Wednesday, September 3, 2008

4 Back To School Tips for 'That Mom'

Rather than wax poetic about sending my four boys back to school, (note: see mom doing a happy, happy dance!!) I thought I would share my 'oh, she's that green mom' tried and true methods for surviving the back-to-school chaos with a little sustainable style.

Tip #1 - Use those leftovers!

Never bother to sort backpacks or bookbags brought home at the end of the school year at the beginning of summer. Why? When faced with four bags stuffed with leftover school supplies almost to the point of bursting and one mom on overload from elementary school graduation planning, summer swim parties, field trips and teacher appreciation luncheons you are more likely to look at the pile and chuck it all into the trash. Really. I swear all sensibility to sort paper, tear out used notebook pages and neatly organize what you 'think' you might need for next year goes right out the window when you're on the brink of exhaustion.

Simply - this is VERY important, please pay attention - sift through the bag checking for errant food items, live animals and/or money (yes, I have found all three before!) and then place the bag into a closet or the basement hidden away until the end of summer. I guarantee you will be much calmer and more reasonable sorting through the bags with your new school supply list in your hand during the month of August when you will find many things on this years list that were only gently used last year. Besides, when faced with the cost of buying school supplies these days, that folder/pencil box/binder doesn't really look so shabby after a month or two hidden out of sight, does it? I didn't think so!

Tip #2 - Backpack wars!

What kid doesn't want a brand spanking new backpack, book bag or tote each year? They all do, but let's face it... Do they really NEED one? Before the schools shopping madness begins (seriously, do this in July) buy the very, very best backpack you can afford that is made of bullet proof, rip stop, stainless steel materials. Just kidding! However, buying the right pack for the right sized kid made of durable materials is well worth it. I highly recommend LL Bean's backpacks and can swear by their durability. I have four boys, each with their own pack, embroidered with their initials, that carry laptops, lunches and binders all at the same time that are going on their 3rd year of use. No broken zippers, no busted straps, no ripping seams. They weren't cheap, but they last and last.

And, another hint? Buying those packs in July, letting your child pick out the fabric and embroider their initials on the bag will be fun for them. Bonus for you? While in the big, nasty discount store buying school supplies your child will see the Spiderman, Barbie and/or Pokemon backpack made of cheap materials guaranteed to only last 3 months and you will calmly be able to say, "Oh, but we have your new bag all personalized and ready to go!" Sneaky, eh?

Tip #3 - Lunchtime drama!

I am a huge advocate for healthy food choices in the cafeteria and making sure my boys eat a well balanced and filling lunch. (If you haven't commented on the USDA's Child Nutrition Act, please do so today!) However, three of my four boys are middle school age and lunch is the MOST important time of day for them for two reasons. One, they like to eat. A lot. As much as possible. Two, lunchtime is social time for middle school kids and, in their very over-scheduled lives and in their highly pressured world to achieve, this is their one chance daily to meet friends, chat up the girls and start to learn about where they fit in the peer groups. So, four days a week I pack a waste-free, organic, local and healthy meal for them. One day a week we allow them to get into the lunch line, buy a pizza with their buddies, pay for their meal with real money and figure out how to navigate the dangerous waters of the middle school cafeteria.

Why is this so important to me, given I am such a locavore and health nut? In the real world we are faced with choices and obstacles and the middle school lunch room is pretty much one of the earliest places we learn to deal with peer pressure, food choices, social rules, manners - all on our own. If I keep protecting my boys behind my shield of pre-packed food, controlled choices and rigid schedule, how will they adapt in high school? Or even worse, college? It's the beginning of letting go, and as hard as it is, I watch my boys choose to recycle their plastic bottles and tell their buddies to do the same. They have learned from stomach-growlings and headaches that maybe deep fried cheese sticks and lemonade aren't quite a balanced or filling lunch. OK, so that means next time they add a banana or apple to their tray, but it's a start. They politely deal with rather crabby lunch ladies who don't always give the correct change and are short on patience. Those are skills you don't get from a textbook, teacher or a perfectly packed lunch courtesy of Mom. These are social graces, manners and confidence you can only gain by being thrust into the deep end and dog paddling like crazy.

Tip #4 - You know your own child!
Doesn't it seem like these kids 'need' a lot of stuff? That's what I thought too. Lists of requested supplies, forms, money, physicals and clothing arrive in the mail the third week of August like the barrage on Normandy. This is my eighth year of sending kids back to school. Eight long years of shopping, packing, labeling, returning, rebuying and shuttling supplies to and from school.

