“How old is he?”
“He’s SO TINY!”
My son looks up at me, those big brown eyes questioning. My face grows hot, but I smile and continue checking him in for children’s church. I don’t say anything.
She did not mean to offend. I know this.
She does not know the conversations and struggles we have at home. She doesn’t know his medical conditions, his background, his history.
My son is like most of us: a mix of confidence and uncertainty, pride and insecurity. I wonder if the fact that adults seem to constantly comment on his size (not out of his earshot, but right in front of him), causes him to compensate by building himself up.
Common phrases he boasts include: “Mom, I’ve got super strength like Luisa!” “Dad is super tall like me!” and “I’m bigger now!”
I see him grow physically, but even more I see him grow in his identity. This contentment with who he is, especially as an international adoptee and an individual with limb differences, is my greatest wish for him throughout his life. I want to affirm every bit of confidence in him.
So perhaps that’s why my mama’s heart gets hurt and overprotective and even overly sensitive when adults blurt out comments as if my child can’t hear or understand.
My son can hear you. My son can understand.
All kids can hear and understand, actually. Working with children in various capacities my entire adult life has convinced me that we adults often do not give children enough credit.
We talk negatively in front of them and think the negativity doesn’t affect them. It does. We speak judgement of others and division and even hate within their hearing and think they’re not listening. They are.
We think young children don’t remember our labels and unthinking comments. They do.
Before adopting from Colombia, I expected adults and children alike to be curious about my son. I really thought, however, most comments and questions would be about the fact that he has four fingers on each hand. Second to that topic, I though his status as an adoptee would solicit inquiries. But for some reason, his size seems to be the topic of most curiosity and unfiltered statements.
I am happy to have private conversations with any adult. I would love to answer your questions, those that are mine to answer. Some details will be for him alone to share when he’s older, and I will politely inform you if you’ve asked a question to which I can’t respond.
I expected children would blurt out comments and questions with no filter. I have child- friendly responses all lined up for when kids voice their observations or questions. But it’s been very rare that children we interact with mention his hands, his height, his skin color, anything. They just play. I guess I assumed I wouldn’t have to worry about adults being unfiltered as they interacted with my son. I thought adults would know better, and I’m learning I was wrong.
And if adults don’t know better, eventually their unthinking comments could affect his self-identity and his self-talk. Instead of, “I’ve got super strength like Luisa,” he may think, “I’m tiny.” Instead of “My dad is so tall like me,” he may assume, “I’ll never be tall like my dad.” Instead of, “I’m bigger,” what if his heart says, “I’m insignificant”? Perhaps he needs to see himself as “big” as much for his inner confidence as his outward stature.
If adults who meet him continue to blurt out, He’s so little! So tiny! Will he ever grow? will his inner confidence shrink to the size these comments reflect? Small. Tiny. Incapable of growth.
I think my mama’s heart is extra sensitive these days, especially this time of year. It’s May. Almost Elliot’s 5th birthday. Five years of missing my baby boy, who died at five days old. Five years of tears, of aching, of longing. Five years of fighting for his memory in a world in which the dignity of infants, both inside and outside the womb, is tragically minimized. This mama-heart tenderness is raw, fierce, and sometimes very sad.
I work hard not to hold grudges or assume intentions. We are all mistake-makers, and we are also image-bearers of the One who created us. This unsurpassable worth of every human being is why I must not be too quick to take offense, but also why I will remain steadfast in defending all my children.
I’ve learned to embrace the sensitive nature of my mama’s heart. I’m their buffer. My job is to bear for them what they should not yet have to bear, to speak for them in spaces where they cannot yet speak. I’m a voice for my daughters, who deserve to live joyful, innocent childhoods without being forced to grow up too fast (and that’s why you’re not getting phones, girls). I’m a voice for my babies in heaven, who are as individually precious and irreplaceable as the children who right now are growing up in your house and mine.
I’m a voice for my son whose hands or skin color or national origin or height are not the measures of his worth.
Ask me any question you want. But be wise. Pull me aside privately. Remember children are very susceptible to being affected by your comments. Please don’t pour messages into my little boy’s heart that may diminish the growth of his spirit.
He can hear you.