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Why back-to-school shopping is more than just a family errand

Back to school means back to Staples. Easy, right? We do look forward to it – who doesn’t love brand new markers? – but the errand can become stressful, for both my kids and me. Anxieties emerge; a tangle of nerves and wishes and requirements grows all out of proportion with the seeming simplicity of the task. After all, you get a list – what’s so hard?

When my oldest, Sofie, got her kindergarten supply list, she was excited to choose pretty glitter pencils and a tissue box with princesses on it. We trooped around town looking for the Mr. Sketch scented markers that, having been specified, must be very important. She spent hours getting comfortable with everything and organizing her cache. As a first-time kindergarten mom, I shared her excitement. When we got to her classroom, we saw all the supplies collected in one wobbly heap, and we realized these would not be Sofie’s own personal materials, as we’d imagined. And many of the parents, I noticed, threw any old brand of markers on the pile. Sofie was shaken, and admittedly, so was I. My illusions of her own organized little desk shattered, I had to make an inner adjustment, calm her down, and explain about sharing and classroom community.

Subsequent year’s shopping trips revealed new influences, like classmates: “Jenny got this really cool pencil case, with peace signs on it!” And math anxiety frantically tried to guarantee her social status and academic success. I found myself worrying about the perfect folder, too, and enjoying the shopping process less and less. Somehow, I took years to figure out that what she needed at that time was not total maternal engagement but some perspective and a hug.

My son, Luca, three years younger, invited no such emotional involvement. I used the experience gained with his sister – go to a smaller store, well in advance, and explain how he’d fill that composition book little by little – but he couldn’t really have cared less. He was more interested in getting bulk packs of everything. 100 pencils! 36 colors of dry-erase markers! He couldn’t resist a deal. I’d refer him again and again to the items actually required by his teacher, but to my dismay, he wasn’t bothered by what was on the list, what he’d be learning, or what the other kids might buy. He wanted a combination lock, even though he didn’t have a locker. He wanted the red metal cash box in the next aisle over.

In my best moments, I’d enjoy Luca’s oblivious-to-school enthusiasm, but the rest of the time, I’d be kneeling on the store’s dusty floor with growing frustration, comparing the pencils requested with the pencils for sale, and worrying that Luca would never take school seriously. He’d be behind me, throwing a shrink-wrapped brick of 48 glue sticks into the cart.

Then my youngest, Anna, came along, and some tightly wound parental coil just gave way. It was impossible to maintain constant engagement with everyone. I became more rational. I couldn’t fix every video game glitch or nail polish disaster because I was busy with feeding and changing and everything else. I couldn’t decipher the baby’s every whim and cry because I was busy with skinned knees and packing lunches and everything else. I couldn’t hover over three moving targets simultaneously, so I began to let things go. I admit to throwing away baby teeth, art projects, and blurry photos taken on field trips.

Anna’s first day of kindergarten was low key. I had bought her supplies, including the wrong marker brand, without even telling her. She joined her class without a hitch. No hovering necessary. Or, more likely, no hovering committed in the first place. As I left the building that day, I saw parents taking “first day” pictures of their kids, and I felt a little sad. I hadn’t even thought to bring a camera.

That was the unexpected downside of my calmed parenting. Anna’s milestones have slipped by, as they never did when I had just one, or even two, closely managed kids. Nostalgia for Anna’s babyhood crept in and revealed itself one night in a baby tooth. She’d lost a few already, and I’d tossed them in the trash as unceremoniously as I’d admitted that I was, in fact, the tooth fairy. But I gathered this latest tooth like a truffle from the warm recesses under her pillow, slightly damp from wet hair, and I resolved not to overlook these signposts in her life. I had over steered, and now I wanted to make an adjustment.

Soon I had a chance to set a new course. Naturally, it was the 1st grade school supplies order form that prompted it. If I submitted it, would I relieve us both of an onerous, emotionally charged chore, or would I rob us of an important rite of passage? Would I miss an opportunity to see her in action? Would she have a chance to work through any worries? Would she start school with a sense of purpose?

Well, I did order the supplies. It just made sense. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t take all the kids shopping, too. With no stress about finding all the items requested by their teachers, everyone could buy a couple of small, fun things. It didn’t have to be a dig deal. Anna wanted a folder and, even though she’d get one in her supply order, I wanted to see her choice-and the smile that went with it. I bought Luca a lock for his nonexistent locker, and Sofie a magnetic mirror. We had a great time.

We have found a sense of balance in supply acquisition, for now. The beginning of a new school year is an important milestone for the kids, and me, and while shopping can be fun and even meaningful, it doesn’t have to mean everything. It can be a reminder to see the big picture: my kids are growing up, and I don’t want to miss it.

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