Kim and Jeff Give It to Us Straight: How Long Do You REALLY Need to Keep Your Kid's Artwork?
J: I have the answer and it is a genius answer.
K: Please don’t keep me in suspense.
J: I keep my sons' artwork for precisely as long as it takes to snap a photo with my phone and throw it away.
J: Storage required: 0
Time required: .9 seconds
Thoughtful memories preserved: all of them
Do I have a folder in my Photos app called "Jake Art"? Yes, I do.
Do I have tubs full of awkwardly stacked cardboard pictures and pipe cleaners and googly eyes and glitter? HELLLLLLL NO.
All of the emotion, none of the hoarding. PLUS, my screensaver scrolls through photos, so sometimes I can see the poem he wrote in 3rd grade and be pleasingly surprised by it, instead of being like UGH MORE CRAP IN A BOX.
WE'RE DONE HERE.
K: Um, not yet, sir. I have questions. Do you ever print them to make one of those fancy collages I see people hang in their family rooms? Or make albums?
[pauses for drink of water]
Yeah, that's what I do, I take one weekend every month and dedicate it to my Scrapbooking Station down in my home studio.
K: I have an inkling that you’re possibly being sarcastic.
J: Seriously, it's perfect. It allows me to keep the work my kids have done; things I will want to preserve and remember, but requires zero physical effort.
K: I like zero physical effort!
J: But let me escape the notion that I'm "throwing something away" – I’m not!
K: I’m pretty sure you are.
J: Okay, I’m totally throwing it away. But it LIVES ONLINE. And as it turns out, macaroni art rots and falls to pieces after about 10 years anyway. I haven't confirmed that scientifically, but that seems about right.
K: I have macaroni necklaces hanging in my jewelry case that are about 8 years old and they still look good. So. Many. Damn. Macaroni. Necklaces. My kids want to see evidence that I still have them. Your kids don't do this?
J: Nope. I think the instant throw-out is the key here. The pieces never make it to any semi-permanent spot in the house, so the kids rarely miss them.
K: Ah, yes, they don’t become a part of their environment. My system is a bit more...belabored than that.
J: I never hear things like, “OH HEY DAD WHERE'S THE POPCORN SNOWMAN I MADE IN FIRST GRADE?” because that stuff was straight pitched by January. If they can't make an emotional attachment to it, they don't miss it when it's gone, see!
K: I see, I see.
J: We take a similar approach to the fish.
J: There are about 30 of them and they're all inbred, so neither kid can miss it when Flounder goes belly up or gets eaten, which totally happens, because fish are godless cannibals. We’re pretty sure they went straight Donner Party on the plecostomus.
K: Yeah, our one and only fish somehow lasted over two years. Wendy the Beta Fish's demise was devastating. We had a funeral and everything. He was buried in a bedazzled Lord & Taylor earring box. We might have attachment issues.
J: My mom once poured a dead fish down the garbage disposal, if that gives you any indication my level of genetic aquatic animal attachment. BLOOP. Goodbye forever.
K: That is kind of a glorious wet cremation story?
J: It was more of a wet chopping.
K: [Writes note to self to not let Jeff have any part in helping decide what happens to me after I die.] ANYWAY, before I tell you my "system" answer this: how often do your kids make art?
J: I have a 13-year-old and a 5-year-old, so the latter produces a solid stack of Forever Memories every week. They're under the sign that says PLEASE REMEMBER TO CLEAN OUT YOUR CHILD'S FOLDER EVERY FRIDAY. The subtext being, WE DON'T WANT THIS SHIT IN OUR ROOM EITHER.
K: THIS IS BEAUTIFUL NOW MAKE IT DISAPPEAR.
J: Incidentally, and I think this is worth pointing out, none of this is to say I'm sore at schools / daycares for doing this stuff and sending it home. I love that they do. We've been really happy with all of ours, for this exact reason.
K: Agreed. But holy crap, does it add up.
