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Here’s why back to school means ‘full on’ stress for parents

Back to school has become a big marketing phenomenon, not unlike Halloween. Photograph by Getty Images

Thanks to Pinterest, I now know about the Back to School Fairy. She visits on School Year’s Eve (yes, there is a School Year’s Eve). I imagine she leaves #2 pencils under the child’s pillow, but I’m not sure, because the fairy was #10 on a list of 25 back-to-school traditions including treat labels for the lunch box and a school supply scavenger hunt.

I got so overwhelmed I closed my browser.

I have four children under the age of nine. My husband and I both travel for work. The last thing I need is more expectations. But as the back-to-school “season” has become a marketing phenomenon, it definitely suffers from expectations creep – and for working parents, that means lots of late-night trips to Staples and Target, long lines and big bills. Add in to that the challenging of managing new logistics – new schedules for the kids – and you’ve got full-on back to school stress.

“So much seems up in the air,” says Naomi Riley, a New York Post columnist and mother of three. “You’re trying to put together a schedule for the whole family including carpools, after school activities, child care. Is it all going to work?”

Back to school spending skyrocketing

According to the National Retail Federation, back to school spending has grown 42% over the last 10 years, despite the massive recession that occurred during that decade. Most items are purchased in physical stores, partly because marketing has turned such shopping into a parent-child bonding activity. It’s quality time that happens to involve spending $630 on average per family.

And, in this intensive-parenting era, social media raises the stakes in a way that naturally taps the competitive instincts. It’s not enough to pack a lunch, you need to pack a bento-box lunch with a tortilla shaped like a Star Wars Storm Trooper.

New schedules

For working parents with school-aged kids, the start of the school year means childcare schedules are likely changing, just as the kids’ schedules are in flux too.

Riley says her children are “starting at least three new activities and a new sitter so I lie awake trying to figure out what’s going to go wrong.”

Scott Behson, author of The Working Dad’s Survival Guide, agrees. “Any transition or change to your family schedule can be a source of stress. The first weeks of school are often difficult because summer camps and other child-care arrangements are done, but lots of schools have off-days and half-days during the initial weeks. This can wreak havoc if one or both parents have inflexible work schedules or lengthy commutes.”

So how to manage it all?

Behson recommends talking with supervisors and teams “so that you can work out an ad-hoc day or two of flexibility to cover the change to school hours without causing ill-will or leaving anyone in the lurch.” You can also build mutually-supportive relationships with other parents. “One day, you can help get their kids to the bus. In exchange, they can pick up and watch your kid for an hour or two until you get off work.”

Denise Schipani, mother of two middle-schoolers and author of Mean Moms Rule, argues for perspective on this “season” which is not a season. “It’s one day,” she says. “It turns into a season thanks to pressure by stores and marketers to get parents to buy everything they may possibly need in the month or weeks before school starts, which is kind of insane and unnecessary.”

On the clothing front, the weather does not magically turn cold on Labor Day. As for parental time and attention, focus it on what your kids actually need, rather than what impresses anyone else. Kids pick up on parental stress, and over-the-top displays keep them from building their own competencies. “We talk about it minimally and prepare logically,” Schipani says, visiting the school if things are going to be new, washing out the back pack, replacing things that are beat up, “and that’s that. I try to be upbeat and also show them that this is just an inevitable date in the calendar by my own attitude.”

Indeed, you could try bonding with the kids over the ridiculousness of back-to-school expectations. “I maintain a healthy sarcasm in my house and it’s rubbed off on my boys, so we can all laugh together over stories in magazines about bento lunch boxes and clever sandwiches or sales on pencils in July,” says Schipani. Or as one of my friends noted after learning about the Back-to-School Fairy, “Does she pack lunches? If so, send her here!”

Laura Vanderkam is the author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most Of Their Time (Portfolio, 2015).