valentine's Day had meant to him. He had nothing to say about little-bitty cards, but he clearly treasured this valentine memory from junior high: "making out behind the portables, braces locking." Now that's the true spirit of the feast day. I just hope they weren't wearing special Valentine's Day sweaters.