Tall boys

As parents everywhere know, the growth and development of children isn't a smooth, gradual process. It comes in spurts.

A child will go along for a while, essentially the same size as the last time you looked, then -- boom! -- none of his clothes fit anymore. Junior has grown. Again. Which means Mom and Dad get to purchase Junior a new wardrobe.

Parents hate to face up to the cold reality of growth spurts. They like to remember their child as a tiny newborn with perfect little fingers and toes. But the years and the growth spurts rush past, and pretty soon, that beautiful baby is six feet tall and lives in a dorm and has filthy habits.

My two sons -- aged 12 and 9 (when this column first appeared, 2001) -- have suffered growth spurts lately. I suspect the 12-year-old is on the verge of the Big Spurt, the one that will shoot him upward into manhood. And we all know what that means: Adolescence has arrived, and the best thing would be to lock him in a closet and slip food under the door for the next, oh, eight years.

But I digress.

Parents must learn to cope with their offspring's growth spurts. Growing is exhausting and physically painful and can make the child cranky. It also takes an enormous amount of fuel.
With two growing boys at home, I spend all my time at the grocery store. They go through food like a biblical plague of locusts. I've considered just parking them in front of the bulk-food bins at the supermarket and shoveling food directly into them.

You can tell the parents of growth-spurt children at the supermarket. They're the ones pushing caravans of two or more carts, a haunted look on their faces.

My parents also had two sons who grew into big, strapping men. They tell me that when my brother and I left home, they saved so much on groceries, it was like a whole new income.
I was one of those gawky kids who did all his growing at once. I was 5-foot-2 at the beginning of sixth grade, second tallest in my class. (The tallest was a girl.) At the end of seventh grade, I was 6-foot-2.

My 12-year-old son is in the seventh grade now.

He's exhibiting growth-spurt symptoms as well. He's had "dropsy" lately, so many misses and spills, I practically have to follow him around with a mop. He's lost the natural grace of childhood -- he bumps into door jambs and goes wide on corners and knocks over furniture. I did the same during my big spurt, growing too fast to keep up. In fact, I never fully recovered. I almost always bear at least one bruise related to door jambs. They have become the nemeses of my life.

We have empirical evidence of my sons' growth. For one, when I do laundry, I now have trouble telling my sons' jeans from my wife's. They've caught up with her. For another, we've kept careful track of their height over the years.

A lot of families use marks on door jambs for this purpose, but I've already explained I've got a problem with door jambs. At our house, we use a broomstick, painted white. We regularly stand the boys up against it -- checking carefully for tiptoe cheating -- and mark their progress.

We did this the other day and discovered the 12-year-old has outgrown our measuring stick. The stick's only five feet tall and he's surpassed that by an inch or two. We'll have to get a bigger stick. With a teen-ager in the house, that's a good idea for several reasons. . .

My wife has carefully written in the boys' names and the dates of each plateau on the measuring stick. I can run my gaze along this simple broomstick and, in my mind's eye, I can watch my little babies grow up. And it occurred to me, we're not really marking height on that stick, we're marking time.

So I'll keep the stick handy, even after they've both outgrown it. It's a nice reminder of all the times we've had together, a monument to the years that have passed.

Beats standing in front of the mirror, counting gray hairs and bruises.

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