The Politics of Childhood Valentines

For kids and parents, Valentine's Day has become a particular challenge to navigate. It's grown into an increasingly costly and socio-politically sensitive holiday.

BILL WOLFF (Announcer): This is NPR.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Valentine's Day is just two days away.

(Soundbite of TV program, "The Simpsons")

Ms. YEARDLEY SMITH (Actor): (As Lisa) Here you go, Ralph.

(Soundbite of knuckles)

Unidentified Man: (As Ralph) You choo-choo-choose me?

Ms. SMITH: (As Lisa) Happy Valentines.

(Soundbite of sigh)

STEWART: "The Simpsons," I mean, who doesn't remember the sound of one's heart pounding loudly in your ears as waited at your desk at Lyndon Avenue School at Ms. Lizby's(ph) kindergarten class to see if Mark Slattery gave you a two-by-three piece of red paper that resemble the Valentine. The names have not been changed, by the way…

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Yeah, I was going to say that.

STEWART: In that story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Nor has the stress very much for kids and parents who have had to navigate an increasingly expensive and weirdly sociopolitical holiday. Deborah Skolnik is senior editor at Parenting magazine. Hi, Deborah.

Ms. DEBORAH SKOLNIK (Senior Editor, Parenting Magazine): Hi.

STEWART: So, give us sort of a broad view of how Valentine's Day has a ratcheted up for kids over the past few years.

Ms. SKOLNIK: Well, I think that like a lot of other holidays, like Halloween and Christmas, it's just one where opportunity - especially because we live in a kind of a consumeristic culture, and children are getting more socialized in their early age - you know, it's just become another occasion to do something elaborate - throw a party, try to, you know, engage in a little one-upsmanship in terms of who has the nicest Valentine's, who puts the nicest treats with the Valentine's. It's the whole thing.

STEWART: I got to break it down here. It's not just cards anymore. Are kids expected to give candy and gifts? And how do parents draw the line? Or what's you advice on where to draw the line or what to give?

Ms. SKOLNIK: There definitely is more of an expectation. I mean, I definitely remember, when I was a child, a card was pretty much it. Now, a lot of the Valentine's that you can buy, you know, at the drug store or the stationary store, they have holders, and you're suppose to put in a miniature chocolate bar or a little lollipop. Some of them come with sticker packs. I think that the first thing that you have to do is make sure what your school policy is.

I'm bringing in and distributing candy. Some schools have no trouble with those kinds of Valentine's and other ones do. And then it's just a case of your judgment. Is it going to kill you to let your kid give a lollipop to somebody? Probably not. But you may want to check with all the parents, because if every kid is coming home with 25 lollipops given to them by all their friends, you may have a case of candy overload that rivals Halloween.

STEWART: Now, this wasn't about the Valentine part of it. A lot of times, this is when some kids first maybe get a crush in the teacher, some other girl in class or boy in class. Can you give parents some language to help deal with the sad little one who comes home - who doesn't come home with a fistful of cards?

Ms. SKOLNIK: Oh, I mean, one good thing that you can always do is emphasize how much you and dad, or you and mom still love your child. Explain to your child, sometimes, too, that kids at this age - even though they may have these feelings, some of the other children may not, that it's a little bit advanced for some of the other kids.

You know, go to through the Valentine's, look at what they get, say, oh, look how nice these are. Read them aloud. Write valentines to other people. Just like, I would say, in the case of Christmas, you should be teaching that it's not only what you get, but what you give. Why don't you send some valentines to grandma, grandpa, aunts and uncles, neighbors. Sometimes, on our street, the neighbor kids all exchange valentines with each other, which is very sweet as well.

I know, it can be hard, though. Even little kids, they have these feelings. It's like, who you guys were saying about Mark Slattery.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SKOLNIK: I remember giving a boy a lollipop and a Valentine's Day card when I was in sixth grade. So I was like 11, you know, getting kind of older there. And he stood up in front of the whole class and said who wants lollipop? I don't want this lollipop.

STEWART: Gee, isn't this the upshot of all this - little, tiny, heartbreaking…

Ms. SKOLNIK: Oh, how could you have done it to me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: She's okay. She's the editor of a major magazine.

MARTIN: She came out all right.

