a pile of paper and plastic trash, much of it with red duct tape barely holding it together
Drew Himmelstein's son Nate's... trash pile? Art piece? Hard to say. (Photo/Drew Himmelstein)

My 6-year-old’s beloved trash heap

Egg cartons litter the floor. Milk cartons and cereal boxes sit perched on his dresser and poke out from his toy bin. There is cardboard everywhere.

This small indoor landfill has accumulated because Nate has become Brooklyn’s most dedicated 6-year-old garbage picker, snatching old catalogs and Trader Joe’s frozen food packaging from our recycling bin as quickly as we can toss them there. Then he gets busy with scissors and strong red packaging tape to reconstruct his found materials into imaginative sculptures that delight his adoring parents, even as we worry about fire codes and struggle to house his creations. He has spent hours alone in his room building an airplane and airport piece by piece: The runway is made from deconstructed cardboard boxes, the fuselage from Quaker oatmeal canisters, and the strut supported by empty coffee cups.

Nate loves art, building, drawing and generally making things. He’s gone through phases where he was obsessed with Legos, with origami, with paper airplanes, with drawing and now, with trash sculpture. He can be a temperamental artist; when he can’t get the project he’s working on to hold together according to his vision, we hear screams and wails coming from his room. But we’ve learned that he’s best left alone in these moments; in most cases, he works through his anguish and solves the problem, then comes out to proudly show us his work.

Nate’s brain seems to be wired to engage deeply in creative work; we see an immediate calm and focus descend when he is up to his elbows in art. It’s a powerful force that I’ve learned to harness as a parenting tool; if he’s getting antsy or started to make trouble around the house, I often pluck a few objects from the recycling bin and drop them in front of him, and immediately, he’s absorbed.

As parents, we encourage his creative impulses as much as possible, but as I said, the trash sculptures have become a logistical problem. I know that it was recently Earth Day, and reducing our waste as a family is an admirable goal.

I stand in awe of Nate’s creative work, not so much because of the output, but because he is entirely self-driven.

But we live in New York City, and we do not have the square footage to warehouse every Amazon shipping box and LaCroix carton that passes through our household in perpetuity. We need to start throwing things away again.

So my husband and I are gearing up to talk to Nate about his work and figure out what we can discard and what we should keep. And we need to get creative about our art storage systems.

In the meantime, I stand in awe of Nate’s creative work, not so much because of the output, but because he is entirely self-driven. When I was a kid, I had friends who started neighborhood newspapers and homemade poetry zines. I gladly contributed to these projects, but I was never the kind of kid who would have started something new on my own. I fell into the trap of waiting for permission to be creative, and I was worse off for it. In many ways, Nate has inherited my cautious nature — he’s shy, and slow to warm in new environments — but creatively, he’s brave. He takes inspiration from our family trips to museums, his art class and the work of his peers, but he doesn’t wait for instructions or guidelines before he starts to create.

If anything, our job as parents is not to push him to be more creative, but to manage his creative impulses. When Nate is deep into a project, he can become so obsessive that he wants to work through meals and bedtime to complete it. In these cases, we find ourselves taking on the role of project managers. For instance, Nate has made three elaborate alphabet books that he has given as gifts to friends and family members. For each one, he easily put in 15 to 20 hours of work. We paced him by setting a manageable work schedule so he came to terms with working on the project over the course of a week rather than trying to complete it all in one night.

I have no idea where Nate’s creative impulses will take him, but I admire that he’s so motivated, focused and self-directed at a young age. In the short term, he has asked for an “airplane art” party to celebrate his seventh birthday, so that’s how we’ll be ringing in his next year.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.