Every year parents delude themselves that this time back-to-school shopping will be easy. We promise we’ll start earlier, be more organized and avoid the misfortune of staring at an empty store shelf spot where the three-inch binders or the “must have” notebook with your child’s favorite superhero on it used to be. Maybe we’ll just get it all done online with a few keystrokes.


For some reason, no matter how traumatic, expensive or time-consuming the previous shopping expeditions were, we seem to end up in the same predicament the following year. And the next. Despite our best-laid plans and efforts to streamline the process, there always seems to be at least some drama along the way.

Sometimes, the problem is the school supplies. Certain schools require parents to purchase an absurdly long and expensive list of stationery and text books for each child.

They’ll specify the exact brand and quantity of crayons, the width of the ruled lines in the notebooks and the specific editions of the necessary text books. And heaven help you if you dare to get creative and substitute something that’s just a little different.

It’s never a good feeling to start out the school year getting the side-eye from your kid’s teacher on day one as you hand over any noncompliant supplies.

And your child will let you know in no uncertain terms that you have ruined their entire year right out of the starting blocks if they’re the only one in P.E. class whose hand-me-down uniform is rocking a different design than everyone else (because unbeknownst to you, they were redesigned over the summer).

Thankfully, most public schools now keep their supply lists fairly short and generic. But when high schools take the approach of not issuing a list and instead waiting for the first day or two of school so teachers can tell students what they need for each class, you’re thrown back into a state of chaos.

This approach assumes your teen will a) actually pay attention and write down or remember the supplies the teacher recommends, and b) pass this information along to you in a timely fashion. And then, in spite of your vows to get everything done ahead of time, you’re forced into a “Survivor”-style challenge that involves racing to the nearest purveyor of office supplies within the first week of school, and doing so in direct competition with every high school parent in town.

Watching grown women engage in a tug-of-war over the last package of college-ruled binder paper on the shelf is not a pretty sight.

Then, there’s clothes shopping. If you’re lucky enough to have an easy-going kid who’s happy to wear whatever you buy for them with no complaints … shut up! The rest of us don’t want to listen to you gloat.

We’ve got kids who refuse to go shopping, but then turn their noses up at just about everything you buy. There are also the kids who insist on shopping with you for hours and hours, and would happily send you to the poorhouse with their desire for pricey designer brands or massive quantities of the latest fashions.

Lastly, there are the little hoarders who develop an emotional attachment to all their old favorites (even when they’re too small, full of holes or covered with stains) and absolutely refuse to give them up, no matter what fantastic new clothes you use to lure them.

If you’re really (un)lucky, you have a child in each of those categories.

While you’re out back-to-school shopping, you may also run into some sobering reminders of another unfortunate new reality for today’s students: bulletproof backpacks or that cute shirt with studded, metallic decorations that your child regretfully puts back because he or she is worried it will set off the metal detectors installed this year at the school entrance.

If you’re experiencing any of this, join the chorus of other parents singing the back-to-school shopping blues and lamenting the “good old days” when our kids didn’t have to ponder the shrapnel-deflecting properties of their apparel and were happy with whatever supplies we gave them and anything we dressed them in.

— Kim Himstreet is the 40-something mother of two teenage boys whom she and her husband have raised while living in three different countries and three U.S. states.