The correct answer is to make the art, bestow it upon someone to behold and admire for a while, and then toss it. It makes the right tribute to beauty and it’s the correct moral stance toward the more ephemeral qualities of childhood.
Debates about the proper way to value and preserve art have existed for millennia. For example, Socrates was known for his willingness to discard all art completely, on the grounds that any representation amounted to a false truth. But Plato, his student, was exceedingly concerned with his own work’s preservation. He went to great lengths to compose art to protect the search for truth.
Socrates might ask what children gain by making visual art in their earliest years—especially when that art bears little aesthetic value. Does the physical record of youthful attempts contain some virtue, beyond aesthetics, that makes it worth preserving? Is this sort of nostalgia good for the soul, or is it ultimately a weakness that fails to offer satisfaction?
The beloved Mr. Rogers made a compelling case for the practice of art even when there’s not much personal skill involved. In a phrase now immortalized in meme, he said, “I’m not very good at it, but it feels good to have made something.” This advice continues to resonate, as the trend of adult coloring books attests. Some universities even offer “coloring-book days” for stressed-out undergrads. Whether the art is any good or not, doing it is thought to make kids smarter, more confident, and more emotionally grounded.
Children’s art does contain some beauty, too. In the movie Six Degrees of Separation, the actor Stockard Channing’s art-world-obsessed husband observes that the local second graders produce what amounts to Matisse after Matisse. There’s something beautifully nonchalant, effortlessly engaging, in each new creation that arrives home from school, proudly presented to parents.
But there’s also a strange time limit to its freshness, after which this initial impression of ease turns into pathos. At first, something quite marvelous is expressed on the page. But soon enough, everything that is wrong or missing becomes more apparent. In the end, this incompleteness drowns the rest out.
Eventually, if you’ve looked at it often enough, the art becomes pitiful, emptied of meaning. It remains, at best, a sign that the child has moved on to another equally ephemeral moment of her life, already coloring on something else. The crisis of children’s art starts here, when the work feels both important and irritating all at once.
That feeling might just be you contemplating your own mortality. Recently, both my mother and my mother-in-law began grand, house-emptying projects. A steady stream of their discards—boxes full of grade-school medals, ribbons, papers, drawings, and paintings—arrived at my house. After the first box, my husband wanted to throw it all out immediately. As a collection, however, a complete set of our juvenilia, it seemed to me too momentous to get rid of all at once.