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Think Height Is on Your Kid's Side? Think Again

Photograph by Twenty20

Recently, I found a VHS tape that my mother filmed of me when I was in preschool. At one point, I saw myself playing on a tiny jungle gym, comprised of merely a slide, some bars for climbing and a bit of a bridge. Instead of waiting my turn behind the other children to go down the slide, I pushed myself ahead of the others and went down at my own volition, repeating the same behavior over and over again.

I was mortified. But I also realized something else I hadn't noticed before: I was a full head taller than the other children. While I was only 3 1/2 at the time, I was tall enough to be mistaken for 6.

Whenever it was time for school assembly, the child sitting behind me would always tell me, 'Get lower, I can’t see.'

It wasn't until kindergarten that I realized I was tall. I was the tallest child in the class and my teacher always placed me at the back of the girls' line whenever we schlepped through the hallway. But despite being a head taller than many, I had a late birthday compared to the other children. Most were six to nine months older than me, and therefore more emotionally mature, yet I looked older due to my height. So, not only was I tall, I was immature for my peer group, putting me at a disadvantage when trying to move through the real world.

Of course, I was teased mercilessly. I had a short haircut and often dressed in neutral colors (a decision of my mother’s). In all honesty, I looked like a boy. It seemed there was always a child lurking around the corner whenever I went to the bathroom, pointing a finger to exclaim, “Ew! There’s a boy in the girls’ bathroom!” Whenever it was time for school assembly, the child sitting behind me would always tell me, “Get lower. I can’t see.” At times, I’d sit with my rump completely off the chair, just to accommodate some shorter kid behind me. Of course, I would also be called unoriginal nicknames like "string bean" and "bean pole," although most played on my little ‘fro. I was called Ronald McDonald and Screech (from "Saved By the Bell").

Curious about the way I was treated, I spoke to child psychologist Dr. John Mayer about the idea of height discrimination. He said that children "want things to be normalized, and everyone wants to be the same. So when you have any extreme, whether short or tall, children have a hard time accommodating.” As he said this, I remembered my own wishes as a child. Back then, I would think to myself, I want to be normal. I want to fit in.

Dr. Mayer went further to say that, since they are different, tall children can cause anxiety for others. “Children don’t respond well to things that they can’t understand. So, when there is a tall child, they don’t quite have a concept of why that occurs. They wonder, 'Why isn't that person the same height as me? Why are they different than I am?'" Dr. Mayer confirmed that this type of thinking is the same of that which fuels other types of discrimination, whether based on the color of skin, ethnic background or even prejudice against obesity.

Height discrimination can come from adults, as well. Recalling moments when teachers instructed me to stand at the back of the line in school, Dr. Mayer pointed out that this action actually endorsed discrimination against me. “The adults are dictating how everyone else should be thinking about a taller person. The adults are saying it’s OK to discriminate. This is a subtle and symbolic way that discrimination takes place.”

Back then, I would think to myself, I want to be normal. I want to fit in.

Since I stood at the back of the line, there was some consequential discrimination which was the result of logistics. An example: At the beginning of the year, our class filed up to the computer room to be assigned to our computers for the year. The assigning began with giving each kid the nicest of computers: Macs with full-color screens and cursors manipulated by mice. (This was the mid '90s.) The shorter children were the first to be assigned, so by the time the teacher got to me, there were not enough computers in the room. For the entire year, I had to share a black-screened DOS computer with two other girls. I was smart enough even then to know then that this misfortune was due to my height.

Dr. Mayer mentioned that he too was a taller child when in grade school. He had another example of logistical discrimination. “I can remember getting in line for milk. I, like every other child, liked chocolate milk. By the time we lined up and I got to get my milk, I never got the chocolate milk because it was taken by the other kids. Those were important things as a child.” Another example he provided: “We sat at our desks in order of height, as well, so I was always in the back of the room."

As an adult, I too have caught myself discriminating based on height. I was made aware of this when giving weekly one-on-one violin lessons to an amiable girl named Courtney. She had an immature, playful attitude and learned slower than I would have liked, although I was patient and repeated the same exercises with her month after month. She was an incredibly nice kid and a joy to teach, yet I was frustrated.

Eventually, I saw a class number on her music folder. I asked her, "Courtney? What grade are you in?"

"Second."

"Second!? I thought you were in fourth grade!"

"No, I'm 7 years old."

It all made sense. Her behavior matched that of a younger child! After realizing her age, I immediately abandoned my frustrations and instead applauded her for working as hard as she did for a second-grader.

As much as we are aware of the unacceptability of discriminating against the color of skin, ethnicity and sexual orientation (still not enough), the issue of height goes completely unnoticed. It is important that educators of children realize that height is not a way to organize children. In truth, children should not be organized or categorized in any way, except maybe by academic performance. Thankfully, many efforts have been put into educating children about bullying and teasing but teachers too should be flexible-minded and vigilant in evaluating their own behavior, ensuring that they are not reinforcing discrimination, even if it is unintentional.

This is a tall order, but one that I personally endorse.

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