Home > rant > In praise of nerd kids

In praise of nerd kids

November 10, 2011

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.

Categories: rant
  1. Your dissertating, love bug, fan!
    November 10, 2011 at 9:16 am

    What an AWESOME post…However I have some bad news for you – there is simply NO WAY Mr. S is not, or will not, be popular. He can’t help it – and you and Johann are to blame…When a kid feels good about himself because he is genuinely loved for who he is – rather than for expectations and hopes imposed on him by his parents – his peers can’t resist the attraction to his positive energy, compassion, enthusiasm. Also – Mr. A will experience a similar popularity among introverted nerds. We’ll see about Mr. W…
    Also – I’m a bit worried because I thought I was one of your favorite people in the world but I have always only been a nerd wannabe….maybe outspoken outsider but observer is too passive a role to describe me!


  2. Dan L
    November 10, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Certainly some people just don’t really understand social interaction. But most outcasts are just shunned for being different (e.g. too smart, too heavy, too ugly, too minority, too homosexual, etc.). Of course, once these kids are ostracized, they probably lose their understanding of (and interest in) mainstream social interaction, but this is different from being fundamentally clueless.

    I also think that the “too smart” brand of social outcast (let’s call it “the nerd”) is a special case. Of course, most nerds want to fit in (as all kids do, especially in middle school), but at some point I think that a lot of smart kids realize that they just don’t want to fit in in a dumb world (perhaps after reading Ender’s Game).

    I also agree that I wouldn’t want my kids to be popular, because I know that popular kids tend to be pretty vile human beings. Not all of them, but if you’re popular, then you’re probably at least friends with some vile human beings. But I often wonder if this is true at weird places like Stuyvescent or Thomas Jefferson (or the closest middle school analogs of these places), where people are less likely to be shunned just for being smart.

    As for child prodigies, there is a very small number of kids who just learn incredibly fast. And if their natural pace is to learn calculus at age 10, why shouldn’t they? This has nothing to do with fawning over their awesomeness (which I agree is silly and counterproductive). In fact, I think that pushing bright kids is a good idea. I think the bigger problem for child prodigies (and bright kids in general) is not too much adult attention, but the fact that since everything is always so easy and effortless, they sometimes have trouble with hard work and failure. So maybe (?) the solution is to make them fail by challenging them.


  3. November 10, 2011 at 11:16 am

    I love your blog! It’s a helpful complement to “Marketplace” and “This American Life”, where I get most of my other understanding of economics in our time. I am a mathematician, so your particular angle is very helpful for me. I will be sharing your post on an insider’s perspective on careers for math majors with my current and future students.

    That said, I was hoping you were half kidding when you said, ” actually one of my kids is verging on popular, and it’s kind of an issue”. So much of the above post sounds like your are stereotyping nerds (with a rather positive slant). Nerds in different environments have different experiences, and even within a particular environment, nerdism can have many manifestations.

    It is certainly possible to be a nerd and be somewhat popular. I would consider myself to be in that category — not crazy popular, but I definitely had lots of friends from many different social groups. Being a drummer in a rock band, I had friends in other rock bands around school. Having an interest in skateboarding, I had some skateboard friends, mostly a few other kids in my neighborhood. Being in a church, I had lots of friends that had grown up with me in the church. And being a math and science geek, I had lots of friends who were math and science geeks. Starting in 7th grade, my geek social group expanded to include people in marching band (lots of overlap with the math/science geek group) and later drama geeks (a whole different type of geek). I did not fit either of the “two types of nerd” descriptions at the end of your post.

    My brother, on the other hand, grew up in essentially the same environment as me but fits very well the second type of nerd you describe. So a lot of what happens appears to be luck.

    I knew other nerds who were even less nerdy than me. I sat behind one guy in AP biology who was a super biology geek, always reading and talking about biology and growing lots of things at his house (all legal!). However, he was also intensely into industrial music, and he his girlfriend for two years of high school was one of the prettiest girls in my class (of 800 students). Both of them had lots of friends in lots of social circles, and he certainly was more sexually active than your stereotypical nerd. But he went to MIT for graduate school and got a Ph.D. in biostatistics.

    He’s not an isolated case either. However, many nerds I know do fit the descriptions at the end of your post. And I always felt, growing up as a self-described nerd who didn’t fit your second description in particular, that I was an outcast among nerds.

    Finally, with regard to Dan L.’s comment, I know at least as many nerds who are vile human beings as popular people. I spent some time trolling BBS’s in my youth and talking to hackers and wannabe hackers. I ended up shifting away from that community because so many of them were vile human beings — incredibly selfish, always quick with a put down, and sometimes willing to use their hacking skills to hurt innocent people.


