Can We Please Call a Truce on the Elementary Cuteness Wars?

Before you come for me, let me just say that I’ve been “that teacher” and “that parent.” Have I assembled lucky money envelopes for every student in my preschooler’s class? Yes. Have I made “It’s Crunch Time! You’ve Got This” slips for state testing and attached tiny chocolate bars? Yes, yes I have. And yet, I am calling for an end to the elementary cuteness wars (otherwise known as the endless demands—both unwritten and explicit—on moms and teachers to create adorable projects, treats, goodie bags, and the like). Here’s why.

It sets unrealistic expectations.

As women, I think we’re sometimes our own worst enemies. I do feel like there is an element of one-upmanship here. And yes, I am specifically calling out women. I don’t want to be gender normative (or suggest that this never affects men), but I think it’s important to recognize that this is primarily an issue for moms and female teachers. We are the ones who tend to fall into this trap of thinking that having social media–worthy bulletin boards or creating the best Crazy Hair Day ‘Do are things we’re supposed to do as teachers and as mothers of school-age children. It’s simply not true, and it only serves to add to what’s already on our overcrowded plates. It’s unsustainable, it’s competitive, and it’s not fair to any of us.

It’s not fair to our kids either. We’re setting them up to expect perfection. I always worry about teens doing these big “promposals” and Sweet 16 parties, because what are they going to expect for their weddings? It’s the same idea. You get so many “first day of school” survival kits (Pencils! Band-Aids! Adorable poem!), and you start to expect them. Not only that, but I worry that our kids will grow up and think that they have to do all this (but bigger and better) for their own children in order to be good parents. And that’s just not the case.

It’s not really for the kids.

There’s part of this that feels performative. Yeah, I said it. And I said it about myself, too. Because if I’m being honest, the reason I do a lot of these projects is because I like the attention—specifically having people tell me how creative and clever I am. And if that weren’t the case, then I wouldn’t post pictures on social media. And I wouldn’t go back and fix my daughter’s pom-pom placement on the valentines that are supposedly from her. But I do.

I also know that most kids don’t care. They like the Spider-man valentines from the store just as much as the “Olive You” valentines that I spent three hours cutting, coloring, and punching tiny hearts out of. There are a few exceptions. I have former students who’ve kept all my notes, but I happen to think my words mattered more than the fact that they were “hand-stamped by Kimmie.” For the most part, all those cute things I’ve made for my students and my kids’ classes have ended up in the trash. I know because I watched them do it (couldn’t even wait until they got home—that’s how much it didn’t matter).

Pinterest itself isn’t the problem.

I cook almost exclusively with recipes I’ve found on social media, and I love a themed birthday party. Don’t believe me? The pictures in this article are mine. (Yes, I’m an enormous hypocrite, but I am trying here.) And I already know that folks are going to tell me that projects bring them joy. That’s fine. But if you’re anything like me, it’s a slippery slope. I know that joy quickly devolves into anxiety and stress if I’m doing something that I don’t actually have time or energy for.

I’m not saying you have to ditch your “Throw Kindness Like Confetti” classroom door decor or that you can never again make Hershey’s Kisses acorns for your kid’s class, but let’s put some guardrails around this type of stuff. I know the argument: Leave people alone. Let them do what they want in their own classrooms/homes. It doesn’t affect you. But the truth is it does affect other people. It’s really hard to be the one teacher who doesn’t do the Elf or the only mom who doesn’t send in an elaborate leprechaun trap. This only works if we’re all in it together.

Cuteness doesn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things.

I think we can all agree that crafty moms aren’t better moms. Teachers with themed classrooms aren’t better teachers. What makes a good parent when it comes to their child’s education is involvement, advocacy, and being a part of their educational team (and that looks different for different people). The best teachers are caring and committed to giving their students the best learning experience possible. Cute can be fun, but when it comes to evaluating your effectiveness, it just doesn’t factor in.

Remember how I said this mostly affects women? Dare I suggest that this is the patriarchy trying to distract us from what’s really important? If they have us busy making churro cupcakes, maybe we won’t demand paid leave, affordable childcare, or a professional wage for teachers. I get that those are big things, and in a world where so much is out of our control, planting tiny succulents for 30 children feels like something we can do. But if we can collectively agree to protect our time and refuse the guilt trip, we’ll have a lot more energy for what actually matters.

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