What Really Motivates Back-to-School Shopping?

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It’s not just about glue, protractors, and binders. We’re buying stuff—new clothes, backpacks, sneakers, cell phones—in an attempt to make kids feel secure, more confident, more “with it.”

That’s the gist of a USA Today story on the psychology of back-to-school shopping. Obviously, parents can’t be with their kids at school and protect them with a snappy comeback when a bully approaches. They can’t hold their kids’ hands and help them make friends (which probably wouldn’t work anyway). But parents can try to buy their kids a little confidence in the form of cool new sneakers. The USA Today piece explains that this sort of thinking is behind just about every purchase you make:

Parents use off-to-college shopping to picture their child’s environment, to feel more in control of the transition and to be with their child through a shared activity so everyone has a chance to process a new level of independence. As parents buy and consider items, they’re imagining their kids using them, and it helps them feel more secure.

This also happens when shoppers consider purchases of any sort. In short, shoppers take a mental trip into the future. In addition to helping us figure out what to buy, those excursions help to anticipate and prepare for the future. And that in turn gives us a greater sense of control. It’s not just the things we buy that make shopping so alluring during transitions and changes; it’s also the shopping itself.

Shopping makes us feel good, especially if we feel like we’re helping our kids in the process. When you send your child off to school, you feel powerless. You’ve got to do something, right? So you buy them stuff—any leg up might help.

Does the stuff actually help? Who knows. In an odd Washington Post blog post offering 7 tips for success in school, a psychology professor who has given advice to Tiger Woods says nothing about cell phones or new wardrobes. Instead, he recommends that kids get up and work at 5 a.m., which is when the brain is less cluttered—and which, even so, doesn’t seem wise for most kids. Another tip:

Don’t expect success because you “feel good” about yourself.

That’s what the self-esteem movement of the 1970s and ‘80s promoted–and it was nonsense.

Anyway, if you’re still in the market for back-to-school stuff, here are ten deals and savings strategies.