Predicting Your Child’s Height, and the Eventual Demise of Our Species
I’m between 6’1” and 6’4”, depending on which convenience store I’m leaving. My wife, on the other hand, doesn’t frequent convenience stores, because she can barely see over the counter, not to mention her extreme disdain for Slurpees.
The discrepancy between our heights has its pros and cons. On the plus side, I can reach the pasta pot on the top shelf in the kitchen, and she barely has to bend over to retrieve the Tupperware containers from the bottom shelf. On the down side, we both strain our necks when kissing unless she’s standing on the second step.
Moreover, our sons were measured at 33” tall at their two-year check-ups, which puts them in the 20th percentile. This is when I realized that marrying a woman only 5’2” tall makes it unlikely that either of my boys will earn a spot on the varsity basketball team.
This was a distressing thought. If my sons continued to track at the 20th percentile, they’d reach a height of only 5’7” as adults. When I mentioned this to my mother-in-law, she attempted to allay my fears. “Kids always grow up to be twice their height at age 2,” she told me. That formula predicted their adult height to be 5’6”, which did not reassure me in the least, despite the fact that I didn’t believe it for a second. (Recently, I learned that the Mayo Clinic actually considers this a reasonable formula for predicting height, although they claim that it only works for boys. For girls, they suggest doubling the height at age 18 months.)
Growing up, the shortest person in my family was my oldest sister, who is 5’10” tall. Thinking that my sons might not even reach 5’8” was a major concern for me. As a result, I began to do some research. Although I knew I could not alter the course of their physical development, I had to at least know if they stood a chance at being above average in height.
As it turns out, predicting the adult height of a child is very difficult, and not just for kids whose growth has been stunted by wrestling or gymnastics. I found no fewer than a dozen formulas in widespread use, yet none of them were very reliable. Which is to say, none of them gave the results I was looking for. I spoke with multiple pediatricians who said the best predictor of a child’s eventual height is the mean of the mother’s and father’s heights. That didn’t sit well with me, though, partially because it just seemed too easy, but mostly because it said my sons would be 5’8” tall at adulthood. Still shorter than I’d hoped, so I looked some more.
The Mayo Clinic suggests the following method to predict boys’ height:
- Add the mother’s height and the father’s height.
- Add 5 inches to that sum.
- Divide by 2.
This formula may not be superior to the “double height at age 2” formula above, but at least it felt more mathematically rigorous. Sadly, it predicted that my sons would reach a height of 5’8½“, which is better but still not what I was looking for. So, my search continued.
After several months of research, I finally stumbled on a formula that I thought I could trust. It began like many others, taking the mean of the mother’s and father’s height. But then it compensated for height differences due to gender. For boys, multiply the mean by 13/12; for girls, multiply the mean by 12/13. That is,
where m is the mother’s height and f is the father’s height. It roughly means that a boy has an extra inch added to the prediction for every foot in the mean, whereas a girl has an inch subtracted.
Finally, I had stumbled on a formula that predicted my sons would be above average, stretching the tape to just shy of 6’2” tall. This was a win-win, too — this formula predicted that they would be tall, but not quite as tall as their dad.
What’s interesting about this formula is its long-term prognostication. It implies that the human population will continue to increase in size indefinitely. Let me explain.
Google says that the average man is 5’6” tall and the average woman is 5’2” tall. This means that the average human is approximately 5’4”, or 64”, tall. Then an average man and average woman would have an average son who is 69.33” tall and an average daughter who is 59.07” tall — according to the formulas above — and the average human would be 64.20” tall. When this next generation has children, the sons would be 69.55” tall and the daughters would be 59.26” tall, and the average human height would be 64.41” tall. Do you see what’s happening? The average height is increasing slightly with each generation.
It’s not hard to see why this happens. The average of 13/12 and 12/13 is
which means that the average height will increase by 0.3% with each generation. Admittedly, that’s not much, but it portends almost certain doom! By Y3K, the average human will be almost 6’3” tall; and by Y4K, the average human will be nearly 7’3” tall.
There is some historical data to suggest that human height has been increasing for quite some time. In the early 18th century, researchers found that the average English male was 5’5” tall; today, the average English male is 5’9” tall. That’s an increase of about 0.6% per generation. Further, archaeological research shows that the average Greek woman was about 153 cm tall, and the average Greek woman today is closer to 165 cm, an increase of about 0.07% per generation.
Should we expect humans to someday stretch the tape to 8’ or more? Probably not. The paragraph above is a little lesson on how to lie with statistics. While it may be the case that the modern Greek beauty Helena Paparizou (5’7”) is taller than ancient beauty Helen of Troy (5’6”), it hasn’t necessarily been a steady increase. The average female height of a Greek woman in the 10th century was over 162 cm; just two centuries later, the average height dipped below 160 cm.
While the formulas above may serve to make reasonable predictions now, they may not work so well in the future. So if you’re 5’4” tall, don’t be bummed if your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchild still isn’t able to dunk.
Alex and Eli are now 9 years old, and both of them are 4’3” tall. I strongly suspect that neither of them will reach 6’0”, and that’s just fine. My wife may not be tall, but she is kind, smart, funny, and compassionate, traits that she has generously shared with her children. As a result, my sons are well above average in ways that actually matter.
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