“I expected more from you,” I remember a teacher saying to me. I don’t remember if I was in grade 5 or 6. I don’t remember if I wore the Nordic sweater with the jacquard pattern that made my new breasts look even bigger than they were. I do remember being enraged, thinking, Why? Why do you expect more from me? I wondered whether she expected more from the girls who were a foot shorter than me, weighed half what I did, whose breasts wouldn’t show up for another year or two, who wouldn’t get their periods until high school.
As a child, I always looked much older than my age, and I have burdened my children with the same thing—bodies that spill off their paediatrician’s growth chart. My three-year-old is the size of an average five-year-old, and my five-year-old regularly passes for eight. Developmentally, however—in terms of dexterity, intellect, communication—they’re very much their age. The five-year-old is frequently accused of being mute by third-graders in the playground. “Why doesn’t she talk?” they lament when she has no reply to their verbose invitations for play.
No one ever complains that their children are too tall, said a paediatrician friend of mine recently. That may be, but being big and physically developed early can have profound consequences on how kids experience childhood. Out-sized kids are denied their childhood, one inflated adult expectation at a time.
My five-year-old, Emilia, has a long, athletic body. Her limbs stretch for days and her big clothes, which we buy to accommodate her height, are loose. She had her eye on mastering the monkey bars all summer, watching with her mouth agape as kids half her size negotiated the obstacle two bars at a time and come out—seemingly effortlessly—on the other side in a matter of moments. She wouldn’t dare go near the monkey bars until the gymnasts had moved on. When they did, she approached, cautiously, as if the bars are hot from welding, and set up her approach. Climbed up. Studied. Measured. Grabbed on and swung for the third bar. Held on with all her might, gravity taunting, her feet dangling mere inches above the wood-chip covered ground. She fell. Tried again, and again, each time managing two or three bars, not quite half of the distance. She practiced for many months, and made progress. Eventually, she dared to approach while her smaller peers were showing off. She watched them from nearby, hoping to learn their tricks.
One weekend afternoon, we were both watching two smaller—but clearly not younger—girls go back and forth on the monkey bars. When it was Emilia’s turn, the other girls watched her. She made it to the fifth rung, and a proud smile blossomed across her face as she rubbed her reddened, swollen palms. One of the girls turned to her mother and said, “Wow, she’s a big kid—” I could see Emilia was listening, her smile now faint, listening for the potential praise and admiration that might follow. “…she’s a big kid and she can’t do it. I guess she should have practiced when she was five, like me, right Mom?”
My face went hot. I was furious. I didn’t blame the girl—what does she know? It was her mom’s job to say, “Well, honey, maybe she did practice when she was five. Maybe she’s five now. Or maybe she’s not, and she’s still practicing, and everyone has their own learning curve.” But she didn’t. She just nodded uncomfortably and patted her daughter on the head.
Emilia’s face fell, but she didn’t walk away from the monkey bars. She climbed back up the ladder, and tried again, this time making it only to the third rung. Her hands were already sore. I kissed her forehead, told her she had amazing grit and that she should be proud of herself. She said she was.
It’s now winter and Emilia doesn’t play on the monkey bars anymore. I tell myself it’s because of the weather, the frigid bars, the slippery gloved hands, but I can’t get her face out of my mind, the knowledge of judgment she experienced, the shame of not being agile enough, light enough, small enough to master a skill many of her peers have mastered. The label of Big Kid when she’s really a little kid. The knowledge that her body, the one she was accidentally born into and has nothing to do with her—the real her that’s the sum of her character, her talents, her desires—defines her wholly to others. Maybe I’m projecting, recalling my own childhood of misplaced expectations, when teachers, parents, grandparents, friends expected more from me because of the accident of my premature development. The daily microaggressions of, “Wow, you’re so big for grade 6,” “I expect more from you” and “You should know better for a Big Girl” made with a withdrawn, sullen child who didn’t want to draw attention to my adult-like body when I was still a child.
I remember vividly the day family stopped embracing me with the same fervor they always had, being instead awkward and tentative, as if drawing a girl with new breasts into themselves was inappropriate. We were gathered at my grandmother’s for family dinner, celebrating her name day, roses and platters of chopped salads and cured meats parading along a doily-covered table. Aunts, uncles, and cousins regarded me with suspicion usually reserved for a door-to-door salesman. I wanted their hugs, but instead I got self-conscious nods. Sometimes suspicion is evolutionarily helpful, warding off danger and setting us on a safer path; but when it comes to children whose bodies have set off the invisible ‘on’ switch early, suspicion is isolating, cruel and potentially damaging. It doesn’t invite those children to be children.
As teachers, parents, grandparents, villagers who help raise all children at the park, schoolyard, fair or family celebration, we preference and admonish kids on the very factors they have no control of, factors that are a result of genetic lottery. Even I, a woman who was on the receiving end of people’s disappointment when I looked fourteen but acted ten, am sometimes surprised that Emilia can’t, or won’t, lead her younger sister by the hand, or help set the table for dinner, or sit through reading practice for more than five minutes. Even I’m surprised that she’s only five: sweet, shy, determined, funny, jealous, petulant, impatient. I have to take a deep breath in those moments and remember that she’s only five. We all—even the ones who have lived similar realities—judge a book by its cover and not the content of its imagination, character, and goals.
I am not naïve. I know that what I have to look forward to as a parent for potentially prematurely developing girls might be agonizing. Girls who are 11 but look 14 are targets for unwanted sexual attention, whether from strangers, teachers or family. Looks, comments and questions may drive them into themselves and prevent them from participating in their childhoods fully and completely. And that would be a crime.
My mother said to me when I was in my mid-20s, when I quit my job, gave up my apartment and escaped to Australia to find myself, “You’re regressing.” She didn’t mean it as an insult. She was proud that I had finally come out of my shell, that I had gone out to see the world and experience it for myself. That I was finally living carefree, childlike, for the first time since I was a child. In her eyes, I had regressed from being an old soul, which was a result of an ‘old’ body, a devastating disappointment for a kid who just wanted to play on the monkey bars, like all the other kids.
Our society has evolved past the point where physical size contributed to our survival as a species, and yet we continue to interact with children primarily on the basis of their size. We have to stop commenting on children’s bodies, and start asking about their dreams and curiosities.
This article was originally published in January 2018.