Matt Roloff is a businessman, entrepreneur, farmer, husband, and father of four, including teen-age twins. He and his family star on the TLC series Little People, Big World. Matt, his wife Amy, and one of the twins are little people, with genetic disorders that affect their height and limbs. The other three children are not. I spoke with Matt, former head of Little People of America, about the show and about what it is like to be a part of a reality series and let the world see the ups and downs of their family’s life. He is the author with Tracy Summer of Against Tall Odds: Being a David in a Goliath World and Little Family, Big Values: Lessons in Love, Respect, and Understanding for Families of Any Size.
In an especially touching episode of the series, Matt goes to Iraq to visit a family whose children need surgery for dwarfism-related health problems. I began by asking him about that trip.
How did you come to meet with the family in Iraq?
I made three trips all in all. It was mid-2008 and a friend of mine who had a little person daughter was stationed in Iraq as a helicopter pilot and called me from Iraq to say one of their street patrols had stumbled across a family with several children with dwarfism or what we call skeletal dysplasia, that’s the most technical term to describe it. And they are in dire need of medical help. I said, “What can I do over here?” We needed permission from the officials in Washington to bring them to the US and that was going to be a tough road because they are trying to build the medical community over there and not bring people over here.
I got permission to go over there and the military escorted me. We brought the families to a facility to get x-rayed and brought them back over to the states. We were actually able to convince a doctor and an anesthesiologist to go back there with us and perform operations on a couple of the different children. But they needed more serious operations that cannot be done in a tent in a war zone. They needed really sophisticated spinal monitoring equipment. So on the third trip over I was able to bring the kids back. I use the term loosely — there was really an army of people involved, the military, the State Department, I was just an observer of a lot of this, a facilitator, but there was a lot of people really intensely dedicate to these children and this family.
The oldest gal who had the most dire need went first and there was complications and unfortunately we lost her. We knew that was a strong possibility, but it was very sad and disappointing to have made all that headway getting them over here. The reality was heartbreaking.
Is there much of a little people community in Iraq?
There is an active community. They don’t have the kind of organizational structure we have here, with by-laws and everything. The second trip, when I went over with the doctors to do the operation and it turned into a clinic. They announced it and they came out of the woodwork, little people did, parents holding their children, adults, the same variety and a larger percentage than you would get here in the states!
How has the show affected the way Americans see little people?
It has affected us and it has been positive. People see us as real people. Even people that hate our show and dis on us about keeping a messy house and not raising our children right, and that’s fine, that’s what makes our show popular, to have not polarizing but different opinions about us — I think our show has positively affected society’s view of little people. And now, with the other shows, Jen and Bill, The Little Couple, The Little Chocolatiers, we had known all of these people for years and we’re all high-fiving because it gives a more rounded view, other little people who have interesting lives, too. The only thing that’s the same about us is our size.
How did you meet your wife, Amy?
I met her at a little people’s conference in Michigan, that’s where she’s from, in 1986. It was not exactly love at first sight but we stayed in touch by mail. We were both interested in each other. And then about six months later she said she was coming to visit a friend in California. I don’t think she ever actually saw her friend! We ended up spending all of our time together and hit it off pretty heavy that week. I visited her a month later, and she came back to see me. Our total courtship time was three visits in six months. I popped the question, and of course I wanted to elope. But she was a nice conservative Christian girl and she wanted a big wedding. So we compromised and she cooked up a wedding in short order and a couple of months later we were married, in September of 1987.
How has raising your children so publicly made it harder or easier to be a parent?
It has made it harder, absolutely. There’s a lot more influences in their lives, producers and people dragging them around. But one advantage is that I didn’t realize Jacob was hanging out on the roof as much as he was, but I saw it on film and was able to tell him not to. There’s a lot of filming that does not make it to television, and I see things I might not have seen. Or the producers will tell me what they’re up to. But it is harder in a sense because I don’t want to scold them on camera. No one wants that. Some people think what they see is all there is. The bloggers don’t have a clue that it’s quite a bit more balanced that what they’re shown. That is frustrating for us. It seems like a big window on our lives but it’s not everything.
What’s unique about our show compared to other reality shows is that we spend a lot of time hanging out and waiting for something to happen. A lot of shows are much more produced. They’re focused on the activity. There’s hours and hours of just sitting around watching us do nothing in the hopes of a five-minute interaction and then they zone in on how that comes to a conclusion over the next few months, whether a conflict or a triumph. But that means that they will catch one part of an interaction, like maybe some angry words, and not necessarily have or show the other part, kissing and making up. That’s the nature of television.
What is coming up on the show that we should look forward to?
We have a trip to Europe where the boys go off and do their own thing. They backpack through Germany and Amsterdam. Despite what you may think, the producers do not interfere and if they get lost, they get lost. Then I meet up with them in Paris and we have all of the logistics of travel and who wants to go where and the evolution of the family, what everyone wants to do, Molly’s birthday, and our everyday on the farm stuff happening!