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Food for Thought: The Risk of Raising “Extreme Individuals”

Have We Taken Individuality Too Far?Each morning I pack three lunches.

While there is some variety, most days I pack one ham sandwich with mayonnaise (no crusts), one PB&J (crusts intact but sliced on the diagonal), and one containing what we refer to as a “deconstructed sandwich” of separate meat, cheese, and crackers or bread. Sides also depend on the child: two children love applesauce but one hates its texture. One prefers milk to juice so I’m careful to remember his 35 cents. The one thing they all seem to agree on is that pretzels are generally acceptable (just not pretzel twists).

Spelling this out, it seems a bit …much. Why do I allow my children to dictate what’s in their lunches? Whatever happened to “You get what you get and you don’t get upset?”

What happened was this: that as my children got older, they started developing preferences and individuating themselves from the family at large. I started seeing them not just as my children, but as people of their own. I do it in a thousand ways: I cater to their personalities by encouraging their unique interests, developing their particular skills, and even communicating with them differently depending on temperament.

I know I’m not alone in parenting with my children’s individuality in mind. In thinking of my family and friends, most don’t raise their children with “one size fits all” in mind. According to a recent article in The Atlantic,  today’s parents tend not only to view their kids as individuals, but to see parenting as a way to express their own individuality. 

Writer Emily Matchar describes what parenting has become: “the ultimate DIY project for progressive, educated parents.”  Building upon decades of “experts” with black and white guidelines for what is right and wrong, today’s parents have rejected the old maxims and come up with their own. We see it, she says, in birth plans, homemade baby food, homeschooling, and the “green” parenting movement. It seems that “one size fits all” has come to resemble a buffet. (This trend of “extreme individualism” isn’t just happening in the parenting world, she writes. Just look at the modern wedding, with brides and grooms each striving to make their event a reflection of their identities as couples. Compare that to weddings in decades past when— with the exception of the bride and groom’s smiling faces in the photographs— every wedding looked more or less the same.)

So what does all of this say for today’s parents? What’s the takeaway?

For me, it’s this: that there is value in recognizing a child’s inherent uniqueness, but there’s also a risk in setting him up for the expectation that the rest of his life will be as accommodating as his childhood.

As a writer who’s interested in parenting culture, Matchar has given me a lot to think about. And while I don’t view my own parenting as a reflection of my identity, I do see traces of my values and priorities in the choices I make for my kids. I suspect that we all do. And I’ll be clear: I don’t believe that by packing individual lunches I’m creating little dictators, but I do wonder about this trend on a larger scale.

The truth is, I enjoy doing little things for my kids that make them feel loved. Tomorrow morning you’ll still find me in the kitchen packing three different lunches, but I’ll likely stop to consider the effect it’s having on my kids to cater to them in this way.

And who knows? I might do something really crazy and cut a little boy’s PB&J straight down the center. It’s food for thought, anyway.

 

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