The back-to-school guidelines for buying kindergarteners scissors are mind-bogglingly specific. The scissors must be 3-inches long with rounded tips. They must have specific grips and be made by a specific brand. Same goes for the first-grade headphones: They must look like they came packed with a late-90s CD walkman and be easily stored. No, the Walmart clerk doesn’t know where those specific headphones might be. Yes, your kid will hate the pair you eventually settle on because they won’t be emblazoned with Pokémon or Paw Patrol. No, you’re not going to feel successful about back-to-school shopping. Yes, you can opt out.
According to a National Retail Federation survey, the total combined spending for back-to-school shopping will easily clear $80 billion in 2017. That number is strongly correlated with parental frustrations. There’s surely a dollar for every parent who has to visit a second store, only to find that there are no more washable markers to be had. There’s definitely a dollar for every hastily snatched Frozen-themed three-ring binder. There’s a fiver for every parent who throws up their hand in a silent “Fuck it!”
As long as kids in America have gone back-to-school, there has been back-to-school shopping. But for the most part, that shopping was historically centered around clothes. Proud parents were loath to send kids to their classrooms in dirty summer dungarees. So there would be a new outfit and maybe a pair of shoes. The rest of the stuff was provided. After all, most kids only needed a slate tablet, a soapstone pencil, and, until the 20th century, a bible. Then things changed.
Today, clothes are the least of a parent’s back-to-school concern. Public school districts are now strapped, which means that supply list grow annually. Parents find themselves searching for communal tissue and hand sanitizer. It feels like only a matter of time before parents have to schlep to their nearest IKEA to buy a Skvöldvsk ergonomic desk, which they’ll presumably be obliged to assemble then shove onto a bus come the first day of school. Exacerbating the burden placed on parenting is the marketing aimed squarely at kids, who daydream of smugly sauntering into class carrying and wearing nothing but officially licensed merch.
But here’s the thing: There’s nothing super special about that first day back. Kids might feel pride in material things, but it wanes rapidly. Parents willing to suffer through a different sort of stress–second-guessing themselves mostly–can largely opt out of the back-to-school chaos by ignoring most of the hyper-specific instructions and buying kids new clothes when they need them. That’s not allowed, right? Nope. It’s allowed. I’ve got it on good authority that your kid can show up with off-brand materials. I’ve got it on good authority that they won’t be kicked out or ostracized. Teachers aren’t monsters. To the contrary, if they really cared that much about material goods they would have found a different gig.
There are things that kids will absolutely need for the first day of school, but they’ll only need most of those things if the item they had from last year is worn out. Note that “worn-out” does not mean “so last year.” If a kid’s backpack is jacked up and full of holes, it’s time for a new one. If folders and binders are torn up, then it’s time for new ones. Realistically, most kids will need something to write with and something to write in. Does that mean you need to send all of these things with them on the first day? Nope. Does it mean you even have to leave the house to get them? Nope. There are plenty of places online that will deliver next day. And many big box retailers will allow you to shop online and pick up in store. Also, prices often dip after the fact so you can always wait then get your two year old an embossed leather binder instead of a Lisa Frank trapper keeper (depending on his or her governing aesthetic).
Of course, parents have been conditioned to launch into a back-to-school shopping for decades. So, opting out will likely result in a fair amount of skeptical side-eye. And there’s no way to combat that. Other parents will think that you believe you’re somehow special and exempt. But be strong in the knowledge that you’re opting out for the good of all parents. Because the back-to-school frenzy relies on participation. The less participation, the less frenzy. If you’re pressed on the issue, just smile and shrug. They’ll catch on.
Whether or not foraging for new erasers is your idea of time well spent, there is one instance in which taking a kid back-to-school shopping is hugely valuable for the child. That’s when a parent takes them shopping for supplies for a kid less fortunate than themselves. Pretty much every school district has an opportunity to provide supplies for a family who cannot afford them on their own. And the number of those families will only likely grow as supply lists get longer and more expensive.