Backpacks, Kids and Us

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!


Backpacks, Kids and Us — 16 Comments

  1. Thanks for writing this, Robert.
    I think backpacks are an extremely important contributing factor to poor posture in kids. It’s happening at an earlier and earlier age. It’s like working out at the gym with really bad posture. It can make bad posture even worse.

  2. Very good, Robert, thank you. My concern from the backpack problem is that, even if parents and teachers agree that they often create poor posture, they seem not to know or understand the link between poor posture and pain, injury, and ‘mental state’ (mood, behaviour, learning ability)… It seems to be only a concern for ‘looks’ and nothing else. I am amazed how many people say ‘poor posture is bad’, but have no idea why…. The answer, 99% of the time, is “Doesn’t look good”.

  3. Robert, thanks for bringing this forward. It can’t be written of too often. I also find myself intrigued by your suggestion, final sentence of final paragraph! There’s a liveliness in the suggestion to have someone else view the photos with you. It’s relational, interactive, and opens the possibility of a conversation—even between two people who aren’t yet seeing patterns acutely. And even better than having AT student & teacher do this. Thanks!

  4. When I was a kid in elementary school we kept our books in the desk at school and only brought home what we needed. If kids are actually using all the books that fit in those packs, when would they have time to do all that texting?
    When I was a kid we went to the school nearest home. Transit was for rich kids in private schools.
    When I was in high school we kept our books in lockers and only carried what we needed for one class. Same in University.
    I suspect most those packs are full of snacks.

    • Actually a lot of the weight is books these days – although why they have to be lugged to and from school is a mystery to me.


      • The reason the kids have to carry the books to school, then around to all their classes, and then home again is that a large majority of schools no longer have lockers. And for the few that still do, they kids don’t have time to get to their lockers between classes. It is a very different school environment from the ones I grew up in, for sure.

  5. Probably the way it’s imagined that ‘solve the problem’ is going to happen is to issue all the kids tablets and have all the books become virtual ones. The school system just “biding their time” until that happens, I’m sure. The whole issue of assigning homework for younger and younger kids that require they carry books home from school just made me angry enough to home school when there was a school age kid in my household.

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  7. This is a topic I have been studying for years. It has been in the media for many years – and yet year after year, nothing is done about it. I suspect the reason is that there is actually no current solution and certainly schools in this country (UK) have no money. Nowadays, unlike when I was at school, children move from classroom to classroom. We used to stay in the classroom (apart from Science and Art) and the teachers came to us. We had our own desk and our books lived in it, or in a locker.

    When you think that a child’s spine is growing until the age of 18, you have to ask the question – what are we doing to our children’s future health? Additionally, very few scientific studies are done on children’s skeletal health. (probably no-one dares!).

    Robert, I think your comment: “Second, I think our society has some serious blind spots when it comes to childhood development” is exactly right. It is so normal, society no longer sees it.

    When I realised 6 years ago that the vast majority of young children I saw were slouching dreadfully in their strollers, I couldn’t not do something about it. So, I have designed, developed and patented a retro-fit clip on head support for a stroller, which I’m about to launch. You’ll be hearing from me! But it’s the same thing as the school bags and chairs, no-one is actually considering the consequences of what is before our eyes! Well, we’re the people who understand. It’s just a question of how to get the message across elegantly! Otherwise, no-one will listen.

    There is a great film called “Hyper Normalisation” by Adam Curtis which is really worth a watch (it’s 2 hours long!) and I think it explains just this situation.

    It shows how things that are really not ok, become “normalised” because there is no visible solution.

    This is Wikepaedia’s description of the film and I think it describes exactly what we are talking about.

    “The term “hypernormalisation” is taken from Alexei Yurchak’s 2006 book Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, about the paradoxes of life in the Soviet Union during the 20 years before it collapsed.[3][4] A professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley,[5] he argues that everyone knew the system was failing, but as no one could imagine any alternative to the status quo, politicians and citizens were resigned to maintaining a pretence of a functioning society.[6] Over time, this delusion became a self-fulfilling prophecy and the “fakeness” was accepted by everyone as real, an effect that Yurchak termed “hypernormalisation”.[7]

    Thanks for discussing this, it’s so important.

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