Well, the day is almost here. That Hallmarked holiday, primarily romantic in its focus, embraced by some, loathed by others, depending on one’s relationship circumstances or history …
In the last week I have seen stories in the local newspaper about how to determine when and whether to be the first one to declare your love in a romantic relationship; how to deal with being single on The Big Day; how critical it is to place flower, candy, and stuffed animal orders early, since florists across the continental US are warning customers that snow and frigid temperatures may impede deliveries. (According to a report on NPR this morning, this is indeed a serious concern — roses by the hundreds have filled every square inch of some shops, with owners terrified they may not reach their intended recipients.) The sea of pink and red has filled the aisles of every drug store and grocery store since December, and the department and jewelry store circulars have been stuffing mail boxes for the past two weeks.
I am a proponent of Valentine’s Day, having enjoyed it to varying degrees of intensity in my own life. I’ve had fun with this day, and some sadness as well — all self-inflicted, admittedly, by choice and attitude.
Yet during the last two weeks at school, I have been quite taken by some interactions witnessed in our early childhood centers — both related to and unrelated to the holiday — that have again reminded me this day can be celebrated from many standpoints.
There are so many ways to express care and love, right? Leave it to small children to bring this to your attention. Even the tiniest children show altruism and kindness, particularly as it is modeled to them. Last week I was observing the 2 year-olds from the classroom observation booth. A teacher was reading the very popular book, No, David! by David Shannon, about a little boy who can’t seem to stop getting in trouble. The teacher was sitting on the end of a couch, with four boys and one girl squeezed together in a charmingly tight row to the other end. They were captivated by the story, whose lines continuously admonish David to stop doing what he’s doing (tracking mud into the house, throwing a baseball in the living room, trashing his bedroom, creating tidal waves in the bathtub). At one point, the boy seated next to the teacher held up another book he’d been holding, and she realized he’d ripped pages from it as he listened to the story (a fairly common 2-year-old behavior). She stopped the story briefly but purposely to express her dismay at the torn pages, letting him know he would have fix the book, and calling to her teaching partner to assist him in this process. The other teacher quietly took him by the hand, walking him to the art table where they joined another child. The teacher sat him down next to her and helped him open the book and tear off some clear packing tape to begin the repair process. Two year-olds don’t have strong fine motor skills, so the teacher did most of the work as he watched closely. She gently uttered a statement about “taking care of our books so we can always read them when we want to” and then asked him to return it to the shelf. He then rejoined the group. A small lesson on caretaking the environment, and taking responsibility for your mistakes –calmly but thoroughly carried out. No rejection or marginalizing. (I have observed these two teachers, on so many occasions, respond lovingly to very upset, crying 2 year-olds. They are preternaturally calm during meltdowns and extended crying jags. They achieve mighty feats with tiny creatures.)
Be Kind. Be Safe. Be Neat. These are the three best guidelines ever developed by whoever developed them. Yes, they are intended for young children, but adults could use them as a trio of principles by which to live. Easy to remember, easy to understand. Just a little harder to put into action.
Today I was visiting the ECE center at our other campus. The bulletin board in the 3-4 year-old classroom caught my eye: it depicted a giant construction paper gum ball machine with a pile of multi-colored gum balls filling the bottom portion of the reservoir. I asked one of the teachers about it. She explained that this was the outgrowth of a focus on kindness, begun at the start of the week, as a vantage point for discussing Valentine’s Day. They read the book, Have You Filled Your Bucket Today? by Carol McLoud and David Message. The book uses a bucket as a metaphor for a place where one holds good thoughts and feelings about self and others. You “fill a bucket when you show love, [or] do something kind,” and you dip a bucket when you “make fun, say or do mean things, or ignore [someone].
The teachers provided a real bucket in the classroom into which children could toss examples of ways they had shown kindness to classmates. This symbol gave way to the gum ball concept after an unexpected, though not completely surprising, foray into kindness-competition. The gum ball machine proved a more expansive way to help the whole class visually track their acts of kindness. While the acts are discussed at group time, and a gum ball is added to the machine, nothing is written to describe the act itself. The impact seems to come as the days unfold, and the gum balls fill the reservoir. I counted 66 so far.
The group plans to distribute Valentines to the college students tomorrow morning. The teacher recalled doing this same activity last year, describing how a tall, brawny male student wept upon receiving a Valentine. So you never know how you might affect someone with a caring act.
Children are getting valuable lessons in reaching out, taking care, being kind, and enjoying first friendships. They are seeing that their behavior truly has an impact on others. These are the roots of empathy. These activities are a terrific spin on the romantic angle of Valentine’s Day. I’m not implying that similar things aren’t happening in early childhood programs across the country (or maybe it ‘s my hope they are). But I’m glad to have witnessed them first-hand.
Of course, these experiences children were having got me thinking about adult civility and kindness in conjunction with Valentine’s Day. After all, if children can do this, why can’t we? Could we possibly re-think our notions of Valentine’s Day and broaden its appeal beyond the realm of romance? We can and many of us do, I think. (Parents give their children valentines, friends give each other valentines, co-workers do so as well.)
I began thinking about the kindnesses I’ve experienced over the last several weeks and months. It’s not a bad way to reflect on your life. I’d like to share of few of them here.
This past fall a student I’ve not seen for a couple of years came to me during a conference to give me a pair of crocheted slippers and to thank me for a class she’d taken with me. They were beautiful. I have worn them often. I can also attest to how well I can moon-walk with them in my kitchen. So, they’ve kept me warm and have kept me dancing. (And yes, I am one fine Moon-Walker. So there.)
Our next door neighbor has consistently cleaned the sidewalk in front of our house with his snow blower (I shovel). I baked some brownies as a thank you and we had a nice visit.
One of my students from last fall came to my office after the semester was over and presented me with a lovely box of cupcakes.
A friend of mine gave me a set of two matching chains with charms — one for me and the other to hang on a tree that my siblings and I recently dedicated to our youngest sister, who passed away two years ago. She never knew her. But she has listened to me describe her and has read what I’ve written about her. And she’s expressed admiration for her. Had they ever met they would have been fast friends. Of that I’m certain.
I’ve received kind public comments on this blog — wow. I’ve also received private compliments on it. Folks who have done this didn’t have to do so, yet the took the time anyway. (They filled my bucket! Well, they filled my gum ball machine, maybe too.)
The gentleman who delivers our newspaper has been walking it all the way up to the step near the front door during this Polar Vortex of 2014. That means he has vacated his car to do so, rather than winging it from the rolled down window. I have tried all this week to catch him to give him a gift card but he has come and gone too fast for me so far. He’s like a paper delivery leprechaun. But I’m not giving up, and shall continue to monitor his arrival daily until I’m successful. Goodness. It shouldn’t be so challenging to offer thanks. Unless he really is a leprechaun.
All of these kindnesses were unexpected, of course — and perhaps for that reason, so deeply appreciated.
So, I’d like to suggest that we continue to expand our meaning of Valentine’s Day, to broaden it to include civility, kindness, and empathy.
And with that, I would like to rename February 14 ValenKind Day.
I wish you all a Very Happy One!
May your gum ball machine always be full.