Children make art constantly. From the earliest age, adults press crayons into their hands. Art offers kids something to do, and folk wisdom holds that it’s good for them, too. But after the activity is over, the artwork sticks around. And that’s where the problems start.
My young children leave their art everywhere. I find most of it on the floor. It gets ripped, crumpled, or marked up with footprints. I confront it mostly when bending over to pick it up. Often, I encounter a drift of several layers of drawings, spilling off glitter and painted rice. Others tumble off the refrigerator.
After a few years, I had a crisis over what to do with it all. I hadn’t yet started the carefully curated collection that I remember my own mother making for me. And in truth, it’s difficult to choose which pieces to keep. “Oh, but we have to keep this one,” I think, every single time. And if this one, why not another?
Eventually, I started throwing it all away. Perhaps I am a monster. But the relief involved leads me to believe I’m onto something. What parents do with children’s art depends on what they think about the nature of childhood, nostalgia, and beauty.
The correct answer is to make the art, bestow it upon someone to behold and admire for a while, and then toss it. It makes the right tribute to beauty and it’s the correct moral stance toward the more ephemeral qualities of childhood.
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Debates about the proper way to value and preserve art have existed for millennia. For example, Socrates was known for his willingness to discard all art completely, on the grounds that any representation amounted to a false truth. But Plato, his student, was exceedingly concerned with his own work’s preservation. He went to great lengths to compose art to protect the search for truth.
Socrates might ask what children gain by making visual art in their earliest years—especially when that art bears little aesthetic value. Does the physical record of youthful attempts contain some virtue, beyond aesthetics, that makes it worth preserving? Is this sort of nostalgia good for the soul, or is it ultimately a weakness that fails to offer satisfaction?
The beloved Mr. Rogers made a compelling case for the practice of art even when there’s not much personal skill involved. In a phrase now immortalized in meme, he said, “I’m not very good at it, but it feels good to have made something.” This advice continues to resonate, as the trend of adult coloring books attests. Some universities even offer “coloring-book days” for stressed-out undergrads. Whether the art is any good or not, doing it is thought to make kids smarter, more confident, and more emotionally grounded.
Children’s art does contain some beauty, too. In the movie Six Degrees of Separation, the actor Stockard Channing’s art-world-obsessed husband observes that the local second graders produce what amounts to Matisse after Matisse. There’s something beautifully nonchalant, effortlessly engaging, in each new creation that arrives home from school, proudly presented to parents.
But there’s also a strange time limit to its freshness, after which this initial impression of ease turns into pathos. At first, something quite marvelous is expressed on the page. But soon enough, everything that is wrong or missing becomes more apparent. In the end, this incompleteness drowns the rest out.
Eventually, if you’ve looked at it often enough, the art becomes pitiful, emptied of meaning. It remains, at best, a sign that the child has moved on to another equally ephemeral moment of her life, already coloring on something else. The crisis of children’s art starts here, when the work feels both important and irritating all at once.
That feeling might just be you contemplating your own mortality. Recently, both my mother and my mother-in-law began grand, house-emptying projects. A steady stream of their discards—boxes full of grade-school medals, ribbons, papers, drawings, and paintings—arrived at my house. After the first box, my husband wanted to throw it all out immediately. As a collection, however, a complete set of our juvenilia, it seemed to me too momentous to get rid of all at once.
After two boxes, it became too much. The collection demanded a self-reckoning too onerous to undertake. After a while, even the pleasure of looking at it was gone. That’s a bad sign when it comes to art. Real art gives you tools for reflection. But there wasn’t anything left of myself to reckon with in my old art, because the papers I had cast marker or crayon upon at age 5 had never really contained that kind of artistry or inspiration. It produced terror in me rather than comfort to be faced with the sheer volume of time completely forgotten, days spent indoors on a task whose completion went into boxes.
That’s when I first tried throwing away my own young children’s art. Of course, I felt an ache as I pitched it into the trash. There’s a moment when a child first presents you with her art, holding it out with the last split second of attention she can muster after completing it. That moment contains a burst of pride on both your parts, and a frisson of mutual love. But in the end, your pride lasts longer than the child’s does. Eventually, and soon, it must move on to another venture. Theirs always does, but yours lingers, heartstrings tugged.
It’s the wish to prolong this moment artificially, I think, that motivates the urge to keep and curate your children’s art for posterity. You convince yourself there’s some future where your child will want to return to that moment of pride and love through the act of witnessing the thing she made so long ago.
Don’t fall for it. You’re only trying to make yourself feel better. You’ll never quite be able to tell which moment your children will remember, and it’s not as if you can regulate that memory on their behalf anyway. And besides, childhood is made from a thousand moments just like this. There’s no way to hold on to all of them.
It makes sense to me that, for my parents’ generation—Boomers raised on nostalgia—collecting my art into boxes seemed like time well spent. It was reasonable to guess that I might wish to spend my adult life buried in the past. But I feel differently.
Nostalgia for youth is probably inevitable. It’s certainly not the vice of any one generation alone, although it can become characteristic of an age. But saving your children’s art stretches the goodwill of even the most powerful nostalgia.
If it’s the act of making the art that’s useful and good for children, then let this part of the art live, and then let its results die. Like its aesthetic quality, the output of children’s artistic efforts is incomplete. Throwing it away actually does everyone a favor. It completes the artistic life cycle, allowing ephemera to be just that: actually ephemeral. Childhood is like that, too—or that’s how parents ought to think about it. Kids thrash about until a more recognizable self takes hold. Then they turn their attention toward preserving that developing self. The paperwork they produce along the way is mostly a means to that end.
There’s a point, perhaps around the age of 7, when memory takes over and a self-history starts, where children themselves decide what’s important to them and what isn’t. Of course, you shouldn’t throw something away that your kids say they want to keep. But absent that urge, and particularly in the early years before it develops, most children’s art exists to be destroyed. The point of life isn’t to prolong youth, but to have grown up. That requires discarding things along the way, and enjoying the appropriate relief. That’s the kind of activity a parent ought to put their moral and aesthetic weight behind.