Tuesday, September 04, 2001

Age ain't nothin' but a number

It's probably not a common practice, but it's certainly not unheard of for parents adopting children from Eastern Europe to legally change their child's age, generally to make them younger. There are all sorts of noble reasons for doing this, ranging from contradictory paperwork putting the original age in doubt; to bone age and other tests indicating that the original age is impossible; to a conviction that the child's small size or developmental delays would be less noticeable and traumatic if his or her age was in closer accord.

We did not choose this path for our kids, although our son's size and behavior are still substantially delayed, and our daughter is now in a class two years behind her age level, and different ages would certainly appear to fit them better in some ways. I always worried about this idea of age-shifting, though: What happens when the kid finds out? What happens if the kid has a growth spurt that makes the new age ludicrous (as indeed, my daughter did -- if we had adjusted her age down, she would now be freakishly tall; as it is, she's on the big side for an 11-year-old)? What happens if the developmental delays catch up more quickly than the parent had anticipated, and the child is trapped in a much lower age group and school class than his abilities warrant? What if, on the other hand, the delays get worse, and the child can't get help because, although she is severely delayed for her original age, she's not bad enough at her adjusted one? And of course, what happens if the child grows up to work in a field where the tabloid revelation of his or her older original age could be highly embarrassing?

Now, of course, I have another worry to add: What if the child's Little League team wins big, and Sports Illustrated starts digging through Russian birth records?

I don't mean to imply that the motives of adoptive parents and the motives of the father of Danny Almonte -- who pitched a perfect game in the Little League World Series and led his Bronx team to a third-place finish only to be revealed to be 14, not 12 as falsified documents had asserted, and too old to play -- are the same, but on some level all are trying to give their child the best possible chance. Unlike Almonte's father, adoptive parents aren't lying to give their child a specific advantage in a specific situation; they likely see it as giving their child an age that's closer to the truth. But folks, the truth is slippery. Tests are fallible, and sometimes contradictory. Children develop in ways and at rates we can't predict. And they often develop unevenly, with emotions at one level and cognitive functions at another and physical attributes at another. The original date may be wrong in some cases; but any attempt to adjust it is going to be the roughest guesswork.

It seems to me that what age-changing parents hope to do is eliminate all future problems their children may have with one simple bureaucratic act. The humiliation of being too short for your age, the embarrassment of acting immature, the pain of not fitting in -- gone! with a minor adjustment. But does anybody believe it's going to be that easy? A mom can hope, that's true. She can be a mama bear and do what she can, even if there's risk, even if snotty Web site writers disapprove. And she can call Little League headquarters and make sure that changing a child's age at the time of adoption for physician-approved reasons is not a violation of some developmental-difference-unfriendly rule or regulation.

Giving the rest of us hope that the Danny Almonte of tomorrow won't be named Sergei or Sasha.

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