From his first visit to the pediatrician, my oldest son, now 12, has always hovered around the low end of that great equalizer of child development: The growth chart. There’s nothing physically wrong with him; no congenital defect or premature birth stunted his growth. With two not-so-tall parents, he’s just a short kid—tenth percentile short, last-kid-on-the-risers short, sitting-down-in-class-pictures short. Though he entered seventh grade this fall, he’s sometimes mistaken for a fourth or fifth grader.
As much as I try to take my son’s shortness in stride, I’ve long worried about the way he might be treated because of it. When I was in school, the short kid was always picked last for sports at recess or for a partner at the square dance—or, worse, ended up pantsed and tossed in a dumpster. Bigger, tougher boys hurled epithets like “shrimp” and “peewee” across the playground at smaller boys. Recently, walking next to my son as he rollerbladed down our street, I momentarily thought he had grown two inches—and my gut reaction was one of immense relief. Thank God, flashed the thought, Now he’ll be normal. Now he’ll be okay.
The nagging concerns about my son’s height aren’t just for his present, but for his future. With all the advances we’ve made in other areas of equality, there’s been relatively little progress around height bias. Culture continues to equate stature with status, especially for men. Celebrities from Tom Cruise to Prince have been rumored to fib about their height. A 2014 study revealed that nearly 50 percent of women reported only wanting to date men taller than themselves. (Though it’s unclear whether we want to feel protected or just want to wear high heels.) Seven of the last ten American presidents have been over six feet tall, though the average American male clocks in at just 5′ 9″. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau stands at 6’2”.
11 tips on building self-esteem in childrenI’m not just paranoid. I know my son has experienced embarrassing height-related incidents. His gym teacher recently had to lower the high-jump bar just for him. He’s shorter than all the girls he might ask to dance at his upcoming junior high soiree. At a family dinner at a restaurant last month, a waitress cooed, “Aw, look at the twins!” at him and his two-years-younger brother.
And yet, despite my son’s uphill battle of being “vertically challenged” in a culture that worships height, I’ve watched him handle this issue with impressive fortitude. To my delight, throughout his elementary years, he was one of the most well-liked kids at his school. His classmates elected him to student council, he scored solos at choir concerts, and he led his school’s Battle of the Books team to the state championship. Though he says other kids sometimes comment on his smaller stature, it’s more of an inside joke than a taunt. (He and the tallest kid in class have a shtick where they call each other “short kid” and “tall kid” every time they pass.)
My husband and I can’t claim responsibility for my son’s social success, but we have done our best to talk openly with him about his small stature. I believe our conversations about the possible reasons (or lack thereof) for his shortness have helped him process and persevere through this unique challenge. In the darkness of a night-time tuck-in, when he’s whispered, “Mom, do you think I’ll ever grow?” I’ve tried to see it as an opportunity for a heart-to-heart about a real issue in his life, not just a bedtime stalling tactic. We talk about how fortunate he is that so many other areas of his life are well in hand: He’s intelligent, he’s healthy, he has two parents and a brother and sister who love him. I remind him of that and that we all have our crosses to bear, and as far as crosses go, being short isn’t the heaviest one.
We’ve been blessed, too, with schools that employ anti-bullying education from day one. I recall my son coming home from kindergarten telling me his teacher sat everyone down to talk about what bullying meant—and how it would not be tolerated in her class. I’m convinced this has gone a long way toward helping him find acceptance and goodwill among his peers.
Mostly, though, my son’s resilience about his height is a testament to his own positivity. “It’s a fact of life I can’t change,” he told me recently. “I just have fun anyway.” Though his shortness sometimes bothers him, he counters it with great optimism, noting that it makes him special (and faster at sports). Instead of feeling insecure about it, he’s come to view it as a positive part of his identity. He’s “that short, smart kid” everyone can pick out at school.
Society may say height is power, but my small son proves every day that strength comes in small packages, too. Maybe someday he’ll shoot up like a weed—and maybe he won’t. Either way, I have a feeling he’ll be just fine.