We are outside playing precariously close to the recycling bin when my son decides to rummage through it.
“Mama, you threw away my picture of a shark eating a diver in a chain-metal suit!”
Me, incredulous: “I did? I don’t know how that ended up in there. Thank you so much for rescuing it.”
So goeth the daily dilemma over juvenile objets d’art. My kids think anything with so much as a crayon scribble is worth saving. My house, meanwhile, is gasping for air beneath an avalanche of construction paper.
I had to choose how to handle this dilemma. The scenarios: One, save everything. Two, don’t. Given the options, I’ve chosen to be ruthless. If it doesn’t make me laugh or cry, it’s gotta go.
Being mom to small, copious artwork-generating kids is essentially incompatible with my Type-A personality. I thrive on paring things down, weeding things out. In my house, I have eight trash cans for five people. I am allergic to clutter, which is not surprising considering I grew up in a home where my father saved everything, up to and including store circulars . He piled them up in his car, on his desk, on the floor of his closet. Still does. In response, I became a neat freak. And until I became a mother, or at least until the kids hit preschool, I was able to maintain a minimalist household. But now? My kids generate a minimum of one piece of artwork a day, and that’s conservative. If I never trashed any of it, I’d be overrun by nearly 10,000 pieces of paper by the time they left elementary school. Recently, I realized it was time for “the talk.” No, not that talk.
Gently, I took my oldest aside. “Sweets, we can’t save everything.”
Surely he’d understand.
I was met by a blank stare.
“Why not?” he asked, and he was serious.
I stammered something about not enough storage space. He looked confused. I felt guilty.
Honesty was not working. So I changed gears, fine-tuning my stealth art-disposal skills. If I’m going to throw it away, I make sure it’s wedged securely under several layers of potentially camouflaging detritus. Coffee grounds are good. Likewise with the recycling bin. I never toss that worksheet full of big A’s and little a’s near the top of the pile. Inquisitive eyes can spot one of their outcasts anywhere. I bury it beneath the Sunday paper and layer in a healthy dose of junk mail just to be safe. I’ve considered investing in a shredder.
Now that I have a kindergartener, I have more than just artwork to wrestle into submission. I have reams of classwork sent home in my son’s weekly folder, page upon page of blank-on-one-side Connect the Dots and Color by Number. Initially, he took to hanging each mimeographed sheet on the picture wire strung along the kitchen window where we display masterpieces.
I took to taking them down. I quickly learned my lesson when I saw the hurt look on my son’s face, which made me feel like I’d just desecrated the Mona Lisa and set his scholastic ambitions back light years, all in one fell swoop.
There are things you talk about and things you don’t when it comes to parenting. Trashing artwork falls into the taboo category. It goes against the grain of everything you learn about raising children. It’s not nurturing. In fact, it’s downright disrespectful.
My friend Jennifer doesn’t see it that way. The essence of practicality, she culls through and consigns to a box a few pieces she deems worthy. The rest goes straight to recycling. When her son calls her on it, she, like me, feigns ignorance. But she doesn’t feel bad. She just accepts that this is one of her parental duties: Kids draw and paint. Parents throw those drawings and paintings away.
I have trouble reconciling that truth with my actions. What, I wonder, is going through my children’s little-kid minds when they spy their prized picture in the trash, marinating in leftover pasta sauce? My mommy doesn’t love me? I have no future as an artist?
Maybe this is just me dissembling, but I contend it builds character to have to make choices. Which one do you want to keep? This chicken-scratch or that one? With a little creative interpretation of the transitive property, this logic can be extended to other topics. Which jacket do you want to wear today? Which CD do you want to hear?
And yet, we’re constantly told these days that these scribbles are not just proto-art. Kids’ artwork is self-expression. It is Crayola and tempera paint bound up with ego. Art classes help people unwind. Art therapy helps unlock the psyche. I got a well-intentioned crash course in how to interpret this genre from my kids’ preschool teacher. Apparently, I am not to ask, “What is that?” when confronted with an unintelligible collage of colors. It could make my child feel misunderstood, even ashamed. So I coo, “Tell me about your picture!” in an excited and encouraging voice.
Kids’ artwork is Crayola and tempera paint bound up with ego. The outcome: Regarding a series of my son’s pictures of a crosshatched rectangle – a.k.a., a soccer goal – and a blocky soccer player: “This is me in soccer about to score a goal.” And, “This is me in soccer after I scored a goal.” And, “This is me in soccer thinking about scoring a goal.”
Kids get stuck in ruts, drawing themselves as David Beckham for weeks until suddenly they’re firefighters or hockey goalies. In addition to a star soccer player, my son is prone to depict himself diving for sharks. My daughter fancies herself a princess.
Because she’s only three, her pictures rarely emerge with recognizable characters. In many ways, that makes it easier to throw them away – most of the time.
Recently, she presented her latest Picasso to me, singling out for admiration a yellow blotch.
“Everyone thinks this is scribble-scrabble, but it’s not,” she said. “It’s a mama. My mama.”
Remember what I said about being ruthless? Sometimes you have to make exceptions.