"Mom," Amy asks, "this year can I get a new backpack?"
"What's wrong with the old one?" I ask.
"It's old," comes the reply. "I've had that one for two years, and I'm sick of pink," my daughter explains. "Pink is so fourth grade."
"But there's nothing wrong with it," I say. "We don't just go out and buy a new backpack simply because the old one is pink. You know there's only one time when we buy a new backpack."
I don't add, "When the old one falls apart." She already knows this.
There is the customary whining, which I won't include here because it was tedious when I listened to it the first time and won't become less so if I relive it as I type it out for you. Use your imagination.
Her plea ends when I tell her I won't discuss school supplies again until we are walking into the store to buy them, and that won't happen until the week before school starts. She sighs and slumps and then slinks out of the room.
The frustration here is not that I won't buy a new backpack. She'll get over it.
It's not even that the request for a new backpack comes a full 30 days before one is needed to schlep books and supplies back and forth between school and home. I realized long ago that the back-to-school advertising season rivals only the Christmas season for length and intensity.
No, my frustration is bigger than these petty concerns. My frustration is with the culture.
Not to exaggerate, but Amy's request for a new backpack is what's wrong with America today.
She owns a perfectly good, serviceable backpack, which I carefully unpacked, washed and stored in the closet as soon as school let out. But the advertising circulars are pouring in, and each one offers cooler, more appealing backpacks than the last.
Not to mention (though Amy did) that everyone gets a cool new backpack for the new school year.
That's right — everyone. A backpack isn't a carrying case. It's a status symbol.
Here's what else is wrong: Jimmy tells me he will be the only guy in the eighth grade without a cell phone. He offers this information as he looks at an ad in today's paper for one of the cellular companies, the headline of which reads, "Be the envy of your school with the cool new…" (Name of phone omitted. This company doesn't need my help.)
So much for studying and getting good grades or working hard in sports to win the admiration of your peers. You can be the envy of your school simply by buying a phone that comes with two color faceplates. Oh joy.
In reality, not only will Jimmy be uncommon for his lack of a cell phone, Amy may well be among the minority of fifth-graders without one. (One would not want to miss an important call regarding one's Girl Scout meeting or a change in the time of a piano lesson, I guess.)
Wait — I forgot — cell phones for children are for emergencies. They're for calls home from the mall, the movies and the park. They're the avenue to safety when being followed by a weirdo on the way home from school. They're the tool with which we can reassure children when we're running late or when we make alternate arrangements for their transportation.
Cell phones are a parent's electronic tether by which we hold the reins of dependence and supervision as children begin to step out beyond our purview.
Great notion — and one that seems reasonable for many families. I'm not judging anyone; I'm just saying that's not exactly how it works in the real world.
In the real world, children incessantly use cell phones for texting and calling their pals, creating and sustaining hyperactive social lives akin to Paris Hilton's (sans incarceration).
What's more, having a cell phone — the right cell phone — is an avenue to social inclusion in the culture of cool. Marketers know this, which is why the ad for that new phone didn't say, "Be the safest kid in your school…" Obviously they sell a lot more phones by appealing to children than to the adults who pay for them.
This explains why marketers spend something like $17 billion putting out ads like the one for that cool new cell phone, this according to an article I found at CBS.com. The return on those ad dollars is astronomical.
Consider what else that news story said: that children between the ages of 8 and 12 — the ubiquitous tween market — annually spend $30 billion of their own money and wield power over $150 billion of their parents' spending decisions. (Where do tweens get $30 billion?)
That money may be great for the economy, but what is all that spending really costing us? What are we teaching children when we send the message, "You can be the envy of others because of what you own, not because of who you are"?
Has anyone noticed that all those advertising dollars are resulting in a generation of children who believe a cell phone can make them feel cool and who equate a new (not pink) backpack with self-confidence?
As often is the case, this is one of those huge cultural dilemmas with a simple, yet powerful, solution: The word no.
Unfortunately, getting parents to use that tiny little word is perhaps the biggest sell of all.