No Thanks

School Spirit Days Have Gotten Completely Out of Hand

If it were up to me, we’d just opt out.

by Laura Fenton
JGI/Jamie Grill/Tetra images/Getty Images

“But I want to be Ant Man, not Batman!” my son protested, as I scoured the fridge for lunch fixings early one morning. It was day four of Spirit Week, and, as usual, I was becoming very dispirited trying to pull the whole thing off. I’d assumed we were in the clear for “Superhero Day,” seeing as we had several superhero costume elements in our dress-up bin, but my child had other ideas. He thought we could make a new superhero costume at 6:30 a.m. — and he was very disappointed when I disagreed.

Growing up, I don’t think my school ever had spirit weeks in elementary school, but my kid's school has so many of them that they have ceased to be special. Things reached a fever pitch this year in mid-February when the 100th Day of School and a Valentine’s Day-themed Spirit Week collided in the calendar because New York City schools had started so late. The requests to dress up, make crafts, and bring treats felt like the school testing the limits of what parents would endure. It took work not to show my kid exactly how miserable it was making me.

I’m not alone in my Spirit Week burnout. My friend Olivia recently posted in exhausted triumph that she’d still managed to create book-themed costumes despite her younger kids’ stomach virus. Last week when I ran into my neighbor, a teacher and also the mom of a child in my class, she was dressed up as a cowgirl. She shrugged and said, “Spirit Week” in the least enthusiastic way possible.

Spirit Week is not just a stress-maker because of a child’s unrealistic expectations or a parent’s lack of time. Even the most basic dress-up request can leave a child feeling left out. When a theme like Luau Day or Tie-Dye Day comes around and we don't have the required gear, I refuse to buy anything. Other families might want to but not be able to afford it. I try to explain to my son that it would be wasteful to buy clothing for a one-day celebration, but he’s still bummed not to participate. Pajama Day, which should have been a cakewalk, was a disaster because my son wanted to wear a favorite but much-too-tight pair of hole-y pajamas. It felt like we could never win!

I see Spirit Week for what it is: a superficial attempt to foster school spirit (and perhaps a way to incentivize attendance). If it were up to me, we’d just opt out. But for my son, it is fun. With his schooldays seemingly made up of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and very little in the way of actual fun (my kid’s school doesn’t even have recess every day because of overcrowding and lack of outdoor space), I’d be a scrooge to deny him the thin veneer of celebration that Spirit Week offers. So you’ll find me furiously crafting a cape at 7:30 am with one eye on the clock, ensuring we can still get to school on time.

LAURA FENTON is the author of The Little Book of Living Small and the Living Small newsletter. She lives with her husband and their son in Jackson Heights, Queens, in New York City. You can find her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton.