Renee Moilanen: The weight of the world on our kid’s shoulders

As much as I support the idea of children walking to school, I cringe every time my third-grade son hefts his gargantuan bookbag onto his shoulders and trudges hunchbacked toward campus.

Loaded up with his required laptop, lunchbox and textbooks, my son’s bookbag weighs 14 pounds. That’s nearly 25 percent of his body weight, a hefty addition on his half-mile trek to school, which is – I swear I’m not exaggerating – uphill both ways. If I had to haul an extra 30 pounds on my back to get to work, I’m pretty sure I’d malinger more often.

The poor boy has started to develop the posture of a desk-bound office worker. And every now and then, he gripes about back pain. I can’t tell if it’s the usual moans and groans of a coddled 9-year-old or the beginnings of a real problem.

The pediatrician did nothing to alleviate my concerns. Nothing more than 10 pounds, she said. If that means buying a second set of textbooks to keep at home or subjecting him to embarrassment with a rolling backpack, so be it. He’ll thank me later.

Heavy backpacks, it turns out, are a real health issue. In 2017, roughly 7,800 children were treated in emergency rooms for injuries related to backpacks, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting backpacks to no more than 10 percent of a child’s weight. Heavier loads can give kids low-back strain, shoulder pain and poor posture, a preview of middle-age they don’t need.

A few years ago, the California legislature adopted a resolution urging school districts to develop guidelines for easing the backpack load. The resolution is full of suggestions, everything from electronic textbooks and more lightweight handouts to hanging scales in classrooms to monitor backpack weight.

But if local school districts are working on the issue, they haven’t gotten the word out to my overloaded boy. I’m starting to question whether studying for a social studies test outweighs the spinal stress of hauling that textbook home. An extra-credit science project? Not if that means schlepping five pounds of clay volcano to school.

At the parent-teacher conference, I couldn’t concentrate on the teacher’s comments about math aptitude and reading scores. I kept waiting for the chance to ask my one burning question: Does my son really need to bring the Chromebook home every day? Can’t he leave that three-pound monster at school? Because achieving technological competency is important, but so is an uncompressed spine, and surely we can have both.

Experts urge ergonomic backpacks with well-padded shoulders. Waist straps, which help distribute the weight more evenly. Even smaller bookbags, which seemed counterintuitive until I realized my son was using his extra-large bag to haul around broken keychains, interesting rocks and 37 pencil stubs. I’m now more diligent about clearing the junk.

But the problem may only worsen as my son approaches middle school, and then high school, where presumably the workload intensifies, textbooks thicken and after-school activities add new supplies to his already stuffed backpack.

So I’m steering my son toward lighter-weight activities. So what if he dreams of learning to play the tuba? A harmonica is fine. And he’ll thank me later.

Renee Moilanen is a freelance writer based in Redondo Beach. Her column publishes in print every other Saturday.

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