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Dwarf family combats stereotypes

In their new book, the Roloff family offers lessons for families of any size.

A family in Oregon is proving that big things really can come in small packages. They're the stars of TLC's docu-reality show called, "Little People, Big World." The Roloff family also has a new book out titled, "Little Family, Big Values." Matt, Jeremy, Zachary, Molly, Jacob and Amy were invited to discuss the book on “Today.” Here’s an excerpt:

The Meaning of "Roloff Family Values"

If you were to travel west out of Portland, Oregon, and through some beautiful, gently rolling hills, you might find yourself on a thirty-four-acre farm called Roloff Farms.

That is our home and the home of our four children as well as an assortment of animals we keep as pets or livestock. It's also the site of a complete three-quarters-scale western town, a pirate ship on a pond, a three-story tree house, an almost full-sized medieval castle, a big pumpkin patch, one of the biggest zip lines in North America, and other projects we've either completed or have on the drawing board.

If you've had a chance to see the Learning Channel's "reality" television show Little People, Big World, then you have at least a little bit of a picture of what the farm looks like — and what we, the family living on it, look like too. You know that my wife, Amy, and I are little people — more commonly referred to as individuals with dwarfism — living a busy life of work, running our home and farm, and most important, raising our children.

One of the many results of doing the show is that we receive literally thousands of viewer e-mails every week asking us everything from what it's like to be small in a tall world to what kind of reactions we get from people when they first see us. But the question we're asked most often is what makes our family tick, how our mutual love, respect, and understanding have brought us beyond our differences to form a powerful family bond.

Those values are what this book is all about.

Our family — as varied as it is — works so well because Amy and I have had instilled in us by loving parents on both sides a set of family values, which we've built on and in turn instilled in our own kids. As a result, we now have our own set of family values, which we'll get into. Before we launch into our individual and collective beliefs, I'd like to introduce myself and my family for those who haven't come to know us through the show Little People, Big World.

The Story of Our Family I was born a diastrophic dwarf, meaning that I am not only short in height -- just over four feet -- but I also have severe problems in my legs, knees, hips, shoulders, arms, and the rest of my body. My joints, my hands, and my feet are all visibly deformed. The list goes on and on.

All these physical problems led to a childhood spent in hospitals, either receiving corrective surgeries (some of which helped, some of which didn't) or recovering from them. In addition to those hospital stays (nearly two years combined), I spent more months than my family can count at home in braces and casts and recovering from my many surgeries. The physical problems have also led to a situation where it is impossible for me to stand up straight or walk without the aid of crutches.

Amy is also a little person, but her condition is different from mine and not nearly as severe. Her genetic condition is known in medical terms as achondroplasia, which is another cause of dwarfism but one that doesn't carry with it nearly as many of the complications as I've dealt with all my life. For the most part, Amy physically leads a fairly normal life in which she is active and even coaches our son's youth soccer team. For several years, she held the difficult but rewarding job of being a stay-at-home mom. However, in the past few years she has started working outside the home -- part-time for a local youth soccer club and also as a preschool teacher.

We have been married for nineteen years, and we are the proud, happy parents of four children, the oldest of which are our twin boys, Zachary and Jeremy, who were born in 1990. We also have a daughter named Molly, who was born in 1993, and another son named Jacob, who was born in 1996.

Now, we know the question most people who don't know us would ask, and the answer is "No, not all of our children have dwarfism." While dwarfism of all kinds is a genetic condition that can and does run in families (for example, my brother Sam is also a little person), little people are very often the parents of average-sized children, and we have three of our own.

Our son Zachary, who is two feet shorter than his twin brother, Jeremy, is the third little person in our family, making it a 3-3 tie between little people and average-sized people in our home. Zach's condition is the same as Amy's, meaning that he is relatively healthy.

The other two members of our family appearing on the show are my parents, Ron and Peggy Roloff, who have also contributed some of their thoughts to this book. As you will see as you read on, my parents are remarkable people.

My father is a tough but tender ex-Marine who instilled in me many of the values we've listed in this book. He is a man of incredible compassion, strength, and faith who knows what he believes in and why he believes it. He is also the perfect complement to Mom, who came from a background of comfort and ease only to take on the incredibly difficult job of raising four children, three of whom during certain points in their young lives required almost constant care and attention. Mom is a sweet but strong woman who could offer an encouraging smile while at the same time offering challenging words for children who needed to be strong to endure the pain of many major surgeries and countless hours of excruciating recovery and rehabilitation.

We are the Roloffs, and what follow are the values that make our family — which we admit is completely different from anything you've ever seen — what it is today.

Defining "Family Values" Right from the start, there are some things we want you to know about us — namely things we don't claim to know or to be.

First, we are not counselors or experts who have this whole family values thing figured out. While we believe that the values you will read about in this book are all positive and helpful when it comes to family life, we don't by any means believe we have all the answers. In fact, sometimes we find ourselves drifting from those things we consider our most important family values. Like most families, we are learning and adjusting as we move along in life.

Second, though we have a happy, loving family in which our children are so far growing up to be well-balanced people, we aren't perfect by any definition of the word. As husband and wife and as parents, Amy and I have our share of conflicts, disagreements, and arguments. And our children, as much as we love them and would do anything for their well-being, aren't without their flaws either. At times, they argue with one another and demonstrate attitudes and actions that aren't as loving and supportive to one another as we would like.

In other words, we are, in most ways, just like any other family. Where we differ from other families with our physical challenges has given us more tests of our love and endurance than many, but that has served only to draw us closer to each other than ever. So underneath the surface challenges to our family lies a tremendous amount of love and support for one another. While there are times when it might not seem as though certain members of the family like each other, there is never a moment when they don't have love for one another.

