Joburg Expat: Your Child Will Need to Purchase Valentines

March 4, 2013

Your Child Will Need to Purchase Valentines

This post is a bit behind the times, seeing as we're already heading full-steam towards Easter, but I thought I'd post it anyway in the category of cultural differences.

We've been back in the U.S. for less than a month, and already that dreaded oh-so-American letter has come home from school:

Dear Parents,
Our Valentine Party will be Feb. 14 at 2:00-3:00. The class will be exchanging valentines. Your child will need to decorate a box and bring it to school on the 14th. They will also need to purchase valentines for the class. They will be passing them out on Thursday. Please make sure you have a valentine for everyone in the class. I will be sending the names home today in their pink folders.
The Fourth Grade Teachers

I don't know about you, but I was SO done with having to make sure EVERY kid gets a valentine.

Come to think of it, I was done with all those commercial holidays encroaching on the peaceful life of a mother who frankly has her hands full between birthday cakes and Christmas.

Maybe I'm not your typical Mom. But when we first moved to South Africa, I had secret hopes that trick-or-treating and having to supply new costumes every year would be a thing of the past. In fact, I fully expected it, and gasped in horror when a notice appeared on the neighborhood message boards where residents were asked to sign up their houses for Halloween. Of course it was voluntary, but of course my kids also can read and were overjoyed at the prospect of getting free candy. And new costumes of course, preferably handmade in the space of three days.

Call me unrealistic - ok, deluded - for thinking it's possible to keep holidays from being exported worldwide that involve candy in any way, shape, or form.

But what bugs me in particular about Valentine's Day is the forced nature of it. You are supposed to express your affection to someone by giving them a card or a gift, right? And that will make them happy? And what better way to make sure everyone is happy than to force everyone to give a card to everyone else, so that the affection gets spread equally.

This in the land with an outspoken disdain for any form of socialism.

Well, just today I came across a thought-provoking blog post about America's obsession with happiness. And the pursuit thereof. And how illusory happiness is. Because it's not something you can achieve with a quick fix, some kind of easy pill. It often takes a lifetime to find true happiness. Because it takes that long for most of us to figure out that we've found it. And that it was there all along. If we just realized that we could choose to be happy whenever we wanted, just by changing our world view.

What I'm getting at is this: Making sure that every kid in the class gets a Valentine's card might leave those kids happier in the short term. They'll proudly come home with a box-full of cards that their moms will only be too happy to recycle at the first opportunity. While confiscating all the attached lollipops. Or maybe that is just me, your non-typical and cruel Mom.

No one will feel slighted that they didn't get a card.

But on the other hand, what about the anticipation wondering who might find you nice enough to give you a card? The thrill when that boy you've had your eyes on slips you a note in passing, pretending not to care?

That's how it was at our South African school. Valentine's Day was entirely voluntary. Some kids came home with cards and candy, and some didn't. Some blushed when they brought home an entire teddy bear.


And it was like that in other ways too. No teachers on the playground telling the kids to include little Jane in the game of rounders. In fact, not even teachers around the tuck shop telling boys to stop kicking soccer balls at passing mothers (I would know!). The school made sure bullying was addressed, quite forcefully, but in general terms of social life, the kids were left to fend for themselves.

And prepare for the big world out there.

I'm not saying it was easy. When we first arrived, one of our girls had a tough time. She'd arrive at school and stand in front of the classroom with a hopeful look on her face, waiting for some girl to ask her to join in their group, and when no one did those first few weeks, it was tough to keep the tears at bay. It just about broke my heart.

But you know what? She did end up making great friends. And on some level, the fact that no one forced them to be nice, that she earned their affection all by herself, made our daughter a stronger person. Better equipped to be the new girl yet again on another continent.

Where she is now busy making 25 Valentine's cards together with her sister.

The good news is she's not a boy.

Because then I'd be the one having to make 25 cards.