There Is No Average Boy

Sam at fourteen stood 5 feet 10 and Sam’s father was worried. “Do you think he’s grown too fast? Do you think he’s all right physically— is he normal?" The answer comes from J. ROSWELL GALLAGHER, who took his M.D. from Yale and who, after his internship, began to devote himself to the study of adolescents. Since 1934 he has been the school doctor at Phillips Academy. Andover. Readers will remember his article “Can’t Spell, Can’t Read,”in the Atlantic for June,1948.

by J. ROSWELL GALLAGHER, M.D.

I

SAM had only just passed his fourteenth birthday but he weighed 150 pounds, was 5 feet 10 inches tall, and might well have shaved every day. His ninth-grade teachers complained that he seemed listless and uninterested and did not show the maturity which they felt a boy as big and as apparently grown-up should have. “You’d think he’d be a leader, but he has no sense of responsibility and he’s always doing childish, silly things.”

Sam’s father was exasperated and his mother confused. “Do you think he’s grown too fast — is he average? He Seems to be tired all the time; he’ll sleep for fourteen hours on a stretch. He won’t listen to us and he won’t tell us anything — he’s polite about it, he just won’t talk. We can’t let him go to parties fit for seventeen-year-olds and he won’t go to parties his classmates give. You ought to see the walls of his room — just covered with Petty pictures — really, Doctor, for a boy of his age! It seems as though he resents every suggestion we make. I wish he either weren’t so big or had more sense. Do you think he’s all right physically — is he normal?”

Billy lived down the street from Sam. He had been brought up in a similar fashion — their parents had about the same interests, they had attended the same grammar school, had been fed about the same kind of food, belonged to the same church and the same Scout troop. But at sixteen Billy weighed only 115 pounds, was only 5 feet 4 inches tall, and although a little fuzz had recently begun to appear, had no real excuse for shaving. Until his third year in high school, he had been a model boy. His marks had been very good, his behavior faultless. And then in his third year his marks fell off, he seemed preoccupied, inattentive, less willing to participate. He quit the swimming squad — though swimming was a sport which he had always liked and in which he had excelled. At home he became very uncommunicative, was less willing to enter into family gatherings and to meet the family’s friends. Parties he dodged.

Billy’s mother didn’t get much help from his teachers: “He’s such a nice boy; there can’t be much of anything wrong with him; maybe he needs a tonic,” That thought at least had the virtue of getting him to the doctor; and alter the inevitable “Do you think he’s overdoing? Could it be his glands —you know I take thyroid? Do you think he gets enough sleep?" the doctor got mamma out, asked Billy to strip, and then settled back to wait until Billy’s tears subsided. Billy was normal enough but his growth and development had proceeded at it less rapid rate than usual — a reasonable source of unhappiness and anxiety for a boy.

Sam and Billy aren’t average, but they are normal. They are relatively common examples of the fact that adolescents vary tremendously in the rate and manner of their growth and development. Some at fourteen look like, and occasionally behave like, adults (usually in unacceptable ways). Others at sixteen have the scholastic capacity of their age group, the gonadal development of twelve-year-olds, and an accompanying fear that they are doomed to be abnormal. No one ever did adolescents a greater disservice than the person who initiated the idea that there is an average weight, or height, or grade level in school for any age; or that there is an average age at which boys should take responsibility, drive cars, stay out late, or shave.

The average weight of one group of schoolboys was found to be 127 pounds, but the range in weight of these boys from 80 to 199 pounds is the important fact. There were many who did not even approximate the average weight, yet there were none who were “abnormal.” Height tables, weight tables, and growth graphs all have their place and uses, but to evaluate a youngster’s growth or health on the basis of these devices, to regard a number on a chart or a dot on a graph as a diagnosis instead of a fact, is to develop anxiety both in boys already fearful lest they be “different" and in mothers who are always comparing their Tom with Cousin Kate’s invariably perfect son.

A boy can be well and happy and turn out to be a very fine adult even though he weighs less than the average, has “grown six inches in the last year, or doesn’t seem to be “in the groove" on the chart his teacher is keeping. This optimism isn’t born of indifference; it is based on the fact that real abnormalities (that is, those which are not due to hereditary or dietary factors) of growth are very uncommon.

