Contemplating the Shitty Valentine

Last week I was sitting down at the kitchen table with my 4-year-old son, who was making out his valentines. I'd written his classmates' names on the envelopes, and he was signing individual cards. I picked an envelope up. "This one's gonna be for Axel,*" I said (*names changed to protect the obnoxious).

"But why, Mama?" he asked. "He's a bad boy and he hits the other kids."

I'm told we don't say that kids are bad anymore. The kids we referred to as "bad" when I was young are now "behaving inappropriately" or "making bad choices." I can dig it.

"Axel's not a bad boy," I said. "He doesn't listen and sometimes he does things that aren't nice, but we're still going to give him a valentine." It felt a little weird coming out of my mouth, like if I'd said to my own son, "you kick me daily and haven't eaten your dinner in weeks, but I still made you a giant cookie."

My son obliged without pushback, and I watched as he folded a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles card into the envelope, slid the mini Leonardo eraser in, and sealed it up with red 3 heart stickers, clumsily placed.

Young Axel got a valentine identical to that of all the other kids.

This incident came up the following day when my co-worker told me of a similar experience she'd had with her own 5-year-old son the night before. She said one child in her son's class is mean to all his classmates and always disobeys the teacher. She discovered her son had made this rotten-acting kid what she referred to as "a shitty valentine"--no frills (other kids got the glitter treatment), sloppy and crooked handwriting.

She was upset when she saw the card and made her son do it over again, nicely this time. Equally.

In talking about it, I started to question the wisdom in our decisions to shove this equality down our children's throats.

First, I wondered about the message I was sending my son by asking him to accept that Axel hits kids at random and distracts the class from the teacher to the point of nausea (I've been there; I've seen), to ignore whatever feelings he has in reaction to that, and to make Axel a valentine that sent the same message he was sending the sweet little girl that gives him big, squishy bear hugs when she sees him. Same message he sent to his teacher, who is kind to him and teaches him valuable lessons and is endeared by and supportive of him.

But...I understand why we do these things. I understand that, as parents, we are highly sensitive to the idea of our own child causing another child pain. We picture the look that would flash across our own son's face at the realization that he'd been left out. Deliberately ignored. Intentionally shunned. We can't bear the thought that something our own child would do could leave another kid feeling that way.

And it seems too big a conversation to have with a pre-kindergartner.

I had a friend who'd studied the hell out of philosophy and conversation with whom challenged a lot of my preconceived and internalized-through-awareness-of-societal-wide-acceptance-of-them notions. One of these was the idea of unconditional love. "All love--except maybe the love of a parent to a child--is conditional," he said. And rightfully, necessarily so, he added.

After some consideration, I agreed. What would my love for my friends or honies mean if it remained static, regardless of what they did or didn't do, regardless of how they treated me and others?

I contemplated this thought and pictured myself saying "ok yes, my man murdered my favorite family member, but I've declared my love for him, and love--after all--is unconditional." That's an extreme example, of course, but the example needn't be. The idea remains the same: Love should NOT be unconditional. Yes, love accepts another's faults and forgives a lot of fuck-ups. It gives the benefit of the doubt and sees the best in and begins anew, again and again. But what a person does matters. What a person does or doesn't do, again and again and again, over time? It matters.

What age is the right age to begin imparting that message? If my son, at age 9, gave a valentine to a mean child who'd issued him a beating the day before, wouldn't I be concerned?

Perhaps, in the 4-year-old's era of Valentine's Day parties attended by parents, each child taking turns passing out the booty to each other semi-circled child, it *would* be a tad blatant--the omission of one among them. As my boyfriend (who's been all through this with his now-12-year-old son) pointed out, there comes an age when the kids only give cards to the kids they like and nobody even flinches; preschool is not it.

But I think there is a healthy middle ground to be found for the time being.

I think that if my son had done what my co-worker's son did and I gave it a few more moments of thought before reacting on auto-drive, I might let him go with the shitty valentine. The shitty valentine says, "Yes, I'm going to include you because to exclude you would be rude and unkind, but this is pretty much how I feel in response to your treatment of me and my friends." Just, you know, in a 4-year-old way.

