Parenting: Does size matter?

August 6, 2010

Their sizes are usually the first thing people comment on when meeting them. In our culture, it seems, it's good for boys to be tall. But the constant feedback, even though it's usually positive, that the boys get on their size worries me.

Here's why.

They have absolutely no control over their heights. And all that positive feedback can backfire - as it did when Billy's doctor told him he's probably just about done growing. He'll likely be about 5'10", like his Dad. That was a tough pill to swallow for a very competitive teen with an older brother who's over the six-foot mark. Not that Jason thinks he's big enough - there were plenty of bigger boys at the college football camps he attended this summer and clearly, the bigger boys were the ones who got the most attention from the coaches.

It turns out height does matter. Numerous studies have shown that men who are taller make more money and are more likely to take on leadership positions than their shorter counterparts. But here's an interesting twist - it doesn't depend on how tall they ended up, it's how they were perceived while growing up. In other words, early bloomers, like Billy, who were perceived as tall through most of their development, succeed like tall guys. While later bloomers, who were perceived as short, even though they may grow to above-average height eventually, are more like the guys who were shorter all along.

This phenomenon was studied by University of Pennsylvania researchers Nicola Persico, Andy Postlewaite, and Dan Silverman. Basically, they concluded that how high-school-aged kids view their heights in comparison to other kids will set the self-esteem level that will stay with them as they become adults.

In his analysis of the research, Steven E. Landsburg writes, "Why should adolescent self-esteem be so significant? Partly, perhaps, because self-esteem, once learned, lasts a lifetime. But partly also because a kid with self-esteem is more likely to join the teams, clubs, and social groups where he learns to interact with people. And that participation is clearly valuable. The economists report that 'after controlling for age, height, region and family background, participation in athletics is associated with an 11.4 percent increase in adult wages, and participation in every club other than athletics is associated with a 5.1 percent increase in wages.'"

So, what can we as parents do to help all kids feel "tall"? For one thing, I'm going to make every effort not to comment on the height of my, or anyone else's, kids anymore. I've written before that I feel children should be complimented on their efforts and accomplishments. When a child plays well at a recital or hits a home run, or creates an amazing artwork, their height doesn't have anything to do with it.

And in the long run, it's better to make every child feel he has strengths he can control, than to make kids feel their positive attributes are due to some giant game of genetic roulette. No matter how big (or small) your child is, a parent's job is to encourage him or her to try new things, not put limitations on himself, and to pursue success and happiness.

We all teach our kids not to judge a book by its cover and that it's what's inside that counts. To make our children feel successful and increase their self-esteem, we all have to find positive things to say about our children that aren't based on their height or other aspects of their appearance. And it wouldn't hurt us as adults to think about that in dealing with our friends and co-workers as well. Just because much of self-esteem is set when kids are young doesn't mean we should give up on trying to make those around feel better about themselves.

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