Although I’m certainly no stranger to the idea of peer pressure and influence among young children — when you have to live the reality of having your kids in day care and preschool basically from infancy, you understand these things at a very early age — yesterday was the very first time that I really experienced my child buying into the trends in full force.  The trend in question?  Pillow Pets.

I’ve noticed the proliferation of the puffy beasts in the cubbies of L.’s Pre-K classmates for some time now, but what started as a couple of fuzzy, overstuffed buddies spilling out of their confines has now (post-holidays) exploded into a frenzy of brightly colored pillowy friends oozing out in every direction.  I get it — they’re cute, they’re cuddly, and if you have to spend an hour or more laying on a cot in the middle of the day, a Pillow Pet seems to be THE cool accessory with which to do it.  There are days, frankly, when I would like a Pillow Pet myself, to take the edge off those mid-afternoon slumps at work.  But I never thought L. had noticed them or cared much.

Until yesterday.  When J. and I met him in his classroom at pick-up time, the very first thing out of his mouth (besides “Mommyyyyyyy!!!!!”) was: “I want a Pillow Pet!”

Fortunately, the Gods of Preschool Trendiness were smiling upon me, because last Christmas — yes, a full YEAR ago — I had seen some distant cousin of the Pillow Pet, the Zoobie Pet, in a catalog and bought one for each of my boys.  My thought at the time was that they were not only cute, but might serve a practical purpose on long car trips to visit family.  Little did I know that the blue elephant I bought for L. — which he loved for all of 2 months, then promptly forgot about — would become my salvation in the first moment of Gotta-Have-Its we’ve experienced.

When we got home, J. unearthed the fuzzy creature, and L. proclaimed enthusiastically more than once that he LOOOOVED his “Pillow Pet” SOOOOO much.  He laid on the couch with it before dinner, after bath, and took it to bed with him.  He proudly marched out the door with it this morning and put it in his cubby at school, happy to be just like his friends.  I was relieved to have had an easy solution, and I thought the whole thing was cute, but as I got ready for work this morning, a thought stopped me in my tracks:

He’s starting to want to be just like everybody else.

I’ve heard other food-conscious parents speak with barely concealed anxiety about these days — the days when their little omnivores suddenly begin to long for conformity, not just on the nap mats, but at the lunch tables.  People tell me that their hummus-loving kindergartners suddenly refuse to bring anything “weird” for lunch, because their classmates make fun of them or refuse to sit with them when their lunches look different from the norm.  That the healthy, homemade snacks go the way of the dodo when they discover that their grade-schoolers are tossing the whole-wheat banana muffin in the trash and bumming Fruit Gushers off their friends.

L.’s already different from his classmates at lunch time; I’m not sure how conspicuously, but he is definitely different.  Because we let him and P. eat the snack provided by their school, he doesn’t stand out entirely from the crowd, but I know that on Fridays, at least — which are still Pizza Days as far as I know — he’s set apart by his packed lunches.  He hasn’t mentioned it in a very long time, possibly because (at least in part) I involve him in deciding what he wants me to pack for him.  Yes, sometimes it means more work for me than I really want to do; but it also usually means a happy child and an empty lunchbox, so as far as I’m concerned, everybody wins.

But I’m wondering now how long this can last.  Sure, today he’s happy to bring his lunch: a pancake sandwich (made with sunflower butter on two pumpkin-oatmeal pancakes), corn and carrots, orange slices, and a blueberry applesauce.  But a week from now, a month from now, a year from now, how attuned will he be to what his friends are eating — and more importantly, what they’re NOT?

How clearly I remember the day I first convinced my mother to start buying boxed macaroni and cheese.  I’d slept over at a friend’s house, and before bringing me home the next day, her mother made us lunch from that infamous blue box.  We weren’t really a macaroni and cheese kind of household, which is probably why I liked it so much (because, let’s face it, it doesn’t taste that great).  And I couldn’t wait to tell my mom all about it and get her to make it for me.

She did.  And maybe it wasn’t a big stretch, because despite the fact that my mom is a wonderful cook and did cook a healthy homemade dinner every single night for us, our lunches did tend to come from cans and boxes — I ate a lot of Chef Boyardee and Campbell’s soups as a kid.  EVERYBODY did.  My parents were more attuned to healthy eating than a lot of our friends’ folks, and we had tons of fruits and vegetables and almost no fast food.  But boxed mac and cheese wasn’t so different, I guess, from canned ravioli.  However — the point remains that it never would have entered my diet if I hadn’t pushed for it.  I ate it at a friend’s house, I suddenly became aware that other kids were eating it, and I convinced my mom to buy it.

Yes, I have a strong belief about many foods that L.’s classmates may eat, and if L. came to me tomorrow and said he wanted to start eating hot dogs for lunch, I’d sit him down and have a talk with him about why we don’t serve those things in our family.  But what about when he notices that some of his friends don’t have vegetables in their lunches?  What about when they start sharing their chips and cookies?  What happens the first time some kid sees him eating his spinach salad and goes “Ewwwww…what’s THAT?”

I don’t know if I’m prepared for this, the more I think about it.  Maybe it’s just a Pillow Pet today, but tomorrow it could be something far less tolerable.  It’s an issue I haven’t wanted to think about too much, but it may be time to start examining my conscience and answering the looming question.  How far do I extend my grip on our food values, and how much do I let go to let him be like everybody else?