Children will go from preschool to pre-calc to premed faster than you think. That passage is marked in many ways -- first crushes, bad haircuts and at least one blowout fight about tattoos -- but each August, it's defined by school supplies. As the years progress, children go from crayons to markers to colored pencils, from safety scissors to pointed scissors to Exacto knives.
And that first day of school is do-or-die. Choose right and you are among the cool. Choose wrong and you might as well stay home. Which backpack is the right one? What clothes are in style? Should I buy the 24 box of crayons or spring for the 96 count? The Sponge Bob or Shrek lunchbox?
It's your job to guide your kids through the school supply minefield, arriving on the other side with enough cool stuff to get them through the first day unscathed and without having cashed in the college fund.
Armed with a little knowledge and a good road map, it's easier than you think.
Know what you need
Wait until you have the list from your child's school before you hit the stores. Every grade in every school wants something slightly different, and if there's anything worse than spending an afternoon scouring the aisles of Wal Mart/Target/Office Max, it's doing it twice.
Many schools post their lists online and some stores will have them printed once the summer winds down. Some lists are horribly precise. (What, exactly, is so special about a No. 2 pencil?). Others are horribly vague. (A water container? Do they mean water bottle?) Have your child ask the teacher for clarification if something isn't specific. It's OK if your child shows up on the first day of school without every last item on the list. The pocket pack of Kleenex can wait until Day 2.
Negotiate the extras
Get ready for a child's best offense in the school-supply aisle showdown: "But Mom, everyone has them." It's OK to cave to his demands, but at least make him work for it. When your child asks for the SpongeBob folder, ask him for a detailed description of who SpongeBob is. This will buy you a few minutes to question your decision to allow a television in your house -- and quite possibly, your decision to have kids at all.
(No doubt, this is what my parents did when I begged for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles folder back in kindergarten. Apparently, a gang of bipedal turtles named after Renaissance artists constantly wolfing down pizza was the early-90s equivalent of a square-shaped sea sponge with the world's most annoying voice).
Parents, it's not supposed to make sense to you. It makes sense to kids. That Ninja Turtles folder still sits, crisp and clean, in my room at home. Which can mean only one thing: I never used it. But if buying your child the SpongeBob folder makes him just a little more excited about that first day of school, it's worth the extra $1.19.
Wipe out the Wite-Out
When sending your child off to middle school, you are well advised to skip over one item: Wite-Out. It seems like a great idea. But, rest assured, their big use is doodling, not correcting. After spending all that money on a calculator and Trapper Keeper, do you really want them to come home looking like graffiti-tagged city walls?
It doesn't need to light up
Protractors now light up. It's true. You press a button and there's a strip that lights up along the edge. As any persuasive child would, no doubt, explain, this comes in handly while doing math homework in low-light situations. They're available in either Radiant Red, for fire-hearted math students, or Orange Aura, for the calmer, philosophical learners. Splurge if you feel the urge, but just make sure the protractor is translucent (clear). It's what most school want.
The same is true with all bell-and-whistles products. Wite-Out works just as well in liquid form as the fancy pen-tape contraption (if you absolutely must buy it, but see above), and regular old No. 2 pencils work just as well as mechanical ones, hi-tech click or no click.
The best things are free
After the shopping cart has been loaded and the credit card swiped make one more at the public library. If your child doesn't already have a library card, now is the time to get one. Only on a few lists did I find this crucial item, but it is a tool as essential to a student as a hammer is to a carpenter. Best of all, it's the one supply that's free.
The bottom line is simple: Think of school supply shopping as an investment in your child's future. Spend the extra $50 now, plant the seeds of knowledge and make your child love learning. The pens, pencils and crayons will slowly disappear into the black hole of school. Folders will wear as they are stuffed until they burst. But the kids will return home for years to come with good grades and the desire to go back the next day.
Graham is the digital editor for ChicagoParent.com
See more of Graham's stories here.