Last June, I walked into my son’s preschool and took a look at that day’s special project: a height chart. There, in block print, were his friends’ names – Elinor, Simon, Amza – next to brightly colored lines indicating their current stature. Coleman’s name wasn’t anywhere close. His mark was a foot or so above the next highest, just below the overly cute heading “Look how tall we are!” Just then, a teacher passed by, looked at me, and laughed. “He’s a giant.”
Technically, Coleman’s not a giant – not in the biological, Diane-Arbus-photo sense of the term – but he’s definitely pretty huge – huge enough that not a day goes by without a conversation something like this:
“How old is he?”
“Wow, he’s tall.”
When he was a baby, his size was something of a joke. At birth, he was big, though not freakishly so, but soon after he flew off the charts in both height and weight. At three months, he reached the weight limit for the Baby Bjorn. At five months, he wore size twelve-month clothing. As I wheeled him around our neighborhood in his stroller, strangers shouted things like “What’re ya feeding that kid?” or, hilariously, “Give that kid a decent meal! He’s starving!” At eight months, he could polish off six jars of baby food in a single sitting. Once, when he mysteriously refused to eat, his sitter said: “Yeah, I wasn’t worried. I figured he could live off his cheeks for a good month.”
But around nine months – I realize now, with the benefit of hindsight – I began to see glimmers of some of the larger, more heart-rending (or just plain annoying) difficulties of being a massive kid. “He isn’t walking yet?” people kept saying to me. “He’s only nine months old,” I explained, over and over again. They’d thought, of course, that he was closer to two than one. Now, at four, he’s constantly mistaken for a six- or seven-year-old, not just by other parents, but by kids themselves, who then come racing across the playground to ask me, “Why does he talk funny?” or, worse, ask him the same question themselves. The older kids often include him in their games, then get frustrated when he doesn’t fully understand the rules (“He’s cheating!” they shriek) or takes their sarcastic remarks literally (four-year-old humor is still on the knock-knock joke level) or simply runs off to play on the teeter-totter. “He’s much younger than you,” I find myself explaining, endlessly. “He’s only four.” But they still seem confused, unsure of what to make of him.
When he does play with other four-year-olds – or even younger kids – I’m sometimes struck with terror. Watching him chase his friend Milo -a head shorter and at least twenty pounds lighter – around the playground, the two of them shrieking with joy, I’m always slightly afraid that Coleman’s going to pounce, puppy-like, on his friend and cause some serious damage. I know from experience exactly how strong he is. If he was to grab or push one of the smaller kids – typical four-year-old rough-housing, to which Coleman is not, of course, immune – things could get ugly fast. And this, I suppose, is one of the harder things about being such a big kid: Different rules apply to him. By the time he was three, for instance, he was way too heavy to carry for more than a block or so. On the way home from the park, he’d watch sadly as his friend Natalie’s mom picked her up and carried her all the way back to our building, while I had no choice but to force him to walk, no matter how tired he was. In other words: He has often had to behave like – or be treated as – the older kid he’s so often mistaken for.
Of course size isn’t always a bad thing, says Arianne Cohen, author of The Tall Book, an inquiry into the psychology of being super-stature. According to Cohen, people (both old and young) tend to expect more of tall kids – perceiving them as older, even if only subconsciously – and largely they rise to the occasion. “Tall kids are related to by other kids as an older peer,” she explains. “Even when kids know the kid is the same age, they treat the tall kid as the leader. It’s not just that taller kids are treated as older, it’s that they’re behaving as older.” And this, she says, is why there are so many tall presidents, CEOs, and so on.
He has often had to behave like – or be treated as – the older kid he’s so often mistaken for. My husband, Evan, who is 6’5,” doesn’t necessarily agree. Like Coleman, he towered over his friends as a kid. By 13, he was almost his full height and was regularly taken for a twenty-year old, which had its perks (he dated a lot of college girls), but also made him incredibly self-conscious. It’s true, he says, that both grown-ups and kids singled him out for his height and regarded him as a leader – he was always picked first for teams (unlike me) – but all that attention inspired jealousy in other kids, making him a favorite target of bullies. He became soft-spoken and retiring as a way of compensating. To this day, he hates it when people make a fuss over his height (as they do all the time), and he constantly begs me to downplay rather than emphasize Coleman’s size.
Or he did – until last winter, when Coleman came home from school saying he didn’t want milk in his lunch box anymore because “people laugh at you when you bring milk.” Slowly, a story unraveled: A couple of kids had started bullying him, making fun of everything he ate or wore or said, telling him he wasn’t their friend and couldn’t play with them (despite the school’s frequently-stated “we’re all friends” policy!), and – the worst – kicking and hitting him on the playground (now we understood why he had so many bruises on his shins). We spoke to his teachers, but they seemed maddeningly unconcerned. (“One of them is bullied by his older sister,” the head teacher explained. “So he has a reason for acting out.” So that makes it okay for him to terrorize other kids?)
We considered sending Coleman to a different school, but then one day, when Coleman was once again detailing the various jerky things these little terrors had done during free play, Evan said, “You know, Coleman, you’re much bigger than X and Y.” I turned to him, shocked.
“I am?” asked Coleman, who seemed just as shocked.
Evan nodded. “You don’t need to let them push you around.”
And that, pretty much, was the end of that.
“I’m the tallest kid in our class,” he told the bullies the next day. “And the biggest.”
While the barbs and blows didn’t necessarily stop, they slowed down and, more importantly, they stopped having an affect on Coleman. After that, he also began taking it upon himself to defend his best friend, Amza, who happened to be the smallest kid in the class. Which means, I guess, that he’s growing into his size, in more ways than one.
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This article was written by Joanna Smith Rakoff for Babble.com, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.