    • November 10, 2011 at 11:22 am

      Thanks for your comments! And yes, I’m kidding about it being an issue that I have a popular kid. I love that guy!


  4. Annie
    November 10, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Great post, Cathy! It reminds me both of an article I read last week and a current news story. The article (http://healthland.time.com/2011/10/28/how-being-socially-connected-may-sap-your-empathy/) is about how research has shown that more socially connected people ARE less empathetic to “outsiders.” I think you’re right to wonder how your kid’s popularity may affect his empathy for other people. I was a total nerd and reject as a kid and I really think it has given me more empathy for people who are outsiders. Also, I have many times seen people who are popular and considered “nice” turn around and be total assholes when they thought no one who mattered was watching.

    I thought of the article this morning when I was listening to the NPR coverage of the horrifying cover-up of child sexual abuse at Penn State, in particular when I thought about the people who knew what was happening but didn’t go to the police. They were very socially connected, engaged in a very successful enterprise, and very popular with teammates and students, and yet somehow they had a total failure of empathy or concern for the low-income children who were raped.


  5. November 10, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Thanks for this Nerd Ode, Cathy! One benefit of experiencing outsider status is that it can help us develop empathy for other outsiders: refugees, transgender people, the homeless, the “weird,” the marginalized, the outcasts of every variety. Since there are always more people in society living on the peripheries of power than at the center, identifying as an outsider and building solidarity with other outsiders puts us in good company. As I tell my teenage students who lament their perceived outsider status, “Everyone has a Freak Flag. The question is, ‘Are you bold enough to wave it?'”


  6. Leila Schneps
    November 10, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    I love your nerd-analysis! I was the first kind of nerd. Except that I got all the way to age 15 only thinking about the interesting things, without any idea that there were some weird social rules out there that I wasn’t getting. Then in high school a bunch of girls got together and decided they’d better tell me a few things. So they told me, and I thought it was really, really strange to care about those things. I laughed, and they thought I was an alien from another planet. But it really was my first inkling that a whole bunch of social rules even existed.

    I was such a happy teenager. I had no idea that I was supposed to want to fit in and have friends, so I didn’t bother. Sometimes I had an occasional friend who was probably a social outcast of some kind, and then they would manage to make other friends and drift away from me. Fortunately I had a great sister who was always my best friend and still is.

    Much later when my daughters got to junior high and high school and had lots of friends, and boyfriends, and went to parties, I had to get used to this whole new thing right in my own house. That was really an education!

    Love your posts, Cathy! How many kids have you got now? Two? Three? All boys? I’ve got four – two girls and a boy and girl twin set. xxx


    • November 14, 2011 at 7:56 pm

      I’m trying to imagine you at 15… I would say you must have been a particularly intriguing nerd girl. I have three boys now, 11, 9, and 3. The 3-year-old is quickly picking up on how funny it is to sing a familiar song with the word “poopy” instead of the normal lyrics. It’s the beginning of something wonderful!



  7. November 11, 2011 at 4:49 am

    I love the post especially the bit about prodigies but…

    I kind of disagree with you

    I think the human mind/brain has to different higher reasoning systems – one is for analysing social interactions and one is for doing logic analysis. Most people use the former system to analyse body language, group dynamics and empathy while they use the latter to do maths, engineering and sports.

    A severe deficit in the former results in autism spectrum disorders, A severe (genetic) deficit in the latter produces Williams syndrome. Sometimes high functioning autistic people run social analysis as a kind of emulation in their logic processing mind (an application of Church’s thesis?) but the reverse doesn’t seem possible.

    However the most important thing you can do for any child is to encourage them to be themselves, whoever they may be, to the best of their ability.


  8. November 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    As an adolescent I was a brainy, dreamy eccentric whose early fascination with Isaac Asimov, Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings gradually morphed into mathematical aptitude in ways I maintain are deeply connected. But this all won me friends. And not just in a outsiders-banded-together way. As with many things, location matters.

    From sixth to eighth grade I attended Burris Laboratory School in Muncie, Indiana, which is affiliated with the teacher’s college at Ball State University. It wasn’t academically selective and didn’t have a tuition, but your parents did have to go to the trouble of enrolling you there instead of the public school, so the place ended up skewing towards families that put a high value on education. So when the science fiction enthusiasts got together with the children of Ball State professors to put out a xeroxed magazine it was seen as a pretty cool thing all around.

    For high school I went to a large public high school in suburban Philadelphia where I was the designated smart guy in my grade. But this was not a social impediment because I was in honors classes with peers who took it as a matter of faith that good grades were a good thing. I only left the honors track for gym class where I was teased in a desultory and not-terribly wounding sort of way. Sometime towards the end of senior year one of the guys there who inexplicably insisted on calling me by the nickname “Bob Marley” came up out of the blue and said, “So you’re going to Cornell?” I didn’t realize that this was public knowledge, but it was a bit icky because this made it clear that the game was tilted in my favor all along.

