Back to School Headache? Family Traditions Help Ease Pain

Carmel family Sydney, Ken, Nate, Heidi and Chase Becker look forward to a multi-phase family tradition to help them get ready for the new school year.

When you bring up the subject of back-to-school preparedness with most parents, you’ll likely get a response that involves an eye roll, a few body twitches and deep, soulful moaning. Because as much as they might be thrilled with the idea of their kids getting back in the classroom, the thought of purchasing school supplies and adjusting to new sleep schedules is a different matter altogether.

Personally, I’m a little torn. It seems that my family just got into the groove of summer, what with the lazy mornings, nonexistent agenda and inattention to daily showers. I’ve just now adjusted to the constant odor of chlorine that permeates the laundry room, and the inevitable daily searches for swimming goggles. Now we’re supposed to shift gears and actually think about calculators, clipboards and permanent markers? It’s a challenge, no matter how you look at it.

But for some parents, particularly energetic and creative ones, this dreaded back-to-school paradigm shift serves as an opportunity to actually motivate their children, to turn the annual rite into something fun and, dare I say, enjoyable.

So in the spirit of back-to-school, I contacted some of these optimistic residents who have turned school prep into a fine art. Not surprisingly, there are good things going on. Who knows? Maybe their stories will motivate you to start new traditions of your own. Or not.

A Little One-on-One.

During the weeks leading up to the first day of school, Carmel resident Heidi Becker sets in motion a series of orchestrated events for her family of five that would impress most party planners.

“Our tradition has developed into more than just one day … it’s sort of like a multi-level celebration that helps get everybody psychologically ready,” Heidi says. And it’s never a dull moment.

Step one includes hitting the mall. Heidi makes it a point to take each of her three children (second-grader Chase, fourth-grader Sydney, and high school sophomore Nate) out for special, one-on-one shopping excursions. “There’s no way I could get everybody’s needs taken care of with all three kids at once, so by splitting them up, we get more accomplished,” Heidi explains. “And it’s always interesting, to say the least. You just never know what’s going to happen.”

Last year, for example, it was a particular challenge to take her then six-year-old shopping for a fall wardrobe, given his resistance to wearing underwear. “He likes to go commando, what can I say?” says Heidi. “Last year as he jumped into the car to go shopping; I luckily remembered to ask if he had on his skivvies.”

The answer? Her son simply looked at her from the back seat and calmly replied, “Mom, underwear is so last year!” Needless to say, after a quick jaunt back into the house to solve the problem, they were on their way.

Step two for the Becker clan is a group excursion in search of school supplies, although now that her oldest is in high school, he chooses to sit this one out. And finally, on the night before school, the entire family goes out to dinner (step three) to commemorate the end of summer.

“My husband and I take the kids out to a nice meal, and we just take a moment to talk about the summer and the school year to come,” Heidi says. “Altogether, it’s a lot of time to devote to back-to-school, but my kids look forward to it, and it really helps us make the transition. But above all, I think it also makes them feel special.”

Grin and Tie-Dye It.

Fishers residents Luke, Emma and Kyle Gabbard enjoy one of their annual back-to-school tie-dye parties to reconnect with friends and neighbors.

For the fourth consecutive year, Fishers residents Jennifer and Chad Gabbard, along with their sixth-grader Emma, fourth-grader Kyle, and kindergartener Luke, will host their annual back-to-school tie-dye party, where friends and neighbors are welcomed with large buckets of dye and plenty of rubber bands.

“We started this tradition because I wanted my kids to have something to look forward to before they went back to school every fall,” Jennifer says. “Now … well, it’s a given. It provides the kids a chance to reconnect with classmates and neighbors, and it goes hand-in-hand with the supply lists and shopping trips.”

Guests, which in some years have totaled over 50, bring their own items to tie-dye, and have ranged from soccer socks and pillow cases to T-shirts and napkins. Attendees create their own masterpieces, and the yard transforms into a patchwork of dripping wet, brightly colored fabric. While the drying process takes place, popsicles are the dessert of choice, and no one goes away empty handed … or clean.

