Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Conversation hearts

There's an interesting book to be written about the way cultural celebrations are packaged for the consumption of children. Christmas, Easter, July Fourth -- these are all big moments in our culture whose original audience is adults who can appreciate the quite serious narratives, religious and political, that are therein commemorated. But at least in the first two cases, the children's version has come to predominate. We may even feel that children are the primary celebrants, and that the activities should cater to them.

Valentine's Day is another case in point. It's a cultural celebration of romantic love, and that would seem to be a tough sell to prepubescents. In truth, however, the marketplace has been extraordinarily successful creating an innocent, egalitarian, cartoon version that barely acknowledges the notion of one's Valentine as a sweetheart, partner, crush, stalkee, or otherwise object of affection or devotion.

Elementary age kids give Valentines to everyone in their class and wouldn't dare single out (or slight) anyone. It's a great occasion to accuse someone of liking someone else, with all the associated teasing, giggling and indignant denials. But it's hardly a romantic holiday for kids; it's hardly even about love. At best it's about friendship. The cards all convey vague regard through puns on Transformers or Scooby-Doo.

I'm wondering whether Valentine's Day is going to start changing for Cady Gray soon. After a brief conversation about crushes the other day apropos of nothing I can recall, she confessed to me that she has two crushes. "This is really embarrassing," she laughed repeatedly. And at the same time, she's suddenly become interested in doing a themed mailbox. Every year up until now, we've pulled out stickers and wrapping paper and played it by ear, but she announced that her friends all had big plans to make their mailboxes look like football fields or jerseys, and that she wanted to participate.

At some point, Valentine's Day transitions into the chance to revel in your couplehood or, if you're brave, to make advances to someone you like. I wonder how long it will be before one of my kids crosses that border.

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