It's a day parents anticipate with a mix of excitement and dread. As Valentine's Day approaches, children around the city burst through their school doors, backpacks overflowing with expressions of love.

Over the years, the tradition of exchanging small, understated valentines in the classroom has morphed into a flurry of heavily commercial cards, starring your child's favourite super hero or Disney princess.

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Valentine's Day gifts can include pencils, paper airplanes, tattoos, Play-Doh and stickers. (Submitted by Hanna Cedergren)

But many parents are finding their children's school bags are now laden with more than just cards and chocolate.

"I have a table full of not just valentines but candy and little toys," said Calgary mother of two Hanna Cedergren. "I was quite shocked ... just at the amount stuff that came home."

Valentine's loot can include small gifts such such as pencils, bubbles, Play-Doh, tattoos, homemade cookies and countless dollar-store finds.

"I just think that there's too much commercialism in it all," said Cedergren

​Valentine's trinkets getting expendable 

While parents like Cedergren choose to avoid the marketing frenzy, parenting expert Julie Freedman-Smith says others get caught up in the materialism of it all.

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Emma MacGillvary, left, and Jade Clifford, right, hold one of the cards crafted by students at Mother Mary Greene School and given to seniors at a nearby retirement home. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

"Instead of just the card, maybe it's some candy. Or maybe it's the card, and cookies. And cookies and a pencil, and a pencil and something else. So there is a tendency right now for stuff to be a big deal."

Freedman-Smith, co-founder of Parenting Power, says social media can exacerbate the keeping up with the Joneses-mentality and the parental guilt that goes along with it.

"When we see what people are doing on social media or Pinterest or any of these different ways, then we think 'Oh my gosh, everybody else is doing this. I'm the only one that's not. This is what needs to be done.'"

While the last minute dollar-store shopping spree may seem like a good idea, much of what children are giving and receiving is expendable.

"It's one big landfill dump," said Freedman-Smith. "How much garbage do I want to contribute? So if you are giving something, can you give something that is junk-free? How can your family think about that?"

Expectations have escalated

While romantic expectations between couples tend to grow from year to year, marketing experts say children and parents now face similar pressures as retailers increasingly target them.

"First you give cards, then one year you give an eraser or a pencil, or a sticker. Then next year it escalates again," said Debie Andrus, assistant professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business.

"That's where I think that people get caught in this escalating expectation. And they need to really think about how they want to mark that day or not mark it"

Consider a simpler way 

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Elise Saraceni, principal at Mother Mary Greene Elementary School, says the idea to make hand-made cards for seniors in the community came from the students. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

In an effort to move away from the growing commercialism surrounding Valentine's Day, students at one Calgary school have taken a much simpler approach to showing their love.

This year — in addition to their traditional valentines exchanges — children at Mother Mary Greene school designed hand-made cards, including a poem, to give to the seniors living at a nearby assisted living complex

"We want students to think about the greater meaning behind these special occasions in the year. And really Valentine's Day is about showing love and showing kindness," said principal Elise Saraceni.

The idea came straight from the students.

valentine's day seniors mother mary greene school

Residents of Revera Edgemont retirement home, Billy McPhail, left, and Ellen Hansen, right, received hand-made valentines from students at a nearby elementary school. (Submitted by Andries Flierjans )

"We do get lots of candy, but it's nice to do more than just eat chocolate on Valentine's Day. You want to actually do something nice for people," said Grade 5 student Emma MacGillvary.

Classmate Jade Clifford agrees the project was a success. "It was really nice to do something kind for the seniors. I think it made their day."

And according to parenting expert Julie Freedman-Smith, projects like that make for perfect teaching moments.

"My guess is that that connection is going to last a lot longer — the memory of that connection — than the candy hearts that got eaten in thirty seconds and are gone."