As I write this, I am just a few days past the valentine-making phase I go through each year with our kids. This year, since our oldest is in middle school, only Annie and Daniel made valentines for their classmates.
I do kind of dread when the project begins. I feel immediate mental exhaustion even before cutting the first heart. As the kids get older, they do more of it solo, but I find I still need to build in some structure to allow it to happen. My reminders, support around what to write, creative suggestions (when requested), and help with clean-up are still required.
Each year I invariably think, is it worth it?
I guess it must be worth it, because, as a family, we continue to embark on this endeavor year after year. But this time, I looked at the homemade valentines from yet another angle: the Green Triangle.
In 1990, Ernest Callenbach wrote an article describing his idea of the Green Triangle. It boils down to this: When you make a positive change in one area of your life, it also affects other areas positively.
The three points of the Green Triangle stand for MONEY, ENVIRONMENT, and HEALTH. The classic example Callenbach uses is someone commuting to work by bicycle. Perhaps they made this change iniitally to save money on gasoline and car wear and tear. However, riding to work daily also helps the environment by reducing pollution and carbon emissions. And, in most cases, it improves a person’s health.
This year, as I sat with my gluey-fingered valentine creators, I pondered how our homemade valentine effort fell on the Green Triangle. We began making our own valentines when Todd was still in graduate school and we needed to save money any way we could. Thus we began at the MONEY point of the triangle.
When it comes to ENVIRONMENT, we are reusing items we already own to make much of the valentines (cutting up old Christmas cards, or reusing other art projects in some way). So we are not generating more stuff that will eventually end up in a landfill. We also don’t travel anywhere to buy the valentines. This seems small, but I suppose if we fashioned many more of our own things, we’d create less pollution from our reduced car time.
Next we come to the point of the triangle labeled HEALTH. You may wonder, how does making your own valentines increase your health? When I think back to the all the inky, glue-spattered fingers that are invariably licked in the process of creating valentines, I have to agree we’ve got a few points against health there. However, being a psychologist, I’m never far away from the topic of mental health, which also falls under HEALTH.
In fact, I believe MENTAL HEALTH is the main reason I continue to do this project with my kids each year. A little background: Early on a teacher required that each valentine must include a compliment for the recipient. I loved this idea, and we have continued it annually.
Therefore, during valentine creation, my kids have to spend time thinking of an appropriate compliment for each child in their class. This part is actually what takes a while.
We spend time thinking and talking about each child in their class as we make valentines. Sometimes this conversation leads to a discussion of a struggle my child is having with a classmate, and we take time out to problem-solve. However, usually this exercise gives my kids an overall feeling of gratitude. It makes sense, they’ve just thought of positive things about the people with whom they spend their school day. How could they not come away feeling appreciative?
As you may have guessed, my kids have to write more than “You are nice” on their valentines. But I also don’t require them to shoot for the moon. They tend to write compliments such as, “I really liked the poem you read in class. You are a good poet.” Or, “You dribble the ball really well on our basketball team.”
Helping my kids spend time thinking about the children at their school is also valuable because it helps them better understand their social world. These days, it seems too easy for kids, especially boys, to go through childhood without thinking much about the experiences of others. Reading social cues in the classroom is a skill that makes school smoother for kids. I didn’t realize it when we first started our valentine-making routine, but this is a rather painless way for my kids to work on this skill. And they can practice gratitude simultaneously!
Since the valentine-creation process takes place over many days at our house, I had ample time to consider the Green Triangle concept. It was fun to think of different changes we are working on as a family and to fit them into Callenbach’s idea. It’s also such a hopeful way to view making a change. In our busy lives, it can feel overwhelming to take on something new. It helps me to remember that a new behavior may be affecting more than one area of my life positively. It nicely addresses my parental need for efficiency.
In reading about the Green Triangle, I came across another writer who suggested that the triangle be changed to a Green Diamond, with the final angle labeled COMMUNITY. I like this idea because it supports psychology research findings that people who are more socially connected are healthier and less depressed than isolated folks.
After school on Valentine’s Day, Annie received a phone call from a girl in her class. In first grade you don’t receive many phone calls, so this was exciting in and of itself. It turned out the little girl was so happy to have received Annie’s heartfelt compliment on the uniquely designed valentine that she wanted to phone Annie to thank her. The girls chatted for a while, and Annie was beaming when she hung up.
Suzita Cochran is a child and family psychologist and mom of two boys and a girl who lives in Boulder, Colorado. At her parenting blog, Play. Fight. Repeat. She writes on topics such as helping kids “stop at enough” in today’s overflowing-with-options-and-items world. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.