Childhood nicknames come in all flavors. Some are shortened versions of first or last names. Some are based on events or stories that turn into long-term monikers. Still others are based on physical attributes, like hair color or pre-braces dental work. As a kid, I was in the latter group, and got stuck with a nickname that followed me from early childhood all the way through high school. Big Head.
Now, it would be one thing if the nickname was based on something positive, like Speedy or Slugger. Instead, this nickname was usually the entre to other insults that got hurled out asking me if I had to step into my t-shirt, or if I was getting ready for a Mardis Gras parade. This was a litte confusing for a 6-year old, who had no idea what Mardi Gras was.
Being a skinny little kid with a crew cut only accentuated the physical discrepancy. Catching the mumps added injury to insult, causing my jawline to square out, making me look like a human Tweety Bird.
When baseball season came around, it only got worse. I had to wear adult hat and helmet sizes compared to the other kids whose proportions were more typical. Unfortuately, the larger size helmets were different colors than the ones meant for kids, which made it harder to avoid gettting some crack about a solar eclipse when I came up to bat.
Over time, I learned to ignore most of the insults, and many kids who used the nickname early on switched to calling me by my actual name. Others were more persistent, using it to needle me in search of a reaction. I got better at fielding the barb and returning the volley with a comment about their tiny brain. That was only occasionally effective. since it was an indication that the initial salvo found its mark.
Why do kids pick on others? It seems like some Lord of the Flies ritual to separate into tribes of those who lead, and those who are destined to follow, even if its only to avoid getting singled out. When I was growing up, adults were either oblivious, unsympathetic (‘fight back if you don’t want to be picked on’), or participants in the verbal attacks because they found it funny.
As I got older, my proportions caught up, and I ended up looking as normal as the next kid, but it took a long time to stop feeling like every interaction would devolve into name calling sessions, even if they became more rare.
So, if you hear kids calling out nicknames on the playground, don’t assume it’s all in good fun – and it doesn’t hurt to let a kid know that you’ve got their back. It may only take a distraction or re-dirction to the group to get them on another subject, and I can guarantee you the kid will remember that somebody stood up for them.
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