It is sensible to be interested in whether a boy is growing and gaining and maturing; but neither the rate of his growing nor whether he is “average" at that moment is of any significance: the most and best you can do about these matters is to give him food and affection. Don’t worry or cause him to worry. If he is thin, feed him; if he is fat, hope that he will learn that he needs less food; if he seems too mature before thirteen or not to be maturing by sixteen, send him to your doctor.

Growth or malnutrition or obesity is not unimportant, but too much interest and faith in tables and graphs breeds oversolicitude and anxiety. It is better to upset the scales than to upset the home. At long last we seem to be learning that there is neither an ideal nor an average time for the baby to start eating his spinach or stop wetting his pants, that too much effort at routine and regimentation does more harm than good. Recently that wise pediatrician, Dr. Edith Jackson, by allowing mother and baby to “room-in" together in the hospital, recognized that affection is at least as important as immunizations, that man’s emotions are as important as his body.

In adolescence us in infancy, it is family relationships which are the significant factor: these boys want to feel that security, affection, confidence in them, are there. Their apparent indifference and their awkward steps toward independence are deceptive indicators of their inner needs and feelings. There is no quicker way to rob them of security than through oversolicitude, nagging, constant critical appraisal, and too frequent comparison either with the chart or a neighbor’s son.

Billy and Sam baffled their parents and teachers not because they were abnormal but because their parents and teachers wanted them to be average (which is too often confused with normal) and were judging and treating them in a manner they believed suitable and convenient in the management of “average boys.”But Sam’s height and weight and whiskers were three years ahead of his age, and unfortunately the hormones which produced this early growth had neither eliminated his childish love of horseplay nor instilled powers of leadership as awe-inspiring as his beard. Nor had Billy’s hormones, whose inactivity kept him at fourteen although he find passed his sixteenth birthday, allowed an orderly, average development of his body, personality, and interests.

Lawrence Frank has aptly compared the rate at which different children approach adulthood to various types of transportation all headed for the same destination: “some by airplane, some by Twentieth Century Limited, others by bus, some by water, some by hitch-hiking, and others trudging along on foot.” They will all get there — that is the important fact. Their time of arrival, their condition on arrival, whether they go speedily or slowly — these are simply expressions of their environment and of their inherent differences. It is worth remembering, too, that a boy may change from one type of vehicle to another when one least suspects it: growth may lie dormant or take a tremendous spurt. There is a wide range within which physical and intellectual and personality attributes are normal, and each individual will proceed according to his own rate and within a pattern determined by his own constitution and heredity.

2

THE desire to know what the average is, to want your boy to be average (except, of course, in those fields where to excel is “good”), is understandable. It makes for fewer problems, less confusion in the home and in the classroom; “a good, average boy” is “no trouble.” How a teacher beams when he has a boy who “catches on fast,” is coöperative and responsible, who doesn’t need to be “led out” — in short, hardly needs to be educated! Nature — genetics if you will — has been more farsighted and has furnished us with many people who, although varying from the statistical norms, have added joy and progress to the world of the “average" man. Many mothers will cautiously admit that “Eddie seems to be a little below average,” but few have the wisdom and humor to add “but then, most people are.”

Essential is the concept of constitution, the concept that differences in shape and size and rate of maturing are genetically determined. We all know families whose sons seem to be slow in growing up, and others whose sons mature early —or families in which the children are fat, while in others they are tall and thin. These are facts beyond the boys’ control — are individual differences, one of which is neither better nor worse than the other.

To treat the mature boy in the same manner as the immature, to expose one to the same educational program, the same athletics, the same responsibilities as the other, is to ignore the effect which individual differences have upon achievement — is to neglect the universal need for a little praise, a little approbation, and a little success on the one hand and the benefits of a little censure and adversity on the other.

