Valentine’s Day – cross-cultural differences

Sixteen years ago, I, a Brit, was living in Seattle with my family, including two children at elementary school, and working for the online political magazine Slate.

I wrote an article about my children’s experiences of Valentine’s Day at their lovely school: not political at all, but Slate was trying to expand their remit and move to other areas.

This rather niche item (surely of interest only to a few other parents?) was picked up by MSN and featured on the homepage for several days: as a result it achieved a massive readership, and also a massive response. I don’t think I have ever had such a large number of emails and below-the-line comments as with this one, many many thousands of them. I read them all. I have written controversially in my time (Barbies! Several times!) but nothing has ever provoked so much discussion.


Briefly, and see below: I said that it was ridiculous that under-11s sent valentines to each other. There was an explosion of feeling. Briefly: some people agreed with me, some people did not. But, boy, did they feel strongly. A large number of emails and comments said some version of this:

‘Sending valentines makes children kind, polite and caring. How dare you criticize that, you vile vicious bitch, why don’t you f***  off back where you came from?’
- so many of them that I prepared a template reply that said ‘Do you think the values you mention were exemplfied in your email: did you learn to talk that way from childhood Valentines?’

One man sent a link to the article to his wife saying ‘Read this! she might as well be talking about our school and what we say about it!’

To which his wife replied ‘Did you not read who wrote it? It IS our school, it’s our friend Moira.’ (Though what I wrote was certainly true of most US schools at the time.)

When MSN picked up the article they changed the headline – probably accidentally. The original title was 'The Travesty of Elementary School Valentines'. That was changed to ‘The Tragedy...’, which far over-stated what I thought, but probably helped promote the article. But I did get a significant number of incredibly sad emails from older people who told me that 20 or 30 or 50 years on they still remembered the horror of Valentine’s Day: that they had not got any, or enough, or they had been bullied or teased. They described these events as if it were yesterday. The bitterness & sadness still stick in my  mind.

My favourite response came from a man who said my article had something very positive in it. I had quoted my son as calling another child an idiot-head (oh, and I got stick for that too in the comments) and he said ‘Hearing there are still little boys cheerfully calling each other idiot-head, when they’ll probably be best friends next week, gives me hope for the future of America.’

Valentine 2
Above: The two Valentine writers from my house: note the heart T-shirt

I’d be interested to hear from American readers if the custom continues, and what they think of it, and from anyone else about their Valentine's Day customs. 

And Happy Valentine’s Day to all, and to all ages.

My original article is below, and you can also read it here.

Who Gets 10,000 Valentines Too Many? The travesty of elementary-school valentines

By Moira Redmond

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.

clip_image002Valentine'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.


  1. First, Moira, I have to say that I love that 'photo! It's great! As to the custom of giving out valentines in school, I've never been much of a one for it. But the custom certainly persists. My granddaughter has been spending time this week selecting the valentines she'll give out, and putting her classmates' names on them. She told me that her teacher has said that students are not allowed to give valentines out in class unless they give one to each student. An interesting attempt to prevent those hurt feelings...

    1. Oh that's so interesting Margot, thanks for the update - I did wonder if I was wildly out of date, but apparently not! Sounds like your granddaughter is enjoying the custom, which is really nice. I think some children certainly do get a kick out of it... I was probably over-stating the case.

  2. I experienced exactly that sense of bewilderment Moira: what has romance got to do with 6 year olds?
    It's still going on, one of the many cultural disconnects I am accustomed to now. Terrible that you were subjected to abusive responses, but I do love your stock reply.
    I wonder what you think of galentine's day? Has it become a thing in UK yet?

    1. A response I think we shared! I couldn't take the responses too seriously, it was so out-of-proportion... anyway I had to get used to it at Slate. As someone said, an early case of trolling. and I suppose the article was an early case of what we would now call going viral...
      heard of Galentine's Day for the first time the day before yesterday! Creeping in here... I don't know what to think, what do you make of it? Is it big in the USA?

  3. Happy Valentine's Day, Moira.

  4. I would love to get your take on (US) kindergarten graduation ceremonies, complete with cap and gown. Another reason I'm so glad I don't have children.

    1. Oh don't even start me! Fortunately we just about managed to get away without doing that. But there were parent-teacher meetings for pre-school, I couldn't believe it: there was a checklist of things that my 3 year old son could or couldn't do, comments on his progress. All I wanted was for him to go and have fun with other kids, playing in the sand and building with bricks and visiting the dressing-up box....

  5. I was astonished and not at all happy when I realised that my children's primary school had set up a postbox so the kids could post Valentine cards to each other. That was 25 years ago in Scotland! Supposedly it was a very good school (not private) but they had some very weird ideas as to what was appropriate behaviour for young children.

    1. That's surprising, definitely the first time I've ever heard of it in a UK school. Rather weird. I think it would be WORSE over here, because in the US there is at least some element of tradition, a kind of un-romantic connection for Valentine's. I've remembered that there is a Valentine party for the young children in one of my favourite 19C US children's book, What Katy Did.

  6. Very funny article, Moira. Valentine's Day overkill is obscene in the US, I agree, but I don't remember my son ever being bothered about the whole process. I think most holidays here are just an excuse to make money, and we participate as little as possible. Glen and I haven't done Valentine's Day in so many years I don't remember when it was, but our first Valentine's Day was incredibly romantic, and I was still legally married to my first husband.

    1. Well, there's a revelation Tracy! My husband and I don't do much, but I got lucky this year with some flowers and chocolate. Thanks for the kind words - it is a very funny thing for me to recall, seems a long time ago.

  7. I get what you are saying but I'm not sure I agree.
    This week my girls and I had several lovely hours of hand making valentines last week. It gave us lots of time to talk about those we love and those we find more challenging. When else would we do that?

    1. I love to hear about people who really do enjoy the festival like that, it is very comforting to know. I am so glad you had such quality time with your girls, and you obviously made the time for them and used the opportunity well. Kudos. Not everyone can manage that.


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