Ask Jes: How do I pare down my kid's artwork?

This column first appeared in the Albany Times Union on June 28, 2019. A link to the original publication can be found here.

Dear Jes, My daughter brings home at least four adorable drawings/painting every school day.  I know we can’t keep them all, but I find a reason to keep every one of them—that’s her best rainbow!  She drew our cats holding hands!  How do I decide what to keep?  

Thank you, Feeling Guilty in Guilderland

Dear Guilty in Guilderland, As a mom of two, I understand your struggle!  As soon as it comes into the house, a simple craft project or basic spelling test magically morphs into memorabilia – the most challenging category to declutter.  When dealing with memorabilia, the passage of time can provide clarity about what to keep; unfortunately, with our kids’ work, the sheer volume requires us to make more timely decisions about what stays and what goes.

I consider my kids work from each year of school as independent collections. As work comes home during the year, I do a quick sort: discard or keep temporarily.  In the keep pile is anything that I am drawn to or that my child feels is meaningful or relevant to them.  The end of the school year is the time to make permanent decisions, as these collections are now complete.  

Make memories sorting through memorabilia I am a firm believer that sorting memorabilia should be done in a way that honors the experience and creates a new positive memory.  Your kid, as a stakeholder in this collection, should be included in the decision-making process.  Set aside a specific time to sit with your child and look through their collection of work from the year.  Sharing this experience with your child will provide more context for their work as they share their stories with you.  (Pro tip: write down their stories!)  This time together will also provide closure to the school year, which can be helpful with letting go.

Before you get started, be very clear on the quantity you will ultimately keep.  Consider the space you have to store these materials and be realistic about how much you want to pass along to your child as an adult.  Take some time to reflect on the year.  What stands out to you about your child’s experience in school?  Were there specific events that you want to highlight?  Help your child reflect too. These reflections can help guide your decision-making.

What stays and what goes? Start by separating schoolwork from school supplies.  School supplies that can withstand another year should be cleaned out and stored for use in September.  (I store school supplies that will be reused right in my kids’ backpacks over the summer.) Now that you can view all the work from the year as a whole collection, identify your favorite or most significant pieces and ask your child to do the same.  If it feels like you want to keep everything, try ordering the work from favorite to least favorite.

Once you have a good sense of what you like the most, consider the durability of the materials.  Very few items that come home from school were created with longevity in mind.  Tall pasta collages are cute but unlikely to withstand years of storage.  Now would be an excellent time to photograph pictures, stories, exams, and notes.  Digital images are a good substitute for the actual item as they take up no physical space and can be shared, backed-up and stored indefinitely.

Finally, choose to save and store the best of the best, using your allotted storage space as your parameter of how much to keep.

Store with care Make sure to store the items in a way that will not damage them.  Choose acid-free storage envelopes and sturdy boxes.  Pick a storage location in your home that is not prone to temperature or humidity swings and is free of rodent activity (attics, basements and garages are generally not ideal for storing memorabilia).  There is nothing worse than discovering these meaningful items have been destroyed due to poor storage.

No guilt necessary One final note, Feeling Guilty: this is a guilt-free process.  You are not tossing away your kids’ childhood when you discard a piece of their artwork.  Instead, you are teaching valuable life lessons.  Helping our kids figure out which rainbow picture they like the best today helps them decide what attributes they value most in their friends and significant others tomorrow.  Learning to live within space constraints now helps when they need to live within financial constraints as a young adult.  Teaching kids to properly care for the items they value helps them honor and care for themselves as they get older.  Most importantly, when we show kids that love and memories exist in our hearts, and not in the stuff we own, we give them the greatest gift possible, the foundation of strong emotional health.

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