The New Year’s Day noise makers and confetti have barely come off the store shelves when heart shaped boxes of Valentine’s chocolates, doilies, red construction paper, and Valentine’s cards seem to take their place overnight. Red hearts and cupids seem to be everywhere. Even though February 14 is weeks away, not so subtle reminders of the importance of sending roses to your spouse or making the day into something special for your family are already appearing in magazines and papers. It’s time to think about L-O-V-E.
Commercialism shouldn’t deter us. Valentine’s Day is a day of warmth in the depth of winter. It’s a holiday that gives us permission to be sentimental and gushy; to say out loud or send a message that we love someone special, are thankful for our families, take joy in our friendships, and appreciate the people we work with. Valentine’s Day can be a time to think about who and how we love.
Family love is at the top of my list. It doesn’t surprise me that 40 percent of Valentine’s Day cards are sent by parents or that the lifestyle magazines urge us to bake a heart shaped cake for the family dinner. Valentine’s Day gives us parents yet another opportunity to tell our kids how much they mean to us.
It goes both ways. Many of us cherish the Valentines that were made by our young kids. Whether it’s a lopsided drawing of a heart presented by a pre-schooler or a poem of the “roses are red” variety penned by a third grader, there’s something especially precious about them. As they get older, and reach the embarrassed-to–know-you-but-still–love-you stage, Valentine’s Day sometimes give teens an excuse to show we’re still loved, if not tolerated. Fast forward a few years to when they’ve forgiven us for being their parents and adult children start sending cards and flowers. Valentines sent around a family – between siblings, to relatives, or between parents and children – are an affirmation of the almost magical connection found in families who, despite the very real stresses of life, have managed to create and maintain powerful and positive ties.
I call this the “heart part” of a successful family. It is the heart that provides safety and warmth to all within its embrace. It is what transforms the very ordinary and repetitious tasks of daily life into expressions of mutual support and care. It is what celebrates the dailyness of love and belonging and helps everyone cope in times of challenges, separations, and even tragedies. When the “heart part” is strong, it provides both children and adults with what they need emotionally and psychologically to become their best versions of themselves in spite of whatever stresses come their way.
Heart doesn’t happen automatically just because people are born to each other. Like any living thing, the heart of a family requires attention and nurturance. Despite the fact that most people want familial love and safety (and despair if they don’t have it), they sometimes neglect it when overstressed and take it for granted when they’re not.
Valentine’s Day gives us reason to put the family heart in focus and to make its importance tangible with gifts of flowers and chocolate. But a family heart needs tending every day. The love that radiates from the family makes everyone within its circle feel safe, supported, and warm. It’s worth the effort.
How to Tend the Family Heart
Family meals matter: Convening the family at least a few times a week for family meals (whether dinner or a sit down breakfast) is a statement that the family is important. Grazing out of the fridge can keep people fed but slowing down to eat together keeps everyone in each other’s life. The conversation, bad jokes, even the bickering, means that family members are engaged with each other.
Regular small gestures count big: It’s the little things – a pat on the shoulder, a good luck note in the lunch bag, a mug of coffee handed to someone who is rushing out the door – that say “you count. You’re special enough for me to pay attention to.” When family members take the time to do such things for each other (and do them often), everyone feels noticed, understood, and appreciated. I can’t think of a better way to enhance the self-esteem of every member and to enrich the family’s heart.
Actions are louder than words: Woody Allen is quoted as saying that “eighty percent of success is showing up.” I agree. At least 80% of nurturing the heart in a family is being there for each other. That means attending each other’s games, special events, or occasions. It means taking the time to listen when someone is down, standing up for each other when we can, and talking about each other with pride. It means that everyone, from youngest to oldest, knows that their presence at any milestone matters. When people are committed to being there for each other generously and with enthusiasm, it warms the family heart.
Family adventures make family memories: For young kids, anything new and different is an adventure. When those adventures are shared by the whole family, they become the stuff of shared memories. Whether it is as simple as having a picnic in the snow or as complicated as getting the whole gang to go camping together for a week, when it’s just family, something different happens. Without the distractions of other people or electronic devices, we connect in new and important ways that strengthen the family heart.
Actions such as these are the valentines of every day. When parents tend to the heart part of their families, regularly and with care, they strengthen family identity and provide security for everyone in it. When the heart beats steadily, love for one another deepens and relationships become more complex and certain.
As for February 14: By all means make Valentine’s Day an event. Give out chocolates and flowers at breakfast. Put Conversation Hearts in lunch boxes. Text “XXX OOO” to your teens and bring your spouse a rose. Have dinner together and serve that heart shaped cake. The heart part of our families deserves a special day.