Columnist Meg St-Esprit (she/her) is a freelance writer chasing down and covering the most interesting and quirky ideas about parenting and more. She lives with her husband, four kids and way too many pets in Pittsburgh. When she's not writing, she's definitely camping.
Valentine's Day is a fun day for our family of six; there are vast amounts of candy for the kids, and my parents typically offer us a night of babysitting so my husband and I can have a date night. But there's one thing that's bothered me since I started celebrating the holiday as a parent: Why are adults obsessed with manufacturing romantic relationships for young children?
It starts in infancy. As a new mom browsing a rack of holiday onesies in Babies R Us, I quickly clocked that the slogans on the outfits were all dating-themed. “Looking for True Love,” read one. “Single and Ready to Mingle,” another declared. Babies don’t really mingle, in my experience, and they are all single. The worst slogan of all: “Heartbreaker.” I want to raise my children to treat the hearts of those who love them carefully; breaking hearts is not the goal here.
As my son got older and we added three more kids to the family, this pressure to "partner off" our kids has only grown. I’ve been guilty of it at times, of course. Parenting is a constant curve ball and we learn as we go. I remember snapping a picture of my then toddler daughter holding a classmate’s hand at the park and posting it online with the caption “for their wedding slideshow some day.” As my kids have gotten older, though, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the adult obsession to define typical childhood friendships in grown-up terms. While this happens year-round, it’s never more obvious than on Valentine’s Day.
When we dig through the box of premade Valentine’s cards they'll be giving to classmates, my kids filter out the ones that reference dating. This isn’t my influence — it’s just weird to them. Spider-Man holding a lollipop on a card that reads “Be My Valentine” is not something my 10-year-old son is interested in giving to anyone in the fourth grade. In fact, I usually end up buying a few extra boxes of cards because once we remove the “cringe” ones, there aren’t usually enough left that reference friendship alone.
Sure, there are times when my kids have come home reporting they have a girlfriend, boyfriend or a crush. We listen to them chatter on and share in their excitement, but it’s not something we reinforce. It’s never something we suggest.
Other adults though? They love to suggest it. From older relatives to the kind woman running the grocery store checkout, February brings out the most awkward comments. “Who is your Valentine?” “Do you have a girlfriend?” “Oh, are you going to smooch him?”
I’m sorry, what? Smooch? These kids are 5. One friend told me an older relative called her 8-year-old “sexy” when her shirt slipped off her shoulder. Why was their immediate assumption that she was trying to attract attention and not that she may need to grow into her shirt a bit? Another told me her parents are constantly trying to label her son’s best friend, a girl, as his girlfriend — in the second grade, and despite his repeated assertions that the grandparents knock it off. This baffles me.
In the broader culture wars, I see many adults concerned about exposing children to experiences they deem too sexual — mostly related to the LGBTQ+ community. Boomers scream from the comment sections that young children can’t possibly be allowed to know two women can get married, all while suggesting that my 5-year-old kiss another kid on the playground “because it’s cute.” I am far more OK with my kids knowing people can choose to marry anyone who loves them and treats them well than I am with them being urged into awkward pseudo-dating scenarios against their will. These adults are also assuming all kids are straight — which we simply know isn't true. When a little boy and little girl hold hands, the comments fly. When two little girls hold hands, they don’t. And the fact is, when 5-year-olds are holding hands it means nothing to them beyond friendship — because kindergarteners do not date.
This Valentine’s Day, when the young kids in your life are drawing hearts or buying cards or chattering about their little friends, resist the urge to ascribe any grown-up sentiments to it. For them, it is a fun project, a break from the routine of a regular school day and a time to celebrate all the love in their lives — from parents, friends and family and even pets. There’s enough good to be found in this holiday without us adults mucking it up with our own projections.