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Short Children Not Lacking Admirers

They're just as popular as taller peers, study finds

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 8, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- In a finding that challenges longstanding assumptions about stature and status, new research suggests that height makes virtually no difference in how schoolchildren view each other.

Middle and high school students reported that their shorter classmates were just as popular as their taller peers, according to researchers who surveyed nearly 1,000 children. There was hardly any sign that the short children fit the stereotypes of class clowns or overly aggressive "Napoleon-complex" types, the researchers said.

"Knowing a person's height by itself tells us virtually nothing about how well they're going to get along with their friends, how well they are accepted by their peer group," said study co-author David E. Sandberg, an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York.

Sandberg and his colleagues surveyed 956 students from grades six through 12 in the Buffalo region. The children, who didn't know the purpose of the study, were told to assign their classmates to various parts in an imaginary dramatic play. Who would portray the bully? The popular kid? The leader?

"It's an indirect way of asking students what they think of one another," Sandberg said.

The idea was to see how height affects perceptions about the shortest and tallest kids. Depending on the phase of the study, short children were defined as among the shortest 1 percent or 5 percent of all the students.

"What drives so much of the discussions and stereotypes about short stature is [an assumption] that taller is better," Sandberg said. "Everything else being equal, we think that taller stature is more attractive and connected to positive attributes. Short stature is less attractive and thought to be a liability."

The researchers did find that the younger children assigned their shorter classmates to the roles of kids who look younger than they are. However, the older kids were less likely to make this connection.

The study found no indication of the so-called "Napoleon complex," in which short people -- i.e. the diminutive Napoleon -- make up for their lack of height by trying to dominate others. In fact, short kids "were less likely to be bullies, less likely to be leaders," Sandberg said.

Blasting another stereotype, there was no sign the shorter kids were more likely to be class clowns. For years, researchers had assumed that shorter people try to draw attention to themselves, perhaps by being funny, to "level the playing field," Sandberg said. "There may be individuals who do that, but they're just as likely to be of average or tall stature."

The findings appear in the September issue of Pediatrics.

Sandberg added that the findings may "undermine the rationale of medically treating children who are short just because they're short. The implicit assumption is that you're doing this to improve their quality of life."

Parents sometimes ask doctors to use hormones to try to boost their children's growth rates. This is especially true when boys appear unlikely to grow to 5-foot-5, or girls to 5 feet, said Dr. Piers Blackett, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. "Even then, you might not necessarily want to have the intervention. That might be quite an acceptable height."

Not all children benefit from hormone treatment, especially if they aren't lacking in normal growth hormones, Blackett said. On average, kids may gain an extra 2 inches due to hormones. But in many cases they don't grow any taller than they normally would, he said.

More information

To learn more about children and growth charts, visit the Nemours Foundation.

SOURCES: David E. Sandberg, Ph.D., associate professor, psychiatry and pediatrics, University of Buffalo, State University of New York; Piers Blackett, M.D., pediatric endocrinologist and associate professor, pediatrics, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City; September 2004 Pediatrics
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