February 13, 2017
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and my 5-year-old son and his peers will exchange cards. They will exchange "Star Wars," super heroes, and “Frozen” cards. A plentiful supply of traditional, red-hearted, hand-cut papers will circulate, too. The preschool has asked that no candy or chocolate be added to the mix. There will be enough delight in the giving and receiving of Valentines. The celebration is a simple one, sans sugar, to the relief of both teachers and parents.
One caveat: cards for all are required.
If a child is bringing cards, then she or he needs to have enough for all members of the class. To aid parents in this endeavor, a list of student first names is sent out via e-mail.
I look over the names.
I recognize the names of my little guy’s closest and dearest friends, his “best buddies,” as he puts it. I note the names of those who annoy him. There are also names of those he doesn’t talk about, names of little ones I also can’t easily place.
“Who is Frances?” I ask, reading her name aloud.
“Oh,” my son answers with a shrug.
“I don’t play with her. She’s Christa’s friend.”
She’s Christa’s friend. Clearly, by 5, we demonstrate preferences for some peers over others. It’s perfectly normal. There are those with whom we resonate and those with whom we don’t. These heart preferences continue to guide us as we age. If we are blessed in the friendship department, we may find “kindred spirits” – those closest, most precious friendships that appear a few times in one’s life – along the way.
“What about Martin?” I ask.
“Well, he doesn’t like to play 'Star Wars' with me,” my son tells me.
“But he likes dinosaurs.”
But he likes dinosaurs. I smile and open up our newly purchased box of Valentines.
“Well, there are enough cards here for everyone at your preschool – those you play with, and those you don’t. Those who like 'Star Wars,' and those who like dinosaurs.”
“Also,” I state while placing a supply of red construction paper, markers, glue, and stickers on the table.
“We can make special Valentines by cutting out paper and decorating them ourselves. I’m making one for Aunt Rachel. Maybe you’ll want to make special Valentines for your best buddies, too.”
So, we dive into an art project together. It’s just the two of us. We cut, design, create and place car, trucks, and "Star Wars" stickers abundantly on red construction paper hearts. These are the special Valentines to be added to the mix of Valentines for all. Everyone is included; no one left out.
As I affix another “Join the Resistance, Be Mine!” sticker, I reflect upon love and friendship.
Yes, tomorrow my son will be giving a Valentine to each one of his preschool peers. Such an exercise is intended to teach the value of universal compassion, equal regard for all, and respect for the feelings of those with whom we share in community – even if we don’t like them too much – even if they aren’t our friends.
I applaud these efforts and want very much for my son to develop what feminist scholar and philosopher Nel Noddings refers to as “ethical care.” Distinct from natural care, which is rooted in our biologically driven preference to care for those who are our nearest and dearest, ethical care requires motivation. It demands that we purposefully expand our circle of concern beyond our natural inclinations. Even if we don’t feel like treating someone who annoys us with respect, we are called to do so. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the basis of a strong social fabric, one that is rooted in receptivity and love for humankind -- love writ large. Little things, like preschools adopting policies that Valentine’s Day includes all, is one way to help children develop ethical care.
At the same time, Valentine’s Day, perhaps more than any other contemporary holiday, reminds us to honor the longings of the heart that pull us to some people more than to others. Such promptings are the source of our sense of individualized love and friendship. When we are 5, this manifests as having a set of close friends or “best buddies” with whom one prefers to play. As we age, our hearts pull us into romantic relationships and perhaps marriage.
Like with ethical care, sustaining our individualized experience of love and friendship requires work. Yes, we may naturally be drawn to someone and naturally show preferences for our children. But when we have hard days, or when our beloveds profoundly disappoint us, we must summon the energy and good will to extend our love to them anyway. As German poet Ranier Maria Rilke noted: “For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most ... the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.”
“All done!” my son says, getting up from the table. He holds up a sticker-studded Valentine creation loaded with extra glue and smiles.
“You worked hard on that one,” I affirm. Yes, we are done. Our task is complete. So, I organize the cuttings, and put crayons, stickers, and markers away. I wipe the excess pink, sticky goo off of glue sticks and double check our list to make sure each name is checked off. I’m thorough, focused. My son taps me on the shoulder.
“What is it, love?” I ask as I put our Valentines together in a pile. I don’t look at him. So, he taps me again.
“What is it?” This time, I turn and pay attention.
“Mama, I made this one for you.”