J: What is your system, and how dizzyingly complicated is this about to get?
K: My son's in middle school now so he's not quite so bad, but his sister more than makes up for it. She is a very creative person; making new shit I mean beautiful expressions of her heart every day. It was so out of control, that I gave her a section of the basement as her art area. She typically hangs canvas paintings on the wall over that table. Everything else she hands to me and genuinely expects me to keep forever. F O R E V E R.
J: So far this sounds like a nightmare. Keep going.
K: When they were little I emptied their Friday Folders into the school bins I have by the door. When they got full, I'd put most of that stuff in a black trash bag and hide it at the bottom of the cans outside under the cover of night, so they wouldn't accidentally see any familiar finger paintings before the garbage men arrived. Then I'd pick a few things to put up into the big storage bins in the attic.
This doesn’t work so well anymore, since my daughter is older now and remembers every. Little. Scribble. She. Ever. Makes.
J: So... tell them you can't keep everything? I mean, just throwing out ideas here.
K: I do! My son shrugs and wanders off to find something digital to look at, but my paint-smeared daughter stares at me with a teardrop in one of her big blue eyes asking why some of her art is more important than others.
J: You've already got a dedicated art area, maybe just tell her that's her space and once it's filled up she needs to clean it off?
K: Unfortunately “filled up” is wide open to interpretation in my 9-year-old’s opinion.
J: This is one of those things where parents elect to do something and then complain about it, like travel sports or PTA volunteering. You can, y'know, not do stuff—you have that power! As a parent!
K: I do make her clean it off and organize, and she—future debate team captain and world leader—will break down every argument: throwing scraps away isn't very green: it's wasteful, actually. Throwing art away is like throwing books away: something I refuse to do. Why can't I just mail it to family members? (I like them too much) It’s all so exhausting. I hate when she gives sound arguments to me just wanting to raze it all.
J: I like how you call guilt "sound arguments," that'll be fun when she's a teenager. While you get played by your child, I'll be here in my clean home.
K: So, how do I choose what to keep and what not to keep?
1. Holiday stuff gets priority
2. Specific cards: Father's Day, Valentine's Day
3. Anything that's a complete story, poem or work
K: That's easy. Holiday stuff goes in the dedicated holiday bins in the attic and we can all look at it each season when I bring it down to decorate.
J: Toss everything else. Unless there's some magic specific meaning to it. Otherwise, I'll give you $100 to make everyone stop posting My House Is So Overrun With My Kids’ Art pieces because, not to belabor a point, you are electing to do this. OMG MY HOUSE IS FULL OF THE STUFF I DON'T THROW AWAY. (4,000 likes)
K: I GUESS you might maybe have a point sort of.
J: Of course I do.
K: We haven't talked about Boxy yet. Boxy is her friend that she made years ago out of a cardboard box, stickers, and colored pencils. She is creepy as hell, but how do I throw away her FRIEND?
J: No one's saying throw away the giant cardboard friend.
K: Because that would cross a line.
J: However, I will say that over time I have downgraded my eldest’s cardboard spaceships into more remote corners of the garage, and in the last spring clean up got away with folding them up and tucking them behind the paint. From there, they will quietly be one day recycled, and when brought up I'll say, “Oh, I needed to get rid of those to make room for your skateboard / basketball hoop / archery target / car.”
K: I have been able to work cardboard forts into the recycling bin over time. I'm currently working on removing a cardboard castle from the basement as we speak. It's in phase two: "I just put it in the utility room to make some space for now."
J: The Circle of Life. It's quite beautiful in a way.
K: So just to be clear, your Kid Art Boot Camp would look like this:
1. IMMEDIATELY photograph any and all art to "keep forever"
2. Then toss 90% of it out within a heartbeat (especially if it has glitter on it)
3. Keep only manmade BFFs and truly meaningful pieces
4. Purge the art table weekly
5. Remain diligent when it comes to rogue cardboard structures making their way out to the curb
Did I miss anything?
