Valentine's Day: Re-visiting a viral post


Yes, I am bringing out this old story again - if you are a regular reader you may have read this before. But when Valentine's Day comes round, this is what I remember (rather than something romantic): the time I went viral before it was invented. 

In 2002, 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 exemplified 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. I've always thought the same thing as you about Valentine's Day cards in classes, Moira. I find it fascinating that so many people feel so strongly about it, too. I wonder if it might be that those cards are so entrenched in people's memories and senses of tradition that they just can't let go of them? Whatever the reason, it's fascinating that you touched on that nerve. And by the way, that's a well-written article, too!

    1. Thanks for the kind words Margot. There's always a lot to unpack in people's culture and traditions - it may not be clear from my rather tendentious article, but I do respect others' ways!

  2. This used not to be a Swedish thing, but it is creeping in, though the celebrations are rather haphazard. I met up with my partner (we have loved each other passionately for 12 years now, but we are not married and we don't live together) at 10 o'clock this morning as I had a meeting with the bank, which always makes me nervous. I don't seem to be able to understand what the bank people say, which makes me feel like an idiot, so I had asked him to come with me, which he did. (He has a degree in business studies.) It made a great difference and I was so grateful. In the evening he phoned me: "I realise it's apparently Valentine's Day today. What am I meant to do? Congratulate you or something?" I told him he was meant to do something loving which is exactly what he had done.

    In schools and pre-schools the little ones make red paper hearts for anyone they would like to give a heart to. My grand-daughter made one for her mom and one for her adored older half sister. (But I was told that at least one little girl had refused to do anything of the kind, which was accepted.) When I was at the grocery store packing up my shopping I saw a group of 4-year-olds with their teachers handing out their beautifully decorated hearts (lots of glue and lots of tinsel) to anyone they chose. A very old lady was practically in tears to receive one, and while I was watching this I noticed a little girl watching me - or rather my bright red coat, which seemed to appeal to her. After a little while she started to edge away from the group until she was at my side and shyly handed out her red paper heart to me. I felt incredibly honoured. As I had packed up my things and was leaving I heard a child say to the teachers: "I liked doing this. Can we do it next year again?"

    1. I should add that it's not called Valentine's Day in Swedish, it's called "Alla hjärtans dag" which translates as "All Hearts' Day", which is why there is a strong emphasis on red hearts.

    2. Oh Birgitta what lovely stories! Your own personal one is obviously loving and mature: that's what we do for each other when we are no longer quite so young. Kindness is the main thing...
      And I loved the sound of those schoolchildren. What a sensible way to celebrate

  3. I am glad you repeated this. I don't have a strong opinion either way, but certainly being told to either do cards to all children in the class or to none is ridiculous, even if I understand the intent behind it. It is teaching children to be fake and that others are faking it. Oh well.

    1. Old troupers like you will have seen this before! I am still fascinated by the whole idea. At the moment I am well out of the whole school thing - children grown, no grandchildren - and am always interested to hear what goes on now.

  4. I just couldn't agree more with this. Valentine's Day is a big moneymaker. I'm from Germany but have lived all around and my kids also went to an international school with Americans in it at one point. Yes, they had Valentine's cards. No, they didn't have the rule that everyone had to write one to the whole class. So, some kids ended up with no cards which I found horrible. And my boys were not amused that they had to write cards. Maybe some little girls are but the boys ... well, I don't know any.
    And, thankfully, Valentine's Day is not even a big thing for adults here, only the flower and chocolate shops and restaurants try to make us think it is.

    1. It seems to get more and more overwhelming, even just in the past 10 years or so. Once you start thinking about it, it becomes less and less sensible, and the money involved is ridiculous.

    2. Yes, it is. Some people might not be able to afford it, especially if they have more kids. I know my parents wouldn't have had the chance. And I know I would have been teased for that.

    3. It is difficult isn't it? Schools should be welcoming to all, and those in all economic circumstances should be equals. But sometimes things are going to clash...

  5. I can see why this all seemed incomprehensible! The only part I feel strongly about is that if the teacher does not require a Valentine for everyone, the celebration turns into a popularity (or not) contest. But for the most part, I think Valentines celebrations are just another classroom activity like Halloween and St. Patrick's Day. Probably some teachers do not go in for classroom celebrations - I don't remember them taking place after I was 9.

    I asked my niece who is 11 what her sixth grade class did. She said they had a party; she made her own Valentines, gave one to each classmate and the teacher, did not wear red because they have uniforms, and most children brought food to school for a half hour party. I bought a $2 box of SpiderMan Valentines for my coworkers sort of as a joke, leaving them on everyone's desks late Monday when the office was empty but I was glad I had because on Tuesday one person made cupcakes for everyone and two others brought in candy. It was a nice break from routine and we all enjoyed our sugar high.

    1. Thank you for your gracious words for the defence - which all sounds charming and eminently sensible. Anything that makes life kinder and more enjoyable has to be good. I was concerned about the excesses that can happen, but also wonder if I would be more tolerant now. At the time it seemed like one more thing to push onto busy parents. One of my friends kept complaining about 'lazy' families who didn't make their own valentines. We agreed to disagree....


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