Thursday, August 22, 2013

Throwing away the kids' crafts can feel like trashing memories

A version of this column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com.
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(Note: Some kids returned to school earlier this month, but in Texas, most of them return next week. That includes my youngest son, Nathan, who will be making his kindergarten debut.)

The kindergartners starting school next week, with their anxious smiles and double-knotted shoelaces, will make any size backpack seem big. They’ll spill into classrooms looking like snails hunched under colorful shells.

Cooper, then in first grade, educated us about penguins
But the backpacks are a must, of course. They’ll be needed to carry home the precious mementos of a kindergartner’s life that parents will want to hold on to forever.

Or, uh, throw away after a few days.

I feel bad saying that as my 5-year-old starts kindergarten. But Nathan has already produced a plethora of preschool keepsakes. He also has two older brothers, so our family needs occasional memorabilia purges to avoid getting buried by posterboard projects, shoebox dioramas and Styrofoam-ball solar systems.

But throwing away stuff can be tough.

Parents want to hold on to every memory. The digital photos can be preserved forever, or so we hope, but the objects are the physical snapshots of a time in a child’s life. That’s why parents can get emotionally attached to the toys, books and clothes that their kids outgrow.

If we hang on to those objects, you know … maybe we can extend our kids’ youth. Or hang on to our own youth, I guess. It’s like a futile attempt to freeze time as the kids move from grade to grade, pick out new backpacks and whip past milestone flags like downhill skiers. (To battle the dog days of summer, I went with a frosty metaphor.)

After the first day next week, when the double-knotted shoelaces are dragging and the anxious smiles have become tired ones, the kindergartners will return home. Parents will unzip the backpacks and unveil the school year’s first souvenirs.

They might find an “All about Me” page or a craft that incorporates cotton balls, toothpicks, buttons and bendy straws. There might be a funny drawing, an interesting attempt at spelling, or perhaps a souvenir combination of a colorful, oversized Band-Aid and an injury report. That would certainly tell a story of the first day.

In the weeks that follow, the backpacks will tote home artistry in mediums such as crayon, chalk, paint, clay, papier-mâché and macaroni. Parents will discover “Star of the Week” projects, magazine-photo collages and construction paper overwhelmed with glue and glitter. We’ll find unidentifiable drawings with descriptions such as “I lik my dog,” and then hope that “lik” means like, and not that we need to have a family talk about germs.

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My wife, the chief curator of our kids’ artifacts, has a collection for each of our sons. If a craft or assignment shows creativity, or is an example of development (such as writing), it’s a keeper. Anything that takes some imagination will probably make the cut. Creations that the boys seem especially proud of, and therefore don’t let get crumpled underneath a lunchbox in a backpack, will be added to the collection.

Homework drills are out. Classroom busy work is out. Pieces of paper that were decorated with foam stickers in less than five minutes are out. Just about anything with glitter, which I began hating when I was a YMCA camp counselor years ago, is out. Anything that uses food as art gets sent to the round file before our dog, if he’s not being licked by our son, attacks it.

Sometimes I think we should just keep everything. I feel a little guilty as I throw something out, thinking of what parents are always told:

Cherish these moments. Kids grow up too fast.

And there I am, throwing away a keepsake of a time I should embrace. Just tossing away a memory of a time I’ll want to remember.

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But the best memories are those that stay with you without a gluey, glittery reminder.

The double-knotted shoes, the anxious smile, and the neatly combed hair -- at least for a minute or two – on the first day of school. The wave goodbye as he takes his seat next to the other kindergarten snails.

I’ll carry that one for a lifetime. No backpack required.

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