The small kid

Why being smaller than average can affect a child's self-esteem

I’m short to start with and because of skipping grades in school, I was always the shortest kid in my class. For reasons I’ll never understand, many of my teachers liked to line us up by height, and I hated it. I always felt singled out as that little kid at the very end of the line. Being short wasn’t fun for me, but it can be even harder for boys, for whom being bigger seems to convey more status.

It’s during the early school years, when they’re in class with other children the same age, that kids become more aware that they’re smaller than their peers. And that sense of being different is often reinforced by the other kids who are quick to comment on any differences and pass out less-than-flattering nicknames such as “Shrimp” and “Mini-Me.”

So, if your child is on the small side, how do you help him feel OK about his size?

Linda Fisher* says six-year-old Rita is just beginning to realize that she’s smaller than the majority of her peers — like her mother, who stands four feet, 10 inches tall. Fisher says her focus is on helping Rita prepare for life as a smaller person: “We talk a lot about how each of us is unique, and we all have our challenges to face. I also talk about the difference between facts and problems. Being short is not a problem — it’s a fact. However, not being able to reach the pencil sharpener at school is a problem that comes along with being short. So we try to help Rita solve those problems creatively.”

For Lisa Langley, though, her son Adrian’s problems were much harder to solve. “He’s always been small — I remember in junior kindergarten he was smaller than many of the preschoolers who were accompanying their moms to drop off their siblings.” It didn’t seem to be a big deal in the beginning, but Adrian gradually developed a “rough and tough” personality. “By the time he was seven years old, we were having a lot of problems with him acting very aggressively at school. We realized that he was trying to act big to make up for not being very big,” she says.

Langley and her husband met with the teacher and discussed ways to help Adrian feel capable and confident despite his smaller size. “We explained to him that there are many kinds of ‘big’ and that he is big with his mind because he accomplishes a lot in his school work. Things improved a lot after that.”

*Names changed by request.

Participating in sports

While school can be the source of some challenges for the shorter child, participating in sports can bring bigger hurdles. “My youngest son, Mark, is small for his age,” says Rhonda Davidson.* “He’s six, but when he wanted to take gymnastics I enrolled him in a four- and five-year-old class. He went with a neighbour girl who is five but actually taller than him. He was able to do all the activities and felt really successful.”

But not all sports teams and organ-izations are as flexible, as Davidson discovered when she tried to enrol Mark in soccer later that year. “The organizers insisted that he be on a team with kids who have his same birth year, and his teammates turned out to be giants!” says Davidson.

That could have been a pretty tough experience for Mark, but Davidson’s husband, Stephen, helped coach the team and was able to help Mark have fun as he learned soccer skills. It turned out that there were also some smaller players on the other teams, so Mark wasn’t always the shortest kid on the field. “I felt the organizers showed a good understanding of child development and kept the focus on learning the skills,” says Davidson.

Langley says she and her husband, Tom, are focusing on interesting Adrian in some sports where size doesn’t play as big a factor. “He really likes curling because it doesn’t matter if he’s shorter than the other players,” she says. (And it’s such a classic Canadian sport!) Davidson has taken a similar approach with Mark: “We do lots of scootering and biking as a family,” she says, “and I think Mark excels at these because he’s closer to the ground!”

A little empathy helps too. “Tom is still on the short side, and I was short until I hit a huge growth spurt in grade eight, so we can both relate to how Adrian feels,” says Langley.

Even if you haven’t been short, you can probably remember some other ways in which you felt different from your peers and had to deal with being called names or feeling left out. As Fisher says, we all have our own challenges to face.

What’s average?

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2000 Growth Charts (currently recommended by the Canadian Paediatric Society), the average heights for children are:

6-year-old girls – 45 in/114 cm
6-year-old boys – 45.5 in/116 cm
8-year-old girls – 50 in/127 cm
8-year-old boys – 50 in/127 cm

*Names changed by request.