The Obvious Child
by Melanie Springer Mock

It happened again this morning while I was checking my sons in for summer day camp. No, really, it happened several times as I corralled them through registration and on to their camp bus. Complete strangers, mothers all, commenting on my son's size: "Ahhh, He's soooo tiny," one said. And another: "Oh, my, this camp identification bracelet just isn't going to fit his small wrist, is it?" And "Wow, his backpack is bigger than he is!" Har-har, good one. No one has made a joke like that since school got out several weeks ago.

My son is small: always has been, and probably always will be. His height and weight fall well below American growth charts; we were happy when, at age four, he almost registered under the fifth percentile at 27 lbs. Samuel will turn six in several weeks, and his bone age is 3.5. His size 3T pants generally slip off his skinny waist and nonexistent butt, so that when I discovered adjustable waistbands, I thanked the fashion gods for their newest, most extraordinary invention.

It's not clear to us, now, why Samuel is small, and countless medical tests have not provided clear answers to why he doesn't grow. Take your pick of reasons, though: He was born prematurely, weighing 3.5 lbs. at birth. He spent his first three years in a Mumbai, India, orphanage, and suffered from malnutrition. His birth parents may have been short, too, and a small stature might be his genetic legacy. Plus, the kid does not like to eat, and would live on Pediasure and Oreos if he could. (As someone who loves eating, I am certainly perplexed by his distaste for food.)

Sometimes, I imagine people comment on his size because they want this other part to his story: they see him with his tall Caucasian parents and his Vietnamese brother and wonder at his place in the family; they hope comments about Samuel's size will cause his parents to spill about his Indian heritage. Our family stands out, I know, and it might just be that a comment about Samuel is intended as an opening for other conversations about our family history.

When strangers remark on his size, though, I'm more inclined toward sarcasm than to an open conversation about the challenges and blessings of adoption. As in, "My son is tiny? His backpack is bigger than he is? Oh my God, thanks for telling me. I hadn't noticed." I am too kind, of course, to resort to such a sarcastic response. Instead, I smile meekly and say something stupid,—"Yes, he is small!"—or offer no response at all.

Later, though, I always wonder why it seems acceptable to comment on a child's height (or lack thereof) but not much else. Surely parents of tall children also grow weary of hearing how much their children tower above peers, though I hear from my friends of tall kids that such comments are common. But I would never say to another parent "Wow, your kid sure is fat. I'll bet he can't secure the strap on his backpack," or "How did your daughter get such hairy arms?" or "Check out the bucked teeth on your son—is he able to eat with such big Chiclets for front teeth?"

Of course not. That would be rude.

But is it any less rude to remark on a boy's small stature—a physical feature the kid himself cannot change? After all, I am never sure what Samuel hears, and what kind of effect the constant barrage of comments has on his six-year-old psyche. He seems to ignore most adults who talk over his head about how short he is, but I think he is also listening to the many observations about how he does not measure up.

And sometimes it is clear that others feel my son cannot measure up because of his small stature. Although Samuel is smart, athletic, funny, and gregarious, drawing even much older children to him with his wit and charm, these personality traits seem dwarfed by his size. Near-strangers questioned our family's decision that Samuel attend kindergarten when he was five; why not wait until he grows, they asked? Never mind that he might be ten before he reaches the size of "normal" kindergarteners, or that academic tests suggest he is on par with his peers. Somehow, others felt comfortable weighing in, as if we could not ourselves make the best choice for our son and our family.

Now that, of course, seems pretty rude.

If I sound bitter it may well be because I am—bitter, that is, about how other parents make my son a spectacle worthy of their comments. But I am also a bit ashamed. For I imagine at one time I was one of them, a mother who could not keep unwarranted observations to herself, who felt compelled to make remarks about a child's height, or hair, or even the color of her skin. Perhaps that is the unfortunate nature of parents: that we too hastily judge other kids as a means of appreciating our own. (C'mon, haven't we all said "Thank God that isn't my screaming/tantruming/whining/simpering kid"?) Yet if parenting Samuel has been a blessing and a challenge, it has also been a reminder: to keep my own judgments in check, to appreciate the many shapes and colors and behaviors that kids embody, including my own.

So sure, you're right. My son is small. Thank you very much for reminding me. Now please leave us alone. And while you give me the space to parent my beautiful, lively, smart son, you should feel free to focus on your own children, whatever size they are.

Melanie Springer Mock is an associate professor of writing and literature at George Fox University, Newberg, Oregon, and the mother of two six-year-old boys. Her essays have appeared in Christian Feminism Today, Literary Mama, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Brain, Child, among other places. Her book, Writing Peace: The Unheard Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors, was published by Cascadia in 2003. Read Melanie's essay, "On Sons, At Four."

feature added on 2008-10-26 :: ::

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