“We typically have some kiddos leave with discolored clothes and skin,” Jennifer says. “In fact, last year we had a father come alone with his three kids, and his little girl just couldn’t resist the tubs full of dye. Needless to say, she went home with a solid purple body. I’m sure his wife didn’t appreciate the whole tie-dye theme when they got home.”

But the few mishaps and stain hazards haven’t stopped the custom. “We usually have a few spills here and there, but we keep it outside and have the hoses ready for clean up,” she says.

“Like it or not, I think it’s safe to say my kids have one of the most extensive collections of tie-dyed garments in the neighborhood,” Jennifer adds. “I suppose one day they’ll get tired of it, but for now, it’s a tradition that lives on year after year.”

May I Help You?

The Wardell family of Carmel is now sending their oldest son, Jacob (second from right) off to college this fall. It will be his first time to miss their annual back-to-school breakfast. Seen here enjoying a birthday celebration are Tom, Matt, Abbey, Jacob and Wendy.

In the Wardell family of Fishers, there’s nothing like the first day of school to warrant a little TLC that only a mom can give. In fact, as Wendy Wardell will tell you, it’s the only day of the year she serves up a special made-to-order breakfast, and her kids have learned to enjoy it when they can. “I’m just not a sit-home-and-make-cookies sort of mom,” she says. “But on that first day back to school, I pull out all the stops.”

Wendy begins the day with a breakfast menu, and her kids Jacob, now a college freshman, sixth-grader Matt, and fifth-grader Abbey, get to choose between biscuits and gravy, bacon and eggs, or waffles.

Once the kids are fed and dressed, they all go outside and take turns standing in front of a special tree in their yard and pose for pictures. “They always complain and whine about it,” Wendy says, “But deep down I know they love it. It’s fun to go back and see how they’ve grown, and how it compares to how the tree has grown too!”

After the kids are off to the classroom, Wendy heads in to make warm batches of homemade cookies. “Believe me when I tell you that this is the only day of the year that I do this,” she says. “So it’s a very big deal for them … not only do they get a special breakfast, but then they know the cookies will be waiting for them too.”

And why, exactly, does Wendy go to all the trouble? “Well, to be honest, I think it puts the emphasis on the tradition itself and takes away from the anxiety of the first day,” she says. “It helps them focus on other things. And we all have fun looking back to see how they’ve grown and changed. We’ll have those pictures forever.”

Back to the Drawing Board.

Carmel resident Kate Lustig is starting a new back-to-school tradition with her daughter, Kaiya, as she heads off to kindergarten this fall.

For Carmel mom Kate Lustig, this upcoming school year will mark the beginning of traditions for her and her daughter Kaiya, who will be entering kindergarten.

“I’m so excited for her,” Kate says. “After being in daycare for so many years, she’s a bit of an old pro at starting school, so I won’t have to deal with as much of the anxiety about leaving her in a new place. But I definitely feel some butterflies about moving from a small school environment to such a large one. It’s big stuff!”

Because Kaiya is an avid artist and loves documenting her activities and interests through drawing and painting, it’s fitting that Kate wants to incorporate creative expression as part of a new school-related tradition. It’s the perfect plan to commemorate the beginning of a 13-year journey.

“Kaiya has always loved to express herself through her pictures, so I’m going to have her draw how she sees herself on the first day of school, and then write down three goals for the year.” Kate then plans to laminate the picture and make it into a placemat before serving her first-day-of-school breakfast on top of it as a surprise.

“I think Kaiya will love the tradition because she doesn’t forget anything,” Kate says. “She’ll look forward to it each year, and as she gets older, we’ll enjoy looking back at the placemats and seeing how she’s changed. Plus, any excuse to draw and she takes it.”

Back-to-school traditions are like any other … they serve to honor and commemorate an important event or social custom. Up until now, I have felt proud to actually have my children clothed, fed and at the bus stop on time for that special first day. Perhaps now is the time to start some new traditions in my house. Or not.

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