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Archiving Your Children
Does your refrigerator look like mine? Dozens of pictures drawn and painted by one or more of your children (grandchildren in my case), clamoring for space and an available magnet? Recently I decided the time had come to clear mine off and start all over. I blush to confess that, almost buried under some of the 'great art,' was the newspaper announcement of my daughter's wedding—and she's been married six years! I alerted my grandchildren that gallery space was available, and I am confident that in no time the metallic side of my refrigerator will once again be filled with 'Dear Monie' (my granddaughters' name for me) pictures and letters.

When I transported the artwork to the table where I work on family scrapbooks, I discovered I couldn't tell who had done what and when it had been done. Did Rebecca do this painting? Or was it Rachel? And how old was she when she did it? Unfortunately, my 'archiving' —a fancy word to apply to young children's drawings—had not been carried out with much rigor or concern for accurate history. And that's why I decided to write an article on this subject.

Over the years, I have compulsively and meticulously kept and dated pictures of family events and holidays, reserving some of the picture space for little commentaries on the people and activities represented in the pictures. I simply type up the narrative, print it to the size of the picture space, and then insert it in the album. Sometimes I use up several picture slots for what I consider an especially interesting commentary. Later, the girls and I will 'read' the albums and bring up additional memories about the people or events. It's really a delightful shared activity! In several of my articles, I've recommended this as one type of 'story time' for parents to share with their children.

Refrigerator productions deserve the same kind of systematic effort as family photographs. These spontaneous art products tell far more about how a child's development is proceeding than photos do. Would you believe that an amazingly accurate estimate of a child's IQ can be derived from his or her drawing of a person? Such drawings represent the child's level of concept development as much as they do actual drawing skill. For example, is everything two-dimensional? Or is the body two-dimensional (even if only a rough oval) and the arms and legs merely lines? How detailed is the face? And so on. But such drawings can't be interpreted developmentally without information about the artist's age at the time the work was done. In schools today, an important approach to grading is the compilation of a portfolio—a collection of drawings, speech patterns noted by teachers, social skills, etc. Your refrigerator art gallery represents an important aspect of your child's home portfolio, and you need to find ways to preserve it.

I want to offer three suggestions to help you in this process that are easy to carry out:
  1. Always remember to label the picture with the name of the child who did the work and the date on which it was done. If you're compiling a portfolio for more than one child, this is essential. You would be amazed at how easy it is to confuse children in your memory. Incidentally, I know of situations in which the availability of such information was of great value in establishing the diagnosis for a child showing developmental problems. Earlier drawings can help establish whether the current level of functioning represents a decline, or merely a more overt surfacing of problems which had been present but not recognized from an earlier time.

  2. Never give the child drawing paper that is bigger than the size of your scrapbooks! I'm trying to be funny here, but I'm serious at the same time. My big mistake was to buy a sketchbook for my oldest granddaughter, who is very talented artistically. But now I don't know what to do with her beautiful painting of Ariel or her coloured pen drawing of the heroine of Turandot! The only thing I can do is roll them up and hope they'll survive the years. From now on, she gets only 8½ x 11' paper! (Actually, she often gets 8½ by about 10'—I save all the paper that comes through my printer with only one or two lines across the top. Then I cut the printing off before giving the paper to my granddaughters; if I don't, they're offended at the thought of painting on scrap paper!) I think following this simple rule will make our sorting and saving much easier.

  3. Be willing to throw a lot of stuff away. We don't have to save everything. We couldn't, even if we tried. Depending on your child's productivity level, set an acceptable keep-or-discard ratio and stick to it. Maybe 1:4; maybe 1:10. Having a ratio to lean on can keep your sentimentality in check, and chances are your child isn't going to be a Picasso or a Monet, so the likelihood of future collectors offering exorbitant sums for their early productions is not very high. Besides, if the situation changes as obvious talent emerges, you can always change the ratio.

    So many families now have video cameras that I should at least comment briefly on what they can offer the archiving process. And I don't mean to slight audio tapes; a crude homemade tape of a child singing, listened to some years later, can generate incredibly happy memories. For these high-tech contributions to the portfolio, the same rule about dating applies. Labeling might not be as important, as surely we can distinguish one child from another in a video (certain twins notwithstanding). But don't limit your histories to these approaches. By the time your children are grown and want to review what they were like when they were young, the technology will have changed so drastically that you may no longer have the equipment you need to hear or view your tapes. That happened to me with audio tapes. I made several of my son playing the piano on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. The recorder was discarded when the cassette tape came on the scene, and eventually I threw away the tapes. (But I can still hear them in my head!)

In the above examples, I've dealt primarily with spontaneous art activities created either at home or school. As your child gets older and begins to receive official reports on a regular basis (report cards, letters from teachers, etc.), the same suggestions would be relevant. These also need to be archived.

Have fun with these activities. Every life produces a history, but not every life finds a historian to write its biography. As parents, we can help play that role for our children because on their own, they can't reconstruct the early years—quite possibly the most important chapter of their life histories. And, of course, as we archive their lives, we are also recording a significant part of our own. Not a bad bargain.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education