One thing I have learned about these 'required' lists is that not every student is the same. You know your own child after a few years of school. Does your child really need 96 #2 pencils? Not if you're my oldest son who will use a pencil right down to the metallic nub and quite honestly he likes the pencil better when it's short. I'm not sure why, but he is happy to take the younger boy's cast off, slightly used pencils. However, my second oldest will break off the erasers right off the top of brand new pencils from vigorous erasing so I know to make a pencil get right down to the nub, I better add an eraser top. That brings me to the third oldest. He loses pencils faster than the Exxon Valdez leaks oil. He is prone to forgetting to zip his pencil pouch, leaving a trail of pens and pencils from the desk to the door, or leaving them on the bus or forgetting them in the classroom. So, yes, he might need 96 #2 pencils.

My point is? Take a close look at the 'required' supply lists. Can you start by buying a pack of 12 #2 pencils? Can you check their locker or desk during curriculum night or parent teacher conferences to see what supplies they are using and what they are not? At the end of every school year each of my boys will bring home an unopened package of paper, a notebook not even used or a 6-pack of unopened glue sticks. Yes, from time to time I can reuse this item for the next year or another child, but really? Why buy it in the first place? Do you have a child that loves art projects? Better stock up on the glue sticks and colored pencils! Or is your child a perfectionist and will erase every errant pencil mark and use a fresh sheet of paper for every quiz? Well then, round up the pencil erasers and notebook paper! You know your own child, so don't feel like EVERY item on that list is a must-buy.

Oh, OK, you might find yourself as 'that Mom' (or Dad!) who bucks the system, questions authority or ignores the lists, but let's face it... If you're still one of those green Moms still reading this post???? You're already 'that Mom' anyway! Relax though, I've been 'that Mom' for 8 years and after awhile, you wear that label like a badge of honor!
This is my submission for the Green Moms Carnival being hosted by Surely You Nest. If you have a submission, hop on over to her blog for more info and send in your submission before Sept. 7th!


Jenn said...

What a great post! This is my first year of being "that mom." I'm glad to know I'm in such good company!

Diane MacEachern said...

Your observations about the food situation really hit home! My kids used to complain that "nobody wants to trade their candy bar for my organic apple!" It was tough when they were young; by the time they got to high school, they realized that school food was pretty bad, and loved the lunches I packed for them. Meanwhile, I stopped bragging about how "organic" everything was. In their eyes, it was just yummy food - which they didn't even want to trade!

Mother Earth said...

I let my kids pick a day of the week for "school" food too!! Especially in Junior High where lunch was social. Truth be told a bit of that and it wasn't such a big deal anymore. I too found they'd opt for the brown bag. I loved your descriptions of your kids! I have a pen cap chewer and a young lady who can kill a pair of shoes in one day yet has perfectly great crayons from kindergarden. It's wonderful to be a "that mom"

Mindful Momma said...

I'm with you on letting your kids have a go at navigating school lunch. My 8 year old loves a chance to stand in line like the rest of the kids and pick out what he wants from the available choices. Most of the time he's happy with his healthy home-packed lunch but every month he reads the school lunch menus and picks out a few that he wants to get. I think that's just fine!

Green Bean said...

Another awesome post for ole Eco Burbies! :) Love your veteran tips. And I love that you acknowledge that we have to let kids be themselves, eat what everyone else does once a week. Someone recently asked me what happens when my kids get a goodie bag full of plastic pre-landfill crap. Uh, I let them keep it. I'll never win them over being an eco-nazi. But being fun, better tasting, more satisfying, those things will.

Great food for thought. I'll remember #1 come June.

Mary Hunt said...

Loved the permanent bag idea complete with having their initials on it. Not only do WELL made bags last, there is status in having something that functions extremely well. I like how it also teaches the lesson about buying durable items too.

Greener Grass Notes, Inc. said...

great post. Other Moms just think I'm over the top. Oh well. Guess when my daughter gets to be school-age, I will be that green mom then too! Thanks for sharing your tips in this post!


Anna said...

Terrific list. I think there is a special place in heaven for the mother of four boys! (From one who has the same.) I like your tip about buying what is durable. Make it last.

I let my kids eat in school twice a week and the rest we pack.

I agree with everyone that we need them to be kids too. Eventually what we teach them will rub off. I am very proud of my high schoolers for letting me buy them cardboard binders rather than plastic ones this year!

organicneedle said...

Great post. Fortunately...I have a lot of good company in the crunch-o-sphere at my son's new school. I totally agree about the backpack. Instead of buying a crappy plastic junk bag, I sewed on Star Wars decals onto my indestructible Eastpak. He loves it. We plan on doing the same one day a week buy pizza option too...although he hasn't wanted to venture into the line yet.The one thing I wish I could do was buy better school supplies. At our school they give you a specific list..including # and brand name...and collect it and keep it in the school. There is a separate list for HW supplies that you can try to crunch up a little, but not much.

Pamela said...

I am really strict about healthy lunches for my 4 as well. They are also allowed to buy pizza on pizza day. We found a back pack made out of recycled bottles by Dante Beatrix for my little one.