J: Here's the thing. Are you ready for the thing?
K: Hit me.
J: You keep kid art because of guilt. Because your wondrous magical aspiring debate president / world leader / POTUS is a pure font of creation who must be treasured at all times. Which is great as a parent, but you know as well as anyone that such things will get chucked in a box and forgotten for 10 years, or you'll keep revisiting that box, and telling yourself you need to throw it out, but you don't, and it sits, and it will keep sitting, and then in 20 years when you're downsizing to a condo in Fort Myers you'll send it back to her and say OH HONEY I SAVED THIS ALL FOR YOU and she'll think great what am I supposed to do with all this shit?
K: I feel like this is just a warm up.
K: Here it comes!
J: This does not MEAN you shouldn't love and preserve your kid's art and WORK and SOUL. HENCE THE PICTURES. Which DO NOT HAVE TO BE STORED IN BOXES or MOVED INTO ATTICS or DOWN STAIRS or THROWN IN YOUR MINIVAN WHEN YOU'RE CLEANING OUT THE GARAGE BEFORE THE MOVE TO FLORIDA.
K: That’s a lot of places.
J: My dad rarely shows up here without some artifact from my childhood, and while I appreciate the emotional connection, my first thought is usually, shit, where do I put this old stuffed bear / Fisher Price cash register / chalkboard / lead-paint covered car? Some things should be kept forever. But not everything.
K: So if I followed your photograph-then-toss plan, I could—if I were so inclined—put her art pictures into simple albums to give my daughter so she can revisit all her creations without clogging up our attic.
J: You do you, Crazy. I've shown Jake some of his old pictures, and every once in a while he gets excited, and goes, "Oh I remember that for X, Y and Z." But usually he's like, “That's great, can I finish my new drawing now?” ("New drawing" = "Mario Kart 8")
K: I have one stuffed animal from my childhood, and a Through the Years school scrapbook thingy my mom kept up with that has class pictures and a few little stories I wrote. That's it. And I'm perfectly happy with just that. I should probably try to remember this when wondering whether or not to purge all the things my own kids make.
J: I have maybe three boxes from years 0-28. Four billion pictures, but three boxes. And the pictures don't take up any space in the hall closet. I've moved a bunch of times in the past three years. I've had a lot of time to think about why I feel a compulsion to continually shove plastic tubs into attics and crawlspaces. If you had a house flood tomorrow, what would you feel worst about losing? For me: pictures. Which all live on a magical space cloud in the sky.
K: Probably pictures, too. I guess this is a reasonable approach.
J: If you got suddenly relocated to China next week, and had one apartment to live in, what would you leave? Nearly everything.
K: I'd have a LOT of stuffed animals and paintings to put in storage until I could come back and deal with it all—FINE. Point made. I think we're done here.
J: I AM TOTALLY WINNING THIS ONE
K: I don't think we necessarily need to call you a "winner" here. If there's a good solution, we're all kind of a winner, right?
J: No. I'm the winner.
K: Let's not put labels on this.
J: Just one label. W, and it's on my shirt
K: [rolls eyes] Weirdo.
Kim Bongiorno is the author, freelance writer, and blogger behind Let Me Start By Saying. She lives in New Jersey with her handsome husband and two charmingly loud kids, who she pretends to listen to while playing on Facebook and Twitter. If she were less tired, she'd totally add something really clever to her bio so you'd never forget this moment. Learn more at KimBongiornoWrites.com.
Jeff Vrabel’s writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, the Washington Post, Vice, Indianapolis Monthly, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, the official Indy 500 site and several angry Neil Diamond comment threads, because wow can those people not take a joke. He is currently the Guinness World Record holder for Most Bruce Springsteen Songs Identified By Their Lyrics in One Minute. He can be reached at the cleverly named http://jeffvrabel.com.