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Love notes, affirmations, heart-shaped pancakes: Parents share how they make their kids the focus on Valentine's Day

A woman and her young son sit on a couch together and look at a Valentine's Day card with a red heart on the front.
Parents share how they celebrate Valentine’s Day with their kids. (Getty Images)

Columnist Jenn Morson is a freelance writer whose words appear in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post and many other print and online publications. She lives with her husband and six kids in Maryland.

When I was little, my mom made a really big deal out of Valentine’s Day. We would come downstairs on Feb. 14 and find individualized gifts on our breakfast plates. There was never anything extravagant or expensive, just a smallish stuffed animal with some candy hearts and maybe one of those mini Whitman’s Samplers accompanied by a handwritten note, usually on a heart-shaped doily glued to red construction paper. She’d make us heart-shaped pancakes and then for dinner, heart-shaped pizza.

When I was away at college, my mom sent a small, heart-themed care package each year, always with a short note letting me know that I was loved. She even sent them after I had graduated.

Because my mom took the time to let me know that I was loved, that someone appreciated me, those years of awkward adolescence and even a couple of years of broken hearts and unrequited love didn’t sting quite as much. I may not have had a boyfriend, but I still had someone in my corner who remembered to send me chocolate and a handwritten reminder that I mattered.

Now that I’m a mother myself, I am carrying on her tradition. Each February, I gather a small supply of candy and small treats, and I make sure that when my children get up for school, they find a breakfast table decorated for the holiday. I want to give my children the same gift that my mother gave me: the safety of feeling loved unconditionally. It’s not that I don’t also cherish their father, or that we don’t also practice romantic gestures like exchanging cards and treats, but we want our children to feel secure in our love for them as they move from childhood to adolescence and beyond. And many other parents view Valentine’s Day as a similar opportunity.

For Shari Lopez, the first weeks of February mean daily affirmations for her children. “It’s not a Shari original — I think I got the idea off of Pinterest — but I start hanging heart-shaped notes on the kids’ bedroom doors,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Each note is a love note [or] a compliment, but short and sweet.”

On the actual morning of Valentine’s Day, Lopez leaves a surprise on her children’s beds, usually some candy and a small toy. “I know it means something to them, because this year I will be out of town and their first concern was about their Valentine’s notes!”

Ria Fruscello and her husband started their own paper heart note tradition about 10 years ago. Fruscello says that at first, making Valentine’s Day kid-centered was her idea, but her husband joined in shortly thereafter. “When we got married, we committed to making an effort in our relationship every single day, so neither of us thought that we needed a special day for love,” Fruscello tells Yahoo Life.

What Fruscello and her husband didn’t expect, however, was that after a few years, they came downstairs for breakfast on Valentine’s Day and found a poster covered in red and pink hearts that their children had created to list all the ways in which they loved their parents. “I was bawling my eyes out,” Fruscello says, “but they really do learn from our example.”

Valentine’s Day has never been a romantic holiday for mom Janine Howard. “Even in high school, my friends and I would celebrate ‘Galentine’s’ instead, despite having boyfriends,” she tells Yahoo Life. “I don’t like roses or heart-shaped chocolate boxes or any of the other typical romantic gifts and stereotypical gestures that are socially acceptable for Valentine’s Day.”

Because her love language is acts of service, showing appreciation for those she loves on Valentine’s Day comes naturally. Howard likes to decorate her home for the holiday and celebrate her family in the days leading up to it. “If time allows, we do pink heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast and strawberry milk,” she says. “And if it’s a weekend, we celebrate by going out and doing something together as a family, then I’ll make a nice dinner and decorate the table with candles and heart confetti.”

Howard also says she makes sure to tell her husband and kids how much she loves them that day and be extra-attentive to their needs. “At night, we usually watch a movie together or play a family board game, and my husband and I exchange something small,” she says. “Valentine’s in our home is about family and togetherness, and making sure especially that the kids understand that our love for them is endless and unconditional.”

When Adam Ellis and his wife first started dating, she made it clear that Valentine’s Day just didn’t fit her vibe. “She was this antiestablishment goth girl, and both of us are the type to not love things we feel are overhyped and commercialized, so the holiday never fit our relationship,” he says.

But then they had four daughters, and for Ellis, it was essential that their girls always knew they were worthy and deserving of love and respect. “I want them to know it’s good and healthy to feel and receive love from their partners when they grow up,” he says.

So Ellis decided to make Valentine’s Day a time when he could spoil them a little bit. “I could buy them jewelry, make them feel grown up and hopefully set an example of what they should expect in partners to come,” he says. “And it helps that they have me wrapped around their little fingers and I just like buying them presents.”

What an expert says

All of these ways in which parents support their children, whether on Valentine’s Day or the rest of the year, are an essential part of development. According to family therapist Mayra Mendez, such efforts should not be a one-time gesture but rather a continual undertaking that carries into adulthood. “Tell your child you love them, model kindness and genuine appreciation of their existence, show children you are proud of them and make them your valentine for life,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Do this every day, with the added affirmation on Valentine’s Day, and promotion of a child’s self-confidence is undeniably ensured.”

She adds, “Supporting a child in building self-confidence promotes growth in their ability to show and accept love, compassion, empathy, kindness and value for others.”