Along with the obvious differences in physique and level of maturity go differences in social and intellectual interests, control of emotions, quality of judgment. If the stocky, heavy-bearded lad fails to smile and the narrow-shouldered lad in the next seat giggles, it is more natural than wise to approve one and condemn the other; neither behavior was either good or bad — both boys were behaving in a manner natural to their level of maturity, were perhaps trying in an awkward way not to reveal the level of their true maturity. It is easy to understand the teacher or parent who complains “I wish he’d grow up,”but it is unfortunate that the lad is so frequently criticized for being his own real age. It is the rare boy who doesn’t want to grow up — who doesn’t want to behave in an adult fashion — but anything as sudden and as screamingly funny as his teacher about to fall flat on his face is too much for the thin veneer of adulthood he has striven so hard to achieve. A rowdy this month may next month view with disgust and alarm (lacking the still more adult perspective and sense of humor) his classmates’ uproarious behavior at the movies.

Sam’s mother asked if his height was average. It wasn’t — and only a small percentage of boys at any age have the “average" height for that age. If one were to study large groups of boys of different nationalities, of differing economic status, of differing nutritional backgrounds, a variety of average figures for height and weight and other measurements would be found. Such factors are not pertinent to this discussion; it is sufficient for this purpose only to consider data applying to American boys who have bad the advantage of good food and good care. It is the wide range of any of these characteristics in any group, and the fact that all these boys are normal, which I wish to emphasize. Those who are quick to see endocrine disorders where there are in reality only constitutional differences may only be fostering in the boy the idea that he is abnormal.

Only one per cent of a group of fourteen-yearold boys fell at the average height, 66.8 inches, for that group, and only 22 per cent of the group fell within one inch of that average. All were normal, healthy boys even though their heights did range from 58.8 to 73.6 inches. The boy who was 73 inches tall was healthy and normal, and so was the boy whose height was 59 inches. Undoubtedly their mothers and fathers worried about their retarded or too rapid growth; and certainly both were far from average. But the important fact is that each was growing in what was for him a normal fashion; that the manner was an unusual rather than a common one might be, for one reason or another, unfortunate. Standardization may be desirable for a chain-store product, but in people as in life, variety lends charm. The average is certainly no “better,”no more desirable than the unusual.

Physical maturity can be assessed by the estimate of the “skeletal age.”X-rays of the hand and wrist show considerable differences; it is upon these changes that an estimation of the “skeletal age" is based. At the age of fourteen it is desirable to assess physiological or psychological behavior in terms of the Lad’s state of development rather than in terms of his chronological age. Carefully analyzed data have permitted the establishment of skeletal ages based upon characteristics observable in the hand-wrist X-ray; these skeletal ages closely parallel the level of the secondary sexual characteristics, but there may be wide differences between these boys’ chronological and skeletal ages. Estimation of skeletal age is based upon such findings as the extent of closure of the epiphyseal lines — the area in a bone at which growth occurs.

Would it not be well to judge the fourteen-yearold boy in terms of his skeletal age instead of complaining that he has the sense of a twelve-year-old? And to realize that another fourteen-year-old with bearded chin might legitimately have the attitudes and interests proper to his skeletal age of sixteen ?

Not only in their bones and their exteriors but also in their physiology and their chemistry boys vary. At fourteen some excrete little of those hormones which influence growth and development. Small wonder that Sam and Bill may have different interests, that Bill may not be the “problem" that Sam is, that Sam has a dreadful case of acne, that Bill’s skin is clear as a baby’s. What a boon to peace and to understanding would be a home testing set for the assay of Junior’s hormone oulput! It might revolutionize our understanding of his sullen moods, his preoccupation, his size, his indifference to girls, his Petty pictures, his acne. All the admonitions to “scrub your face" and the prohibition of candy—desirable as these may be lest a bad situation be made worse — may only add more friction to home machinery already short on oil.

From month to month, there may be great variations in the amount of hormone an adolescent boy excretes. In some boys the amount steadily increases in adolescence and gradually reaches and maintains an adult level; in others it is as though they went from feast to famine, from oasis to desert, but they too will eventually settle down and fairly regularly excrete relatively average amounts. Adolescents have a right to expect even, tolerant, steady behavior of adults; it must be confessed that they do not have to adjust to such variations in their physiology.

3

RATE and state of physical growth are a source of concern to parent and boy, but the slow development of such attributes as a sense of responsibility and an interest in studies worries both parent and teacher, and although their emergence is not as inevitable as a beard, the time at which they may become discernible is just as unpredictable. There may be an optimum time for their appearance, but whatever the average age may be, it is surely of little significance.