Our family values are those things that are collectively important to us when it comes to living a good life. They are the things that we as parents feel are important to teach, instill, and be examples of when it comes to raising our children. They are the things that we hope our children will take with them when they are grown up and moving away from home to go to college, start their own careers, get married, and have children of their own.

Amy and I agree on the values that are most important to us, the ones that are not negotiable in our home. For example, faith and love and hard work are all values Amy and I have near the top of our lists. That's the way it is, and the way it will always be in this home.

However, there are some values we hold as a couple — even ones we've listed in this book — that we might not see eye to eye on when it comes to where they fit in the order of importance. It's not that we don't see all these values as important, just that if we were each to do a "top-ten list" of values for our family, the order of those values wouldn't be the same.

Take for example the value of commitment. While Amy puts commitment at or near the top of her list, I would put it further down. It's not that I don't value commitment — I certainly do, especially when it comes to this family and our home. It's just that Amy tends to be more of a committed-to-a-fault kind of person, while I see most commitments — with some very notable exceptions -— as flexible and negotiable.

We have found that having differences in our hierarchy of values actually creates a family atmosphere in which we complement each other, both as spouses and as parents. In other words, our little differences allow us to both feed off each other and make each other even better parents for our children. In fact, we have come to realize that if we had the exact same list of values in the exact same order, it is possible — even likely — that we as parents would be missing out on something when it came to teaching or guiding our children.

We think that family values are those deeply held standards that have been incorporated into your life through the influence of your own parents, siblings, and other family members. It's how you were brought up and what your own parents and other adults taught you. Sadly, there are too many children in our world today who grew up in a home with no values at all or a warped sense of values. That is one reason we believe it is more important than ever not just to preach or teach family values but to instill them in our children.

When we talk about our children learning the values we've listed in this book, I hesitate to say that they've been "taught" those things. We don't consciously sit down and discuss most of these things with our children. In fact, I'd say that it's not practical or even possible to approach family and life values that way. Instead, I would say that what Amy and I have done is instill those values in our children, and all from an early age.

There is a big difference between teaching a value and instilling it in someone. To instill means to inspire people, to implant something in them, to encourage them to adopt a value or way of thinking as their own. Instilling happens through the experiences of applying certain values and information and absorbing them into your very being. I liken it to wrapping someone in a value or belief system much as you would wrap your child in a blanket. Nothing makes a parent prouder than to see one of your children, in a real-life situation, spontaneously exhibit one of the values that you cherish as a couple. Amy and I have had that joy.

Despite having our differences when it comes to which values are most important, we do our best as parents to make sure that there is consistency between us — in other words, no contradicting one another when it comes to which values need emphasis in a certain situation or on a certain day.

I know that when I see Amy do the things necessary to instill a particular value in one of the kids — and sometimes that involves some parental discipline — it is important that she knows that she has my support. Likewise, it is important to me to know that Amy "has my back" when it comes to instilling these values.

One of the most important parts of instilling values in children is making sure we don't just talk about the values but also demonstrate them the best we can in every way we can. In other words, we try not to be do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do parents but parents who practice what they preach. One of the most important examples of this is our faith. Amy and I could talk about faith all we want, but if we don't demonstrate it in both the way we talk and the way we live, then it's just air coming out of our mouths.

And believe me, if we were like that, the kids would pick up on it, and the results would be far different from what we are enjoying now.

Family Values: I also believe that our disabilities have worked to our advantage in this area because they give such stark visual examples of how to put these values into practice. For example, when it comes to self-respect, our kids look at Amy and me and see that despite the fact that we are smaller than other people and, therefore, easier to overlook in some situations, we both have the kind of self-respect it takes to make sure that people know we're here.

Perseverance, another of the values we've listed in this book, is also easier to teach because in their father our children have grown up with a living, breathing example of someone who has had to learn the importance of persevering through sometimes extreme difficulties in order to enjoy success as a businessman, as a farm owner, as a husband, and as a father.

Although these values work well for us and fit in well with a family where both parents have physical limitations or differences, we believe they can apply to families of any size, height, or social class. And while we may place a higher value on perseverance — simply because I have had to persevere through so much more than most people — it is still a value that is important for every family to develop and instill.

Every individual and every family has its own strengths and weakness, triumphs and defeats, its own moments of tragedy and moments to celebrate. And it's the values you rely on in the midst of all those experiences that will go a long way in determining what kind of parents you are, what kind of family life you enjoy, and what kind of people your children turn out to be when they grow up.

As we've said, our family values and how we apply them is an ongoing process, and in many ways life in the Roloff family is by trial and error. But even when we mess up in applying these values — and we most certainly have and will continue to from time to time — we can always fall back on the strength we have in one another because of the foundation of love we have for one another.

One of the things we both hope and pray will happen — and believe will happen — when our children are all grown and starting families of their own is that they will look back on their time growing up in the Roloff family and think, "I was raised in a wonderful family, a family where Mom and Dad loved us and where they taught us all these values that have given us the opportunity to accomplish what we have and will accomplish and to have the kinds of families we have." And when our children have children, we hope our kids will dedicate themselves to instilling the values they learned from us in the grandkids, adding their own as they see fit. My greatest wish is to see our happiness reflected in the lives of our children and in their future children.

To us, that's the look of a successful and happy family — no matter how big or small, short or tall it may be!

-- Matt

Copyright © 2007 by R6 Productions, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. For more on this book, you can visit the publisher's website.