Happy school days to you!

A yummy token of support for the bus-stop gang, Morristown, N.J., 2011: (back from left) Kelly Larkin, Megan Larkin, Sean Gallagher, Amanda Gallagher; (front from left) Michael Lopinto, Katie Gallagher, Kevin Larkin, Daniel Lopinto.
A yummy token of support for the bus-stop gang, Morristown, N.J., 2011: (back from left) Kelly Larkin, Megan Larkin, Sean Gallagher, Amanda Gallagher; (front from left) Michael Lopinto, Katie Gallagher, Kevin Larkin, Daniel Lopinto. ((back from left) Kelly Larkin, Megan Larkin, Sean Gallagher, Amanda Gallagher; (front from left) Michael Lopinto, Katie Gallagher, Kevin Larkin, Daniel Lopinto.)

Brand-new supplies, cake, special dinner: Many parents are turning back-to-school into a birthday-like celebration, establishing personal, positive traditions.

Posted: September 05, 2013

Come September, most kids can count on one thing: the start of school.

But many families make sure their students-to-be can rely on something else: a personal back-to-school tradition.

From baked goods that serve as tokens of parental support to those first-day-of-class photo sessions, moms say it gives them and their kids something to look forward to each year, and helps just a little to ease the first-day jitters.

Mimi Larkin has a great deal of experience with the subject: 14 years to be precise.

Every September since 1999, the Morristown, N.J., mother of three (her oldest was 5 at the time) has made a school-bus cake for her kids and other families in the neighborhood to share the night before school starts. This year, she's baking her final yellow-frosted sheet cake with chocolate-doughnut wheels: Her youngest starts 12th grade this fall.

Larkin began baking the cake - the recipe was from a Parents magazine article - after her family moved, as a way to start off the school year with her new neighbors. Over time, it became something like "Halloween or Thanksgiving, something we do every year, and it's part of growing up," she said. "No one necessarily loves starting the school year, so it's fun that they get cake with their friends before going back."

The celebration did evolve: Larkin's oldest daughter, Megan, began helping with the cake and eventually took over the task. "She decorates it better than I do at this point," Larkin said. Now, Megan is studying at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration, with hopes of becoming a pastry chef.

For many moms, traditions like this help replace back-to-school dread with more positive associations.

That's what motivates Tyisha Wise, a Point Breeze mother of two and foster mother of three more. For the last two years, she has been building her own tradition: making sure every single kid on her block - there are about 50 of them, ages 5 to 13 - has a new backpack filled with crayons, pencils, and composition books. She gives out the gear at an annual "kids' day" block party in August; this year she rented a moon-bounce and brought in a face painter.

Wise works full time for the city, so she did fund-raising where she could. "About half of the block donated money or school supplies, and the other half came out of my pocket," she said, estimating that she spent about $500 of her own money this year. "It was hard to get people to donate. But we don't want to take it out of the kids' pockets."

She already has some fund-raising events - a Chuck E. Cheese outing in September, and a bowling night in October - scheduled to ensure the kids will be covered next year.

"Some kids are less fortunate," she said. "And if I can make a difference in some child's life - a lot of parents can't buy crayons and books and pencils - so if I can do it, why not try?"

Like Wise, parents embrace first-day-of-school traditions that are a mix of the pragmatic and the whimsical.

Jennifer Auer, an Absecon, N.J., mother of three boys, likes to put personal notes in her kids' lunch boxes on the first day. But she also writes a note to the teacher introducing her sons and noting their strengths and weaknesses - and tucks it into a "welcome back kit." She loads the kit with classroom supplies the teacher requested and extras like fancy paper clips or notepads "to maybe get the teacher excited and make them feel like they're part of a family."

Auer, who runs a website called Jerseyfamilyfun.com, also has more sentimental first-day traditions. Among them is the comprehensive photo documentation of her sons leaving the house, walking to school, going into the classroom, and, later in the afternoon, returning home.

"My favorite pictures are of that excitement on their faces when they're coming out of school at the end of that first day," she said. "It's fun when they're younger and they're still excited about the joy of it all."

Likewise, for Jo-Lynne Shane, who has kids going into second, fifth, and eighth grades, first-day photos are a rite of passage. The Pottstown resident puts the pictures in her annual photo books, posts them to Instagram and Facebook, and shares them on her blog, Musingsofahousewife.com.

"My son is in middle school, so he barely tolerates me," Shane said with a laugh, "but the girls still have fun looking through them and seeing how they've grown."

In addition to shots of her own kids, she also gets photos of all the children at the bus stop. Last year, a mom from the neighborhood printed out signs for each child to hold with his or her name and school grade - useful when 13 years of photos start to run together.

The photos are fun for her, but back-to-school time also comes with perks for her kids, including a new school outfit and the chance to request a special dinner to celebrate the last night of freedom. That tradition usually results in Shane's cooking "something that is pretty laborious, like lasagna."

Of course, kids can be excited about first-day-of-school customs - but that doesn't mean they're not anxious.

That's why Kelly Raudenbush takes extra measures for her kids' very first first day, the start of kindergarten.

The night before, the Phoenixville mother of four kids, ages 4 to 11, gives the new kindergartner a custom-made photo book, filled with images of that child growing up, alongside text based on Christian writer Max Lucado's Just in Case You Ever Wonder.

For each child, she has put in personal photos and text modified to suit their personality and convey "whatever was a message that I thought they needed."

"From preschool to kindergarten is a big move, so I thought they needed a shot in the arm from Mom and Dad to encourage them. It's almost like when a kid goes to college, they're reaching a new level of independence, but you want them to know that, if they need you, you're here."

Raudenbush made her third book, for her son Drew, in 2011. (It's linked on her blog, Myoverthinking.com.) By then, the older kids knew it was coming, and were making suggestions for which photos to include for her son, she said. "It's definitely become a family tradition."

It's one that has meaning even as her kids grow older, since the message the books convey - about the child's own inner strength and unwavering parental support - is timeless. "We go back to it when we feel like they're going through a low time and need a little bit of a reminder [about those support systems]," she said.

And those low times are inevitable; parents can't control everything that happens at school. But, as Wise said, they can at least get kids off to a good start.

That's why she spends each August hustling for donations: "That first day of school makes a difference."

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