Backpacks, Kids and Us

by Robert Rickover

He was probably nine or ten years old. I suppose he would be about four feet tall if he were standing normally. But he wasn’t, thanks to his immense backpack. It was so heavy that his whole body curved sharply forward as he trudged along the sidewalk past my house on his way to school one morning.

He looked a little like an undersized and overloaded Sherpa on his way to Mt. Everest.

I’ve been noticing the effects of backpacks on children during the past few years. Every year the packs seem to get bigger and heaver, forcing the kids wearing them to distort their bodies more and more grotesquely.

What makes me particularly upset about this trend is that I know what’s in store for children once they reach school. They will be forced to use standardized chairs and desks that make no allowance for natural variation in childrens’ shapes and sizes – furniture chosen to save a few dollars and make them easier for the custodial staff to stack and move.

To add insult to injury, they may well be required – while using that horrible furniture – to watch a video on the importance of having good posture!

The conditions faced by most children in schools today would never be tolerated in a workplace thanks to union pressure, government regulations and the threat of lawsuits.

But they are widely accepted for our kids, even though their young bodies are at great risk of developing harmful posture patterns that can lead to pain and poor physical functioning in later life.

Why? I’ve thought a good deal about this issue and I see two main reasons why this blatant misuse of our children is allowed to continue.

First, many parents, teachers and school administrators literally can not see the harm that’s being done. Sometimes it’s because their own posture leaves a lot to be desired. I’ve noticed in my own work as an Alexander Technique teacher that people with poor posture are not usually very good at seeing the same sorts of patterns in others.

Then too kids are remarkably resilient, even when faced with the backpack and seating outrages so common in our schools today. The harmful consequences may not show up for a few years and so elementary teachers are not likely to see them. And when they do show up – perhaps in high school – it may seem then that the child just somehow developed bad posture earlier, somewhere else.

Second, I think our society has some serious blind spots when it comes to childhood development.

It used to be that hitting or even beating small children to discipline them was an accepted practice. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” went the saying.

Thankfully those practices are fading out, in large measure due to an increased understanding of the terrible long-terms effects of such violence. By now most parents are aware of the well documented link between an abusive childhood and violent behavior later in life.

But I think many well-intentioned parents and teachers are still unable to make the connection between distorting environmental factors like heavy packs and ill-fitting furniture, and future posture development. How else can one explain letting their kids leave home carrying the sort of backpacks you can see near any school? Or allowing new middle and high schools to be built with no lockers, presumably to keep students from hiding drugs, thereby forcing them to carry them from class to class?

There are some hopeful signs. The issue of children’s backpacks has begun to surface in the media. (I wish I could say the same about school furniture. but I see no progress at all in that area.) I was particularly stuck by a front-page article in the New York Times – “Heft of Students’ Backpacks Turns Into Textbook Battle.”

According to the article some schools are now issuing a separate set of books to be kept at home. California has banned textbooks that exceed a certain weight limit and legislators in New Jersey and Massachusetts are considering similar regulations.

These are useful ideas, but ultimately I believe that what we need more than anything else is a much clearer appreciation of just how important early postural influences can be so that we don’t just rely on patchwork solutions.

Here’s one way to see this for yourself: If you have photos (or videos) of yourself taken early in your life – say though your teenage years – arrange them in chronological order and see if you can spot changing postural patterns in yourself. Compare what you see in those photos to what you see when you look at yourself in a full-length mirror. Better yet, have someone else take a look too – it’s often easier to see these patterns in others.

You might be amazed at what you discover!