The conversation began and ended quickly. It went something like this:
Me: We’re going to go to the store to buy cards to give to your friends.
Me: We’ll write their names on the cards. And you can put on stickers.
Me: You’ll get to be the mailman and put the cards in their special boxes.
Him: No. Yes. No. Yes. YES!
I laughed and then held him tighter. This conversation wasn’t really about any kind of rejection of Valentine’s Day. For my 5-year-old with Fragile X Syndrome, it was simply a refusal to change the daily routine and do anything out of the norm. But then, a spark of interest, curiosity—something was new and special. He was intrigued. And I’m running with it, full of love and pride and joy.
There have been times in my life when I could have been that mother, the one who puts up a fight about her Jewish child being “forced” to participate in the public school’s celebration of Valentine’s Day. True, we do not celebrate Valentine’s Day as a family, just like we don’t celebrate Halloween (except to give out candy to those who ring our doorbell). But as my children grow and mature—and so do I—I’ve come to accept and appreciate Valentine’s Day within the public school system, and I look forward to my child’s experience of celebrating the holiday with his peers.
Valentine’s Day is a day to express love, regardless of what Hallmark has done to it. And I am nothing if not full of love for my children. I want what is best for them. So as I celebrate my child with disabilities during this Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month (#JDAIM), here are seven love-filled reasons that I am thrilled my child will participate in Valentine’s Day in his public school:
1. He’ll face his fear of strangers. He cannot do this project on his own—clearly! So we have some special time planned to go to the store to buy the cards. I will give him money to pay at the store, and he will learn to interact with the cashier, thus working on his fear of strangers. My husband and I have recently added this concept into our son’s IEP because we don’t ever want to hear that he ran from a cashier, a mail carrier, or worse, a police officer, because he was scared. We want him to trust people in uniforms who are doing their job and could help him. So this alone is a huge moment of potential growth and learning in our community.
2. He’ll learn a new set of skills. Once we are home, I will work with my son to write his friends’ names on the cards, helping him hold a pencil and recognize letters. Then he will put stickers on the cards and seal the envelopes. These are all really important skills for any child, but especially one with disabilities who may be reluctant to try new tasks. We will talk about the friends as we write their names on the cards, and he’ll work on his fine motor skills as he decorates them. This is my opportunity as parent-educator to work with my child at home to help him grow and learn.
3. He’ll begin to understand how the postal system works. He knows the mailman comes to our house almost every day and that sometimes he receives a letter from a relative (or a book from PJ Library). But now he will be part of the experience, sealing envelopes at home, wearing a mailman’s hat at school when he delivers the cards, and opening the gifts from his friends when he returns home. This is an entire process—from start to finish—that he will participate in and I’ll get to help him. I imagine this process will also help with his general communication skills and understanding the concept of the “journey” of a piece of mail.
4. He’ll appreciate the blessings of gift giving. While Valentine’s Day is certainly not a Jewish holiday, the Torah portion we read this Shabbat (Terumah) teaches about gifts that people bring to help build the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary. I want my child to know that presents are not just something he receives, but something he can give as well.
5. He might feel “normal.” As a child with special needs, participating in Valentine’s Day is awesome simply because he can participate. He is included! This warms my heart. He should feel like every one of his peers, participating in the same activity as part of his community.
6. He will feel part of the real world and culture. Speaking of inclusion reminds me how much exclusion there still is in the world. Unfortunately, my child will not always feel included. But with the simple holiday of Valentine’s Day, when we see flowers and hearts in the grocery store, we can talk about his experience and he will feel part of something bigger. It’s another opportunity to get inside his brain a bit and understand more of who he is and what he experiences.
7. And finally, Valentine’s Day is about love. I don’t need to worry about the negative thoughts toward celebrating it—Jewish or otherwise—when I know that I am showing my child how much I love him, and teaching him to express love to his family and friends.
No, Valentine’s Day is not a Jewish holiday—there are not mitzvot associated with it—but I’m pretty sure that helping my child with disabilities celebrate Valentine’s Day in his public school is a huge mitzvah—for both of us!