My children love Valentine’s Day. What’s not to love? For them, Valentine’s Day signifies funny greeting cards, pretty red heart-shaped boxes filled with chocolates, fuzzy Valentine’s Day themed pajama pants, and whimsical stuffed animals. After separating two years ago, my ex and I each assumed our own gift giving responsibilities and, inadvertently, “doubled down” on gifts by celebrating every holiday twice. In an era already marred by excessive materialism, my children now, knowingly, and happily, receive double what they did before. As I watched them quickly become adept players in a game of high stakes, namely their values, I decided this Valentine’s Day all bets are off.
Listening to them speculate what each of their parents will be giving them this Valentine’s Day has been turning my stomach for days. So, at lunchtime, I gave the three of them an assignment. I instructed my children to come up with a list of five things they love about each of their siblings, or things they love to do with each other. I told them I would do the same for them. Our lists, which must be created with thoughtful consideration, will be read out loud at a family dinner I am organizing this Friday night in celebration of the holiday.
As I made my announcement, I was, predictably, greeted with eye rolls from my 12 and 13 year-old daughters. My eight-year-old son, however, was immediately on board. The winter has been a hard one, with too many snow days spent cooped up in the house. It is safe to say we have all been getting on each other’s nerves. I think my son was actually grateful for an opportunity to sway the mood here.
To my surprise, after lunch the children began diligently working on their respective lists. When they finished, they brought their musings to me, one by one, so that I would know they took the project seriously. As I read what they love about each other, I noticed that not one entry had anything to do with material possessions. “I love your beautiful curly hair,” one child wrote. “Your strength is something I love,” another listed. “I love how every time we fight, we always make up and become the closest sisters in the world again,” the last child wrote.
I was more than pleasantly surprised. One of my children wrote her list as an acrostic poem, using the first letter of her siblings’ names to begin every line. Another child added photos to her lists, personalizing them even further. Regardless of format, every list was created with kindness and respect. I was genuinely moved.
We didn’t leave the house again today. The weather outside was brutally cold and, as usual, it snowed. But for the remainder of the day, the children enjoyed each other’s company, without fighting. They played cards and board games, watched movies, and conversed. It was an ordinary day that turned out to be most memorable.
On Friday we will celebrate Valentine’s Day together, as a family. I announced that I am buying them each something small to acknowledge the holiday. Gifts will not be the focus. Much to my delight, no one complained.
My middle child did express concern that there is no no special man in my life who will give me something for Valentine’s Day. At that, I simply smiled. My daughter had not yet realized how she and her siblings already gave me a greater gift than I could ever have hoped for.
This article appeared on MariaShriver.com February 11, 2014.