Feb 082013

A few weeks ago, Angela asked:

“I wonder if you’ve ever written about how you handle saving and organizing kids’ memorabilia, school work, art, photos, etc. I’m very sentimental so it’s easy for me to want to save everything, however I don’t want to burden my kids with all this stuff when they grow up. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that topic.”

I have actually written about this before, but I recently streamlined my system for dealing with the vast quantities of artwork produced by my children, as well as all the school papers that come into the house. I used to have large, 20-gallon Rubbermaid bins for each kid’s papers, and I just pitched everything into them, but these took up way too much space in their closets, and I knew I needed to find a better solution. Recently, I was inspired to pare down by a comment I read on a home organizing message board:

“My mom saved everything I ever did in cardboard boxes. Every drawing. Every book report. All my homework. When she moved out of her house and into a condo, she gave all these boxes to me because she thought I would want them. Sorry Mom, but the Easter egg I painted in 6th grade Girl Scouts just isn’t something I want to decorate my house with.”

As parents, it’s very natural for us to have sentimental attachment to the “creations” of our children, because we’re proud of them, of course, but also because their artwork represents different stages of their development. When we look at the Christmas wreath ornament made of tissue paper and way too much glue, with our baby’s smiling, toothless mug peering out from the center, we’re immediately transported back to that time, which has now passed, and cannot be reclaimed. Believe me….I get it. However, it’s very important for us to remember that what is sentimental and special to us may someday be a burden to them. Most kids don’t have our level of attachment to their 4th grade math tests, book reports, and research papers about Benjamin Franklin, and they aren’t interested in being saddled with a box full of them when they graduate from high school. It would be like quitting a job, and having your boss hand you a box containing every memo, email, and report you ever wrote as an employee there. Would you want that stuff?

Probably not.

Artwork, in particular, can be hard to let go of, because it so often conveys a child’s personality. But again, it’s simply not practical to keep every crayon scribble, every magazine collage, every paper plate snowman or clothespin butterfly. Like all areas of life, kid memorabilia requires limits.

In preparation for moving the girls to their new rooms, I decided to tackle the daunting task of paring down the artwork and school papers. I bought one of these for each kid, because they’re large enough to accommodate most kid art, but small enough to be stacked on a closet shelf (in my new office – woo hoo!). They also have a handle, which makes them easy to remove and put back.

Then, I dumped out the art bins, and went to work. I recycled anything that didn’t illustrate genuine artistic ability and creativity, such as collages, and other cutting and gluing activities. I also recycled mediocre drawings, most coloring pages, and nearly all crayon scribbles, keeping only a few examples of their best work at each stage of development – IE: toddler, preschool, 1st grade, 2nd grade, etc. I also saved examples of especially unique and artistic work, such as Bee’s colorful giraffe,

and her American Gothic parody.

When I came to something that was cute, but not necessarily keep-worthy, or impractical to keep because it didn’t fit in the box, I found that my digital camera made it much easier to let go of it because I could just snap a photo. Here are some examples of artwork that was photographed, and then recycled:

I started a “Kid Art” folder on my computer, with sub-folders for each kid, and I sorted all these photos into them. I’m planning to have them printed as keepsake photobooks – kind of like kid art coffee table books.

When I was done, everything I kept fit in these cases, with plenty of room for future additions. But… if the cases fill up, I won’t buy more; I’ll get rid of more stuff. One case of artwork per kid. That is my limit.

I have the cases stacked on the top shelf in our bedroom closet, for now.

For homework and school papers, I’m quite particular about what I keep. Last summer at a garage sale, I bought 5 very large (4-inch!) Avery binders for 25 cents each, and I’m using one for each kid, to organize report cards, awards and certificates, and school papers.

I only keep the papers that showcase particular achievement or special accomplishments, such as this math test that Bee got an A++ on:

Or papers that are especially entertaining, such as Bee’s amusing use of spelling words (she was learning the meaning of popular phrases that week – my husband and I still laugh about this):

Or Cakie’s sweet journal drawings with phonetically written captions:

Everything else is recycled. Seriously….everything. I’m especially ruthless about this now, because I have to be. With two kids in school, each bringing home half a ream of paper in their backpacks every week, my kitchen could so easily be taken over by piles of paper if I didn’t keep it in check.

For photos, I have a photo storage box like this for each kid, and one for family photos, or photos of the kids together:

(As with the artwork cases, one is my limit. One binder, one photo box, one memory box. I do have more than one scrapbook for each child, though).

Instead of labeling the photo boxes, I just bought colors that I associate with each kid – pink for Bee, purple for Cakes, blue for DJ. Because I’m a scrapbooker, I do tend to have a lot of photos, but last year I realized that time for scrapbooking is simply not going to materialize until DJ is in school, so I made a rule for myself that I follow to the letter; unless I have a designated frame, or the materials and time set aside for a particular scrapbook page, I do not print any photos. Instead, I keep them organized by year on my computer. That way, when I’m ready to work with specific memorabilia, I can easily find the photos associated with it, and print just a few at a time. Each year’s photos are sorted into labeled sub-folders for each kid, or for specific events. At the end of the year, I burn them onto CDs, which go into our fireproof safe, and I also back them up onto my external hard drive. A digital camera is wonderful for documenting your family life, but it’s also an amazing organizational tool!

So, if you decide to take control and organize this area of your life, or any area, for that matter, remember this quote from the Walt Disney Company:

“Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.”

You don’t necessarily have to hand down an item to convey a memory or a sentiment, though I understand that for certain things, there is simply no substitute. Often though, a picture of an item, especially if you take the time to write down your memories of it, can be just as meaningful – or even more so – while taking up a lot less space.