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Stop Making Back-To-School About Who Spends More

With little or no family income to support the "mandatory" back-to-school shopping spree that has come to be expected, what's a parent to do?

08/24/2017 12:43 EDT | Updated 08/24/2017 12:45 EDT

Many kids stress about going back to school, but not for the reasons you may think. Ever hear of "keeping up with the Joneses?"

You're a parent, I'm a parent.

We've both faced the dreaded back-to-school rush brought on by savvy marketing teams, advertising gurus and clever salespersons.

You must get X,Y and Z before school starts again or else.

Or else?

Yes: Or else.

Or so says your child. And so say the marketers.

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If you don't follow through on the annual shopping spree, your kid will be traumatized. She will have to do without while all of the other children revel in their new clothes during those first, apparently very important days of the school year. Accessorized perhaps with a new backpack, a smart agenda and maybe, if they've been extra good, some locker accessories (for the older set). The lucky ones who have scored big yet another year march smugly and stylishly into their new classrooms.

Those without do without. End of story.

And while this exaggerated perspective of the first days and weeks of school is somewhat heavy on drama, the underlying point is not.

So many kids face the beginning of each school year with little more than the clothes on their backs; clothes that may have seen better school days in addition to this one. With little or no family income to support the "mandatory" back-to-school shopping spree that has come to be expected, what's a parent to do? This time of the year brings with it not only the stresses that accompany the needed organization and planning of getting the kids off to school, but for many parents and families, the real stress is that holy grail of anxiety: money.

All things considered, this school term may be the time for all of us to change our back-to-school tactics somewhat. While you're at the mall with your kids, wondering about what you'll cut out of a back-to-school shopping list that seems to be growing at a rapid clip, stop for a moment to think about the families that don't have the luxury of choice. These families, in addition to tallying an increasingly longer list of "must haves" this term, are worried about some of the more basic needs of daily life: food, a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs. In the stark reality of want, it's ever so much more stressful to ratchet up the laundry list of supposedly mandatory items that kids must have in order to return to the classroom.

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A quick tally of some of the standard items that most kids are told they need include (but are not limited to):

  • New clothes This includes at least a few pairs of pants, shirts, skirts, shorts, underclothes and more
  • New shoes Indoor/outdoor, boots, sports-related (running/athletic, cleats, etc.)
  • Accessories Backpacks, agendas, binders, paper and various stationery items
  • Outerwear Coats, sweaters, hoodies, jackets, hats, mittens, etc.
  • Hardware and software Let's face it — computers and digital devices are standard, and in some cases, mandatory. They're also really expensive. So are cell phones and plans, and most kids these days have both.

I've been part of the back-to-school craziness, both as a child and a parent. As the mother of four with two still in elementary school and one entering high school, I'll encounter many more back-to-school seasons to come. I — perhaps like you, however — have the choice about how each term will roll out. Will it be a shopping bonanza where my credit card will get a workout like none other? Or will I cut back somewhat, but still give my kids some new items to entice them through the school doors on that first day back?

It may now be the time to revisit the back-to-school season and its expected bounty.

It's safe to say that for the average family, back-to-school shopping costs can easily tally in the hundreds, if not thousands (if you take into account technology gadgets and related items). Whether it's hundreds or thousands, the cost can be astronomical for a family on a limited budget.

There are many positives about back-to-school. And all of them are free

When I was a child, returning to school in the fall represented many things, all positive. There was a sense of renewal that was heralded by the new term; there was the excitement of seeing old friends who had not been seen since school let out two months before (an eternity for an elementary school kid); there was anticipation for what the new school term would bring, including the possibility of new friends, a teacher that may at last be the memorable guide that all kids and parents dream of, and so much more.

This perspective, however — that of a child who, through pure chance, that had the luxury of a middle-class upbringing — is not the typical point of view for more children than many of us would like to admit. For reasons beyond their control, too many children — and their parents — view the whole back-to-school season with anxiety and, in some cases, dread.

Imagine having to tell your child that there is not enough money in the family budget to finance the expected first-day-of-school outfit or the expected accoutrements that all the other kids have. Talk about pressure, both for the parents and the kids. And imagine having to send your child to school in an outfit that is anything but new, with a knapsack that has seen better days, and wearing shoes that have lived a full and previous life.

As the economy fluctuates and many people, often parents, continue perch precariously on a financial plane, it may now be the time to revisit the back-to-school season and its expected bounty. Perhaps the whole back-to-school period should not be so representative of new things; but rather, a refocus on what the coming school year represents — new beginnings, new friends and a new start. After all, like in many other instances in life, it's the intangible items that indeed have the most value. In some cases, they're priceless.

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