Ask Maxwell: How to Let Go of Kids’ Art Without Feeling Guilty?

published May 5, 2021
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I am confronting an empty nest and finally have time to go through all those stashes of art. I’m ready to let go, but HOW? A Viking burial pyre of burning art? We seem to have gone through a heavy phase of paint-your-own pottery, with some hideous results … (but as soon as I think of smashing them, it’s like “Ooh! Then we could make a mosaic with the pieces!” and there’s a whole new thing to not be able to throw away).
Thanks for being you and weighing in,

Erin Q.

Dear Erin,

I totally understand, because it is easy to say and hard to do. I still have trouble. I see a pile of my daughter’s drawings — really BAD ONES that even she doesn’t even care about — I pick them up, walk over to the garbage, and I HESITATE … and then I’m lost (I usually do it on the second try).

Separating with the precious creative outpourings of your children has a few steps, and you need to create two moments:

1. The moment when you decide that this pile of artwork or this horrendous clay sculpture MAYBE should go away

and …

2. A totally different moment when it’s sat for awhile and now you’re really sure and only have to think about putting it into the garbage or recycling.

This is the classic Outbox method that you read about right here. In short, you basically make a small pile of those things that you’re considering in a corner somewhere, let it all sit for a week, and then it becomes monumentally easier to toss it all out. It really works.

That said, if you want to know what I’d recommend doing with precious art when you get to that second phase I really think you can gently place it all in your recycling bin — GENTLY — so that it feels better or wrap it in tissue and THEN lay it in the recycling bin. Breaking the attachment and just LETTING IT GO! is really powerful and I guarantee you that you will feel light as a feather within five minutes — maybe less.

It is not the artwork that you are attached to. That is an illusion. You are attached to your connection with your child and the moment in time they made that art that fills you with nostalgia. It is like a lost world that you are losing again. Memories are brutal.

As you let go of your child’s old art, think of them in the present and visualize them as best you can — attach yourself to the present — and then let go of the old skin. Feeling love and connection in the present melts nostalgia in its tracks.

BUT, I do like the idea of a Viking burial pyre. I’ve heard that parents in Denmark help their children get rid of their pacifiers by taking them to the Pacifier Tree (or Suttetræet) in Copenhagen and tying them to the tree. You can see pics of it here. I’ve also heard that they take their children’s pacifiers and tie them to balloons and then sing songs as they float away forever. I think your kids might be a little old for this.

If you do have a family holiday at home coming up, why don’t you keep it all in a box and then let them sort through it by the fireplace and burn it all right there? They’d probably get a kick out of doing it with you, and, as you said, it’s not even the good stuff. 🙂

Best, M

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Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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