Parents say back to school preparations have become 'insane' — from photo shoots to custom backpacks

  • Back to school rivals national holidays in terms of celebration, gifting and other purchases.

  • "I see a lot of girls wearing Lululemon — over $100 for leggings that they will outgrow. It's about the name fixation,'' one woman said.

  • Salon visits are also part of the prep for day one at school, even for tweens.

When police in River Edge, N.J. saw two shadowy figures rustling on the grounds of a local elementary school well after midnight, they cautiously approached the pair they believed to be intruding. On closer inspection they were middle-aged women standing on ladders, trying to secure something to the building's entrance.

"Hey lady, it's 2 a.m.! What are you doing?'' shouted one of the officers.

The startled women quickly explained they were constructing a huge arch of brightly colored balloons to welcome the children returning to classes later that day.

"All the schools begin on the same day and they need their balloons by 7:30 a.m. when the first buses roll in,'' explained Debby Levi, owner of Inflated Creations, who was providing similar felicitations for children from Teaneck to Livingston. "We have to start at this hour so they will look fresh!''

A Long Island high school went one step further, personalizing its balloons with little bulldogs and logos, at the request of the parents association. "They spent about $600,'' said Farrah Edelstein, owner of Pop of the Party in Roslyn, who also provided welcoming yard signs.

Back to school has become quite an occasion, rivaling national holidays in terms of celebration, gifting and other purchases. Instagram is full of photos, some professionally taken, portraying fashionably decked out youngsters en route to their initial day of classes, and parents are finding that these kids have become quite label conscious, requiring a litany of new items.

Back to school photos have become 'insane,' one parent said

"It's insane,'' said Jodi Schachter, who lives in Boynton Beach, Florida and has three children, aged 8, 11, and 13. "The whole thing is about posing on social media and letting everybody know your kids are at school. I feel like a bad mom if I don't do it, because that's what everyone else does. A friend of mine took sidewalk chalk, drew balloons all over the ground to make it look like her child was being pulled in the air and had the pictures taken from a drone above.''

Schachter feels that the show is more for the benefit of the parents than their offspring.

"I'm not one of the crazy ones, but some people are absolutely crazy, and 90 percent of the times their kids look miserable.''

She couldn't entirely avoid the madness, though.

"This is the first year my 11-year-old doesn't need a uniform, so we went on a crazy shopping spree.  It's all about fashion for middle school. We went to five different stores and she got to pick out what she liked, but we just got her a JanSport backpack because we are a little less fancy than others in our area.''

The average JanSport backpack can range from $29.40 to $150, according to its website.

Group of multiracial teenage college students ready to go back to school standing against blue background wall
Daniel de la Hoz/Getty Images

It's not just photos. Going back to school shopping has become a designer sport. 

Parents struggle between wanting their children to be accepted and not coddling them.

"In general kids have to get the best name brand to be cool,'' observed 49-year-old Alison W., who lives in Riverdale, New Jersey and has two teen-aged children 13 and 15. She prefers not to share her last name for privacy concerns.

"I want my kids to appreciate value and this is wasteful because they are rough on things and outgrow them. I bought my daughter Air Jordans because everyone else had them, but they were over $200 and she wore them once," Alison continued. "I see a lot of girls wearing Lululemon — over $100 for leggings that they will outgrow. It's about the name fixation.''

For Schachter's 13-year-old son the products were Nike, Psycho Bunny and Under Armour.

"He is very label sensitive and the Nikes he had weren't good enough; so we had to buy him Jordan Ones," she said. "We wanted him to fit in so we got him whatever he wanted, but we got the sneakers discounted at the outlet store. He's a little bit spoiled, but not spoiled rotten.''

Riverdale mom Chana Gotel said the roles have reversed a bit and children are often setting the ground rules.

"I'm guilty of giving in to my kids and letting them dictate what we buy them, and all my friends do the same thing,'' she said. "My son will only get a Sprayground backpack, and every year it's a new one. You have to get it right away or it gets sold out, so he has three different ones.''

According to its website, the average Sprayground backpack features kid-friendly designs such as the Pink Panther, Spongebob and Dragon Ball Z, and costs approximately $65 to $120.

Morgan, who pens the blog Mama in Monolos, lives in Boca Raton, Florida with her two daughters, aged 6 and 4, and is feeling the pressure to perform on social media. She prefers not to use her full name to protect her family's privacy.

"Khloe Kardashian has an entire set up with balloons, and that made the standard high this year,'' she sighed. "Every year I fail at this because I am not one of the moms that holds up a sign or bulletin board.''

She does use her blog's platform for her girls to express their sartorial preferences. "I am fashion oriented and my girls are too,'' she said. "My older daughter has new hot pink Nikes and her outfit was a statement. I let them express themselves that way, which is more important to me than the balloons, signs and elaborate cork boards some of my friends have.''

Many brands are seeing an uptick from the engagement with clothing and cosmetics. H&M launched a collab with former Lucky editor-in-chief Eva Chen targeted to the back to school set, with a large event held in New York City's Herald Square just after Labor Day, and its coveted bucket hat sold out in nearly all sizes within 24 hours, while Curan Mehra, founder and CEO of Hard Candy noted, "We've seen our Glosstopia Lip Oils pick up by 11% since mid August when schools opened, which is a new time for us to see a bump in sales driven by Gen Z customers."

Back to school also comes with a glam squad

Salon visits are also part of the prep for day one at school, even for tweens. Emily Reichart, who lives in Westfield, New Jersey, works at a non-profit and tries to keep a reasonable balance for her 12-year-old daughter, whose friends went for professional blow outs ahead of the first day of school.

"We don't subscribe to the craziness, but I also want her to fit in, so we did her hair at home the night before,'' she said. "We also got her a North Face backpack, rather than a more expensive brand and she was fine with it.''

Still, North Face backpacks can range in price from $75 to $135.

Westport mother of four, life coach, and author of "If It's Not Right, Go Left" Kristen Glosserman went for the trendier Stoney Clover backpack, which escalates in price as you customize it with decals and patches with prices ranging from $135 to $258. "They can get so expensive, so we added my daughter's initials rather than her full name, which saved a bit,'' she said.

But she defends all the celebrating on behalf of moms. "There is such an intense demand on parents, and now we reclaim those 6 to 8 hours during the day, so that's why we are celebrating!''

Fashionable purchases extend beyond just clothing to locker decor, including carpeting, fake plants and mini chandeliers.  "It's a whole business that's new to me,'' said Reichart. "At first my daughter wanted locker wallpaper and pictures, but she wound up with a mirror and a few magnets. When I was a kid you would go to the mall, pick up a couple of outfits and maybe you got some crayons and a sharpener. I don't think my parents even took a picture of me.''

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