    The childhood-nerd-does-well stories I know from personal experience have a class dimension: popular-kid society values things like glad-handing chumminess and athletic ability that would have made you money a hundred years ago, whereas nerd-kid society values things like quiet, focused, intellectual work that makes you money today. (Okay, glad-handing chumminess still makes you money, but you get the point.) The popular kids are fighting a rear guard action. And educationally savvy parents can put their children in schools like the ones I attended where they don’t even get that.


  9. November 14, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Very nice post, Cathy!


  10. Kalyan Farrington
    November 14, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    It was Harold and Maude for my generation, but it might be American Beauty for the generation that just came of age. – Kalyan


  11. November 15, 2011 at 9:54 am

    I have definitely worried when we seemed to be at zero friends (K. wasn’t), but now there are a couple of kids who come over to program together, and my not-so-little-anymore nerd remembered to bring his book to hockey practice last night while forgetting his water.

    It all does seem much gentler than the world of junior high girls that I remember.


  12. Chung-chieh Shan
    November 20, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    What really loud music do you recommend?


    • November 20, 2011 at 9:08 pm

      For me, Cat Stevens, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin did the trick. I’m absolutely sure that kids today have different choices!


  13. Frank M.
    November 20, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Thanks for this. New to your blog, so my apologies if I’m violating various protocols.

    Generally agree, but with with @2 on the prodigy issue, in that I think your discussion is a little overbroad. In particular, you do not distinguish between “child prodigies” and “kids who live “in a dream world of their parents’ making”[1]. Those are not the same thing.

    The kid who can do calculus (or whatever) at age 10 is sometimes being pushed by their parents, and that’s at best a mixed blessing. But not always: I went to an academic summer camp where I did all of first-year algebra in a couple weeks (the next summer I did algebra II and III). This was self-motivated, and boy did it feel freeing to be speeding through math that would have bored me over a full year in middle school. Thanks to an incredibly supportive school environment, I was accelerated, and wound up doing calculus two years early – not at 10, but early – and it was wonderful and rewarding.

    My parents were proud and supportive, of course, but this was my deal. So please distinguish between kids who excel because they are pushed, and those who are self-motivated. A lot of nerds are BORED in school – allowing and encouraging those kids to accelerate is not a bad thing. (Just for the cred, I also played D&D.)

    I was also disappointed in this: “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.”

    By this kind of logic, why should anyone _ever_ learn calculus? For example, “so what that a senior in high school can do calculus? What’s the big deal, are there calculus problems that the world needs solving that only this kid can do? No.” Or for that matter, “so what that a 10-year old can read? What’s the big deal, are there books that the world needs reading that only this kid can read? No.”

    The analogy to reading is instructive. Reading is in fact critical to a 10-year old (and really, a 5-year old) because it is a critical tool for learning many other things. But so too calculus is a tool for further learning: you need calculus to get anywhere serious in math, physics, economics, statistics, and half a dozen other fields. If you’re the kind of nerd kid who is interested in those things, it’s a big deal that you can tackle them that much earlier and more thoroughly. (For me personally, getting calculus out of the way allowed me the room in my schedule to start in on computer science, which proved to be my college major and central to my current work; I would likely not have done this, if I hadn’t been ahead on math.)

    [1] Also, who says it’s “a dream world”? If you’re performing violin at Carnegie Hall, it’s actually happening in the real world: that’s an actual accomplishment. Mastering calculus is not living in a dream world – it’s actually mastering something that actually matters to the world. Those do not seem equivalent in terms of real accomplishment to, for example, winning a beauty pageant for toddlers.


    • November 20, 2011 at 9:17 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments! I love it when people don’t follow protocol by the way, but I haven’t set any (or not much).

      I agree that there’s a distinction between self-motivated kids and child prodigies. In fact I was the former. But I was never called a prodigy. So I guess I was taking as definition the prodigy as someone who is described that way, usually by their parents. I should have been more precise about how I was using that word though, so thanks.

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with learning calculus at 10, of course. And when I was talking about calculus problems, I should have said there’s no reason for the world to know about a 10-year-old doing calculus- there are certainly internal reasons that a given person would benefit from knowing how to do things.

      Finally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being bored. That’s how people have good ideas. I think boredom is a completely unappreciated state of being. That being said, it’s awesome if bored kids decide to go read a book and learn something. I’m all for that. When I was totally bored in high school I started reading Dostoyevsky. I never would have done that if my afternoons had been filled with bullshit activities to get myself into a good college. I say, let nerd kids get bored! See what happens next!


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