It seems like only yesterday that kids were busting through those double doors, the last bell of the school year ringing faintly throughout the halls. The sun felt a bit warmer, the air smelled a little sweeter and freedom was within reach. And yet, somehow that last day of school also seems like a distant memory.

Summer is funny like that.

Kindergarteners are becoming first-graders; middle-schoolers are transitioning to high school; and faster than we can sing, “School’s Out for Summer,” shorts and flip-flops have been replaced by sweaters and jeans in store windows. It’s August – back-to-school shopping time, the annual autumnal rite of passage.

When I was a grade-schooler, back-to-school shopping was simple: a pair of Dr. Scholl’s, a Jordache purse and an armful of jelly bracelets made for an excellent school-year wardrobe circa 1984. Today, it’s a bit more complicated. An unstable economy, blurred fashion lines and in-your-face marketing along with its trickle-down effect to our youngest consumers can frazzle the savviest of parents as they shop for their children’s school clothes.

But there are ways to make shopping for clothes more bearable, if not enjoyable, this season.

“I don’t give clothing the power that I see other people giving it,” says Mary Lou Andre, founder of Organization by Design, a Needham-based fashion consulting firm, and mom to twin preteen boys.

Though clothes are one of the major ways kids express themselves and connect with their peer group, parents need to find a balance between shopping for what’s “in” vs. what’s appropriate and reasonable.

“I think there needs to be compromise,” says Andre, who recommends saying ‘yes’ to some things that kids want, but also setting parameters – before heading to the mall.

Fashion Police

Enforcing guidelines is not just for the teenage set – who may want those uber-baggy jeans, ridiculously expensive sneakers or belly-bearing tops – but for younger shoppers as well.

“My daughter Allie will pick out clothes that are not appropriate for a 6-year-old,” says Middleton mom Martina Galvin, who has a girl and a boy entering first and second grade this fall. Galvin blames this phenomenon on clever marketing by retailers, who use glitter and bright colors to coax younger children into more grown-up clothes. This is why Andre says it’s important for a parent to, well, be the parent.

Cathy Brauner, a Wellesley mom to two teenaged girls – one a recent high-school graduate and the other a soon-to-be senior – knows all about having to put her foot down on occasion. While her girls now do most of their shopping together and use money earned from baby-sitting, she still occasionally sends them back in the house for a wardrobe change.

“In the middle-school years, especially, I put my foot down on clothes that were too short or too sexy,” she says. “I just thought that was way too early for them to look like baby streetwalkers!”

“It’s been a give and take,” says Kelly Page, a Newburyport mom of two girls, ages 9 and 11, who uses clothes shopping to teach them the difference between fads and classics.

A Game Plan

According to the National Retail Federation, the average consumer spent $603 on back-to-school items, including clothing, in 2011. Approximately 80 percent of consumers say that the economy will affect their budgets for this year, with an increasing number planning to do their shopping online to take advantage of Internet deals.

Galvin says she’ll stick to the stores – so that she can see and touch the things she’ll purchase – but she’ll go it alone. “If I take [the kids], they tell me they don’t like the clothes I’m buying,” she says.

If you do shop together, Andre advises that in order to avoid emotional blow-outs at the store, parents and children should have a calm discussion about a budget and appropriate styles at home. She also suggests avoiding shop-until-you-drop sprees, which can lead to crankiness, arguments and impulse buying, and steering clear of buying everything before school starts.

“I do most of my shopping in September,” she says. This strategy can help families avoid shopper’s remorse and give kids the chance to check out what others are wearing before buying in to a trend they may regret.

Just because you stock their closets with new back-to-school duds, however, doesn’t always mean that kids can coordinate them on their own. Sometimes they’ll do more mixing then matching.

“I think it’s all about picking your battles,” says Andre, who suggests that parents and young kids work together to pick out an outfit the night before to avoid battling in the morning. If they’re heading to the playground, though, Andre advises parents to let the kids be who they are.

“Enjoy them while they are little,” she says.

Michelle Xiarhos Curran is a freelance writer and mother in Newburyport.

Don’t Get Hung Up On the Wardrobe

To make pulling together the back-to-school outfits easier (and more rewarding), fashion consultant Mary Lou Andre suggests the following:

  • Review your child’s wardrobe together. Have him try on items to see what he’s outgrown and to identify what he likes and doesn’t like. “A little organization at home goes a long way,” she says.
  • Clean out the outgrown and seldom-worn clothes and make piles for younger siblings or donate them to a worthy charity.
  • When shopping together, kids should wear comfortable shoes and clothes that are easy to take off for less hassle in the dressing room.