AFTER careful consideration, Jessica Hanff has found the ideal spot for the art that her 4-year-old daughter, Elisabeth, brings home from preschool: the trash can.
“We’re getting two to four pieces of crayon drawing a day,” said Ms. Hanff, a 36-year-old operations manager for an academic research institute. On a recent Tuesday, Ms. Hanff began sorting through a few dozen of Elisabeth’s drawings, stacked in the mudroom of the family’s Washington home.
“These are printouts off the computer, colored in,” she said. “C is for Cat! And she’s scribbled some things on it. This is Dora the Explorer.” Ms. Hanff stopped to observe the purplish rings that Elisabeth had marked around Dora’s eyes. “It looks like someone slapped her in the face. She’s got these big shiners.”
Ms. Hanff is always on the lookout for “exceptional” drawings. But this entire batch would soon be archived in the rubbish bin. “I’m not sentimental about those at all,” she said. “It’s my job to avoid raising a hoarder, and I’m leading by example.”
But Elisabeth has been known to fish her drawings out of the trash and present them to her mother. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, thank you,’ ” Ms. Hanff said. “We’ll have a discussion. I’m not callous. But once she turns away, often I’ll toss it out again.”
Elisabeth’s creative work, it should be noted, can be found all over the house. (At this point, her 2-year-old sister, Charlotte, doesn’t claim as much wall space.) Elisabeth started embroidering last year. And her grandmother gave her a grown-up watercolor set. In a vaguely Dadaist spirit, Elisabeth used a floret of broccoli to paint the pointillist color study that hangs in her bedroom.
“I do think my kids are awesome,” Ms. Hanff said. “I tell them how great they are. But we’re not going to build an addition on the back for every piece of crayon art they’ve ever done.”
We all want our children to be creative. But do they have to be so prolific? Once children enter nursery school, every day produces another masterpiece. Presidents’ Day brings a cotton ball wig; Purim means a bean-box rattle.
Forget about organizing the pieces in a storage bin. This is a job for a shipping container.
All this art may or may not tell us something about the nature of the child. But it reveals plenty about the parents. Do they lavish praise on every piece or barely glance up from the iPhone? Do they frame art for the grandparents or turn it into wrapping paper? In the plainest sense, is the parent a keeper or a chucker?
No one has quantified just how much art children create at school, said David Burton, a professor of art education at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. But having worked in the field for more than 40 years, Dr. Burton refutes the notion that present-day parents have coddled and attaboy-ed their children into overproducing.
Art classrooms of the 1960s and ’70s followed “a philosophy of make and take,” Dr. Burton said. That is, at the end of every 40-minute class, an art project would be ready for Mom and Dad. Art educators today have been trained to encourage a deeper exploration of material, process and theory.
At the same time, Dr. Burton said, tots now start scribbling with ergonomic crayons by the age of 18 months: “Years and years ago, people — even art educators — believed that children would just waste materials when they were really toddlers.”
Art can be valuable to the development of even the youngest children, Dr. Burton said. Drawing, for instance, helps build cognitive and fine motor skills. And it teaches children to observe and discriminate when it comes to color, shape and form. Young children can sometimes draw emotions that go beyond their words, he added.
But how much does a 4-year-old boy really care about his 50th portrait of Thomas the Tank Engine? “Once they’re through with it, they may lose interest in it very quickly,” Dr. Burton said. “The process is more important than the product for the child.”
Still, the curator of the refrigerator door can’t be too ruthless. When Dad de-accessions a new finger painting overnight, Dr. Burton said, “the child quickly learns that this art that they’re making is very ephemeral.” In other words, worthless.
Copyright 2011 by The New York Times