“When is Tom ever going to get interested in school ? All he thinks about is the jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s, girls, and why we don’t need the car as much as he does. When do boys usually get serious about school? Won’t you please talk to him ?

I had no idea of the average age for a boy to get interested in school, but I found Tom a delightful conversationalist and he vastly improved my own knowledge of swing. During the next two years Tom came in to see me frequently. What he talked about is irrelevant. School was rarely mentioned. Maybe the important thing is that he did the talking, that he had a listener who was slow to make suggestions or give advice. Those two years of school may have satisfied those who determine the fine line between “pass" and “fail,”but little else could be said for them; he was truly, in so far as academic matters were concerned, lying fallow. His parents had long since given up, and had fortunately ceased their exhortations and their halfserious threats — and then what some, who forget they are dealing with youth, call a miracle happened. Tom was in his senior year: he hadn’t been near me for a month when one day he burst in, waved a list of school grades under my nose, and let go comments about his ability as a scholar.

We’ll never know what did it, but here he was in a moment of supreme joy and ecstasy over what he called some “filthy marks" — this lad who never before would stoop to spend more than a minute even in deprecation of studies. The elation was quickly spent — or sophistication took over — but the academic zeal has persisted, and it is not that of a “grind": it is that of a boy with real interest in studies, of a boy now attacking them with that great store of energy which he had been saving up all those years. It doesn’t always happen, but I’m sure there is no “average" age at which it should appear. Oh yes, Tom did say something about 52nd Si reel not being as good as it used to be, and the little girl with eyes of blue seemed less glamorous, but his interest in father’s car hadn’t diminished much. You can’t have everything.

There is no evidence that skeletal and emotional and intellectual growth proceed at an equal rate. One can be utterly confused, and frequently disappointed, unless there is a willingness to appraise an adolescent in terms of his apparent trend rather than his present state or age. It would be easier for everyone if this were not true — if there were definite states one could reasonably expect at various chronological ages. The sad fact is that many adults refuse to look for trends, refuse to estimate the lad’s potentialities, insist on comparing him with the average and on judging him as he is. That you can’t tell for sure how the cat will jump makes it no less profitable and no less fun and no less important to try to guess: adolescents are not machines — new, shiny, repulsively similar, fresh off the assembly line. They are maddening as a lazy trout, unpredictable and surprising as a land breeze — and brimming with a capacity for change which we adults have lost.

Even after a long dissertation on the turbulence of adolescence and the great differences which may exist between adolescents, I am never surprised to hear a parent say, “That’s terribly interesting; but now, about Ted do you think he is normal?” So help me, every time!

Maybe the best answer is to finish the stories of Sam and Bill: they are both adults, now normal adults. They just got there at different rates. They both have whiskers, they’re both responsible, respected citizens in their college communities. Sam is married, and Bill is serious about a Vassar girl. Their sullenness, their shyness have gone mother’s cookies and father’s awful stories are no longer embarrassing. Everything has worked out all right —and in a few years Sam’s wife will be worrying about Junior’s reticence, and Grandmother will wisely refer to him as her favorite young man.

It is easy for the outsider to know and to remember these things: it is unforgivable in him to be smug, to be impatient with the parent whose love and hopes for the youngster make statistics beyond dispute and others’ experience hard to accept. Ted might be the exception, and Ted is their boy. These questions which have to do with growth and development are not to be answered quickly, to be shut off with a superior air. But the fears which deviation from the average engenders must be allayed; they must not be transmitted to the youngster and added to his own stockpile of anxiety. The thought that he is abnormal, that he is failing to grow properly, must be eliminated. Remember that the sort of person he is, how he feels and behaves, his attitudes and principles, his emotional stability, are of much more importance than any number assigned to his height or intelligence or state of maturation.

Parents should attempt to hide anxiety and exhibit affection. When a real acceleration or retardation of growth seems to be present, treat it objectively; without hesitation or anxiety or discussion, have it investigated. To the teacher (each of whom expends a year’s supply of patience in a day) and to the parent who is losing faith in the capacity of youth to change, I can only suggest that no one, no matter how slow he was in learning to walk, ever entered the Yale Bowl on his hands and knees.