*Frienemy valentine shown for illustrative purposes only; do not send your child to school with this ;)

I think this approach honors the idea that even a small child can and should respect his feelings and react to others in a way that is genuine, rather than obligatory. As my father-in-law-ish put it when I brought the topic up with him: A valentine should mean something.

The shitty valentine means, "You can do better, buddy." Maybe the message is even a little better received when it comes from a peer. It illustrates the law of actions/consequences that teachers strive so much to drive home. If it's possible...just a *little* bit possible that the endless equality practice of recent decades has contributed to the Millennial all-entitled-all-the-time phenomenon (as so many old schoolers have suggested), perhaps this valentine practice needs a little overhaul.

Even if, for now, the children are required by unspoken law (and maybe even for the best) to distribute their declarations of (something related to) love to every child in the class, I will begin the conversation with my child. I want him to know that he is not obligated to like people who treat him badly. He doesn't have to ignore what his intuitive senses are telling him about right and wrong and how what a person puts out into the world comes back to him or her.

I can't help but think that this conversational seed planted now, in the ultra-tender soil of his preschooler heart, may serve him well in the years to come.

Kevin's Sketch

Part 3...

Ernst Haeckel. I just finished reading The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought, a book which details the life of this amazing 19thcentury biologist and artist.  Ernst was the first to coin terms like ‘ecology’ and ‘phylogeny’ and in any discussion of art and science, his name invariably comes up, as he was one of the first to approach nature from both lines of inquiry.  Pictured are some of the critters he spent a lot of time with, the iconic jellyfish, above them, the radiolarians and hanging over his head are the three infamous sandal stage embryos (dog, chicken and a turtle—see how similar they are?!).



  1. Okay, THIRD try, and I hope this one sticks! <3 So, awesome read, as always, and I am hoping my response doesn't come off as overly defensive. I am the mom of a bipolar ADHD kid, who, when in the lower elementary grades, was always the very *last* to catch on to social cues in the classroom. He was still wiggling and giggling long after everyone else was at attention with hands folded in their laps. I sat in on classes and watched this for myself to better understand my kid and his needs. When he was in kindergarten, *I*, not he, died for two weeks when every single member of his soccer team was invited to a birthday party (and seemed to be talking about it at every opportunity!) except mine. His offense? He had attended a previous birthday party and had been SOOOOOO excited to watch all the action that HE blew out the birthday boy's candles before the BB had a chance to. That was the incident that made him the pariah, the asshole, the One Everyone Despised, at least for a time. And all I wanted to do was throw a cape of invincibility over his shoulders and tell him, Yes, he was impulsive, but No, he was NOT evil. And I hoped he survived childhood with some measure of self-esteem. And ever since his days as a child, I have become a better and more sensitive teacher. I know that when a child (no matter how large!) is being ass-holey, the best thing for ME to do is to stop and ask myself, What does this child need or want to be acting this way? I almost always find that the kid needs love and attention, not the middle finger from peers. Yes, there are bullies, and yes, there are children who are unkind. After my learning experiences in being a mom and in being a teacher, I've found that the BEST thing to do is to ask WHY. It's a frickin' HUGE question. That mean kid in K's class might be my ADHD, bipolar son, or one who is being beaten at home at night. And with kindness and understanding, maybe we can all help him to grow up without deep scars. I'm sure I must sound like a bleeding heart, but my heart HAS bled---for my own son, and for others I have had the extraordinary blessing to have taught. One reporter's opinion! <3

    1. Chris, Thank you so much for your very thoughtful and enlightening response. I am thankful for your bleeding heart, as I'm sure so many of the children you've taught over the years are. I wish all our teachers could be so full of love to give and so interested in understanding the complex lives of our children. Your comment makes me realize that I myself was thinking of this from a (yes, protective standpoint, but) overly defensive frame of mind. While I want my child to grow up with the tools to know when to walk away from an unloving and unkind interaction, and I don't want him to be disingenuous about how he feels, I can also try my best to teach him to try and see things from another child's perspective and give the extra love that child may be needing. We'll hold off on letting the shitty valentines fly. Thank you, as always, for reading and for taking the time (three times!) to share your important perspective. XOXO