In praise of nerd kids
I’m a bit of an unusual mother. I don’t worry that my kids don’t have a bunch of friends, that they aren’t popular. I’d actually be more worried, to tell you the truth, if they were super popular. Actually one of my kids is verging on popular, and it’s kind of an issue.
See, the thing is, I love nerd kids. I love the way they are dreamy, and spaced out, figuring out a logical internal system that could never exist except in their minds, laughing to themselves about a joke they just made up, and rewriting songs with silly lyrics a la Weird Al Yankovic, whom they’ve never heard of.
Why? Because almost all of my favorite people in the world were total nerds, or at least outsiders, when they were kids, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. There’s something about not fitting in, about maintaining an observer’s status, that keeps you from ever being subsumed by the vicious groupthink of seventh grade (and if you can resist that kind of peer pressure, you can resist anything).
By the way, I was a huge nerd in seventh grade, and I had exactly one friend. In fact I didn’t have any friends for a couple of months, and it was miserable. So I’m not saying that I’m hoping for an easy path for my kids. In fact I’m hoping for something kind of tough for my kids, which is probably why most other parents try hard to make sure their kids have playdates with lots of other kids and have spectacular birthday parties etc.
And it’s not that I don’t want my kids to have friends- I do, and they do, just not very many. As far as I’m concerned, two or three co-nerd friends is just about perfect. If we’ve got enough for a Dungeons and Dragons game, we’re good. I’m not ever going to make my kids feel bad for the fact that they’ve only ever played with each other, the kid who lives downstairs, and the kid who lives next door, because those kids are seriously nerdy and awesome.
One thing I hate though is the concept of the child prodigy. Unlike nerds, who live in a dream world of their own making, which I think is awesome, the child prodigy lives in a dream world of their parents’ making, which is weird and not good. I’ve known some of these kids, and they get totally addicted to a certain kind of adult attention, which of course doesn’t last past childhood. They never learn to rely on themselves for feeling accomplished.
I just don’t get it either- so what that a 10 year old can do calculus? What’s the big deal, are there calculus problems that the world needs solving that only this kid can do? No. Leave the kid alone to be a nerd for a few more years, then decide what he or she wants to do. The obsession in our culture with prodigy is just weird, it’s in the same boat with beauty pageants for 3-year-olds. So weird, bordering on creepy.
There are basically two kinds of nerds, from my experience. The first kind is the nerd who vaguely understands that there are social rules that he or she doesn’t understand but that everyone else does. This nerd thinks about that every now and then with something like surprise or maybe even alarm, but then goes back to thinking about more interesting things. My mom is a nerd like this: grew up in L.A. with the children of starlets and couldn’t wait to get to MIT. Built her own telescope in the backyard. That kind of thing.
Then there’s the second kind of nerd, which I was, the excruciatingly sensitive nerd who is fully aware of how much of an outsider he or she is – always aware of the cruelty of those in power, and always feeling for the various victims (who are usually someone else). This nerd is lucky if they survive adolescence without committing suicide, but pretty much from then on it’s good stuff (although never easy). Their favorite movie is Harold and Maude (or was in the 1980’s) and they tend to listen to music really loud whenever they can. Love those nerds.