STEWART: Well, okay, I want to throw this on the other side. What do you do if you find out that you're the parent of the excluder, the kid who doesn't want to give a card to everybody in the class?

Ms. SKOLNIK: Well, I think that one thing that you really need to do is supervise the valentines that you go out. A lot of schools will wisely have the policy that if you're going to give valentines, you have to give them to everybody in the whole class. Some schools will say that they don't want to celebrate valentines at all, and then you have to respect that as well.

I've heard that from my children, sometimes, and other people's children. I don't want to give so and so valentine. I'm going to fight with her. You sit down and you make sure that everybody has valentine in that class addressed to them. Go down your class list and compare. Now, if your child wants to give the prettiest valentine to her best friend, all right. I mean, you do estimate certain allowance. And I did hear that somebody who's fond of one of my children may be giving her two lollipops instead of just one.

STEWART: All right. Keep your eye on that kid.

We're talking to Deborah Skolnik, senior editor of Parenting magazine, about navigating through Valentine's Day when your kids are involved.

And I have to ask you about gender stereotypes and cards. Sitting on my desk, our producer went to Target to get Valentine cards for a little girl and she just kind of - I think I'm trying to say this, Tricia, you bring kind of imploded with the choices and she doesn't - okay, I'm getting Spiderman ones for the boys and princess ones for the girls.

What should you do in that case? Is it better to…

Ms. SKOLNIK: And she…

STEWART: And she felt some guilt about it.

Ms. SKOLNIK: Yes.

STEWART: She's like I feel like I should be a little more astute and make a different decision that's, like, equalizing. But, you know, it's annoying. It's stressful, so you just…

MARTIN: Yeah, how do you recommend parents help their children choose these cards?

Ms. SKOLNIK: It is kind of hard, and I wouldn't say they, you know, your producer did the wrong thing at all. But I've been surprised. I mean, my daughter chose a Spiderman backpack for her backpack for preschool this year. Sometimes, kids don't always choose neatly along gender lines that you might expect.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SKOLNIK: I usually either take my kids with me to the store and let them pick them out. And I insist that they take one pack. I make it unisex. So if you want to have the little Einstein Valentine's Day card, that's okay, but I'm not buying two separate packs because usually that's enough for two whole classes of kids, and we only have one.

And also, this year, I used to catalogue instead of buying some other things because I am the mother that has a Valentine's Day party in her house.

STEWART: Of course, you are. You're the editor of Parenting magazine.

Ms. SKOLNIK: Oh, yeah, I guess I can get away with it. And, you know, I had my daughter pick out from the catalogue. So she saw like 10 different choices and picked ones that are, like, unisex valentines, and each one comes with a packet of neon stickers that you can give along with the card to your friends.

STEWART: Stickers seems to be the answer, because, you know, it's not sugar or it's gender - it's not expensive.

Ms. SKOLNIK: Mm-hmm. Stickers…

STEWART: It seems to be the thing.

Ms. SKOLNIK: …tattoos can be kind of fun, bookmarks - all those things are really cool. And teacher gifts are getting a little more elaborate too…

STEWART: (Unintelligible).

Ms. SKOLNICK: …which is interesting to me. My daughter, from this catalog, she badly, badly wanted to give her teacher a Snoopy Valentine's Day of popcorn for the microwave.

MARTIN: Oh.

Ms. SKOLNIK: Three ninety-nine for one freaking bag of popcorn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SKOLNIK: And I said okay, and then it turned out that it was on back order until March. Now, what does that catalog company going to do with the popcorn that says happy Valentine's Day in March - I don't understand.

MARTIN: There going to be little green hat on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Yes, they are.

MARTIN: Or a little Easter bunny next to it, is what they are going to do.

Hey, Deborah Skolnik, senior editor of Parenting magazine. Hey, thanks for helping us navigate the Valentine water.

Ms. SKOLNIK: Happy Valentine's Day.

MARTIN: Have a great party.

Ms. SKOLNIK: Thanks. Bye.

MARTIN: Bye.

Hey, everyone, stay with us. You know why? Because it's the 25th anniversary of "Thriller," Michael Jackson. And we're going to talk about its cultural impacts - that amazing album. You are listening to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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