Normalizing Children

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Andrew is worried about what parents will do in their quest for "normal" children.

While I was in Hawaii I read a book called "Normal at Any Cost" about the quest to manipulate height--to make short boys taller, and tall girls shorter.  At 6'2" I had an obvious interest in this, but it's a worthy read, even though it's often a lengthy slog through exhaustingive  lists of the problems with human growth hormone.  The authors are critical of doctors and parents not merely for taking risks they didn't understand very well, but for attempting to normalize kids, rather than fight the social prejudice against height outliers, or at least teach the kids how to cope.

As far as I know, no one ever offered my parents the opportunity to shorten me--perhaps since I get my height from my father, who would not have been amused at the notion that height was some sort of disability.  Nonetheless, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would have done if I had a daughter who looked set to be more than 6 feet.



And I came to the reluctant decision that if I thought I could safely take two or three inches off of that daughter's final height, I might well do it.  It is true that tall girls and short boys eventually adjust, as the authors point out.  But the adjustment is really, really painful.  It's miserable to be left off the dance floor because you're the wrong height, to be unable to wear the clothes that your peers are wearing, to stand out every second. 

Of course, as the authors point out, when you're strikingly outside the norm, there's a tendency to blame everything on that--maybe I wouldn't have been asked to dance anyway.  Nonetheless, it certainly contributed to a lot of things.  I'm sure one of the reasons that I developed a pretty severe eating disorder in high school was that I went to the sort of school where a lot of the girls develop eating disorders--but I'm also pretty sure that the reason I graduated high school weighing 120 pounds was that I was pretty desperate to be small, along any dimension possible.  To this day, I unconsciously adjust my standing height to that of the tallest man in the group, which has given me permanent back trouble.

I'm not exactly comfortable saying this.  I (obviously) do not endorse the norm that women are supposed to be small.  Nor do I think that it's particularly hard-wired, given how dramatically our acceptance of tall women has changed over the last fifty years.  So why would I inflict a sexist norm on my daughter?

The answer is, I wouldn't, the way that it is actually done (essentially using massive doses of estrogen to trigger puberty early):  there might be unknown dangers, and there's not all that much evidence that it works particularly well.  But that isn't what the parents, or even the doctors, thought they were doing.  They didn't know about the side effects, and early studies seemed to show greater height reductions than we now think are possible.

If I were presented with a virtually riskless way to let my daughters buy clothing off the rack, and blend into the classroom a little better?  Frankly, no child of mine is ever going to have a brilliant athletic future in front of her.  So why not?  I'm pretty sure she could fight the patriarchy just as easily without a 35 inch inseam.

Wouldn't it be sacrificing some of the world's marvelous variety?  Sure.  But that's also true when we surgically correct cleft palates and club feet.  At some level, what deviations from the norm should be corrected, or not, are always a judgment call.  At least this is a judgment I'd have some first-hand authority to make.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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