“My son is a geek! Help!”

January 12th, 2009 by Jeff | Dump Core

Every so often, my wife receives one of those women’s magazines. Sometimes it’s a gift subscription from someone, sometimes it’s a free complimentary issue fishing for a subscription. On extremely rare occasions, it’s because it has a cover article she’s interested in. Rarest of all we may actually have a paid subscription; we get a parenting magazine or two that have actually proven useful over time. Either way, these magazines somehow arrive at our home, where they invariably find their way into the official reading room. You know, that one room with the special white ceramic chair where you’re stuck for a good portion of time with nothing else to do.

I could expound at length about what it’s like being a man reading one of these magazines. That topic, though, might be so exhaustive it would merit a treatment much more long-form than a simple blog post. However, I would like to share one interesting little anecdote that isn’t necessarily related to differing genders and likely to be much more entertaining to my particular audience.

One morning this past weekend, I was flipping through one of these periodicals during my morning constitutional. (I won’t mention which magazine this was to avoid both accidentally endorsing it and exposing  my mild copyright infringement in quoting it.) I wasn’t looking for anything in particular but happened upon the inevitable parental question and answer page. While I had mild interest in the article about the son taking out a credit card in his mother’s name so he could gamble online, a different question quickly caught my attention.  Here’s a paraphrase of the query (both to minimize said copyright infringement and because I don’t have the magazine in front of me now anyway):

While we encourage our fourteen-year-old son to be himself, we were dismayed to find him pursuing some unusual activities recently, such as building a four-foot-tall replica of the Star Wars Death Star made out of LEGOs in our living room. How can we encourage him to engage in activities where he won’t be made fun of by his friends?

Now, if you’re like me, the instant you read the phrase “four-foot-tall replica of the Star Wars Death Star made out of LEGOs”, you mentally broke out in a rousing chorus of John Williams’ Imperial March (Darth Vader’s theme) or maybe started Googling to see how many Lego bricks it would take to build a spheroid with a four-foot diameter. (I’m guesstimating 193,059.*) After this initial lapse in attention, though, I began to see the real problem with this question. If you read between the lines, what this troubled parent was really asking is, “Help! My son is turning into a geek! Can he be saved?”

As you might guess, this irked me somewhat, as if this misguided parent thought geekiness were some leprous social disease. To the magazine’s credit, they caught the undercurrent of the question and replied appropriately. “Who’s really anxious here, you or your son?” they replied. The editors gave the advice that the parent should check their attitude at the door and let their son be who he wants to be. The only place of real concern here is if he isn’t making any friends, and in this case they suggested taking him somewhere where he might find people with similar interests, like (Gasp!) a Star Wars convention.

I have some additional unsolicited advice I could offer. Perhaps the first nugget of wisdom is the matter of his “friends”. If his “friends” are making fun of him for building Star Wars LEGO sculptures, they aren’t his friends. I’ve had many non-geek friends over the years who read my hand-drawn comics on lined notebook paper or who tolerated my extra credit speech on how Star Trek warp engines worked. They took these little elements of my personality in stride and counted them as part of who I was. If any of them “made fun” of me for these traits, it was as playful banter between friends who were mature enough to laugh at themselves. None of those individuals who made fun of my geekier activities were ever my true friends, except the few who eventually matured to the point that they accepted others for who they were and apologized for their past insensitivity. The point here is that if his “friends” are hazing him for being a Star Wars fan, those kids aren’t his friends. Either this boy’s parents need to be more observant or the lad needs to invest in better company.

What I really see as an issue, though, is the parent’s misunderstanding of their own child. How is he going to learn to make friends who respect him if his own parents can’t? Perhaps my own childhood isn’t a good example as my parents were a bit geekier than most, but I’m certain my parents would be just as proud of me whether I was a computer programmer, cartoonist, professional athlete, or plumber. As long as what I did was legal and moral, I did the best at it as I possibly could, and I was happy doing it, I’m sure they would approve. Sure, the likelihood that he’ll take up building LEGO sculptures as a profession is slim (yet still possible in this day and age), but I don’t build Star Trek model kits, play piano, or play with model trains for living either. Geeky hobbies may lead him toward other interests; maybe his interest in building LEGO sculptures could lead him to be a digital artist, modeling 3D characters in the next big Hollywood movie? Don’t squash his dreams just because you think they’re nerdy. Geek is the new cool; after all, without geeks all this crazy Internet junk would have never happened.

What is really needed here is communication. This parent must come to understand their son, and that only comes through sharing and talking. We have no idea from the submitted letter whether or not the boy communicates well with his parents. It’s a safe bet that, since he’s a teenager, sharing all his feelings accurately with his parents isn’t necessarily his strongest trait, but we can’t assume that to be true. But as with any relationship, communication is key. Only together can they come to a consensus on what geeky habits are acceptable or not. Building four-foot tall Death Stars is OK, but only in the garage, not the living room. Cosplaying as Darth Maul is fine at conventions, but dressing up as Princess Leia in a metal bikini isn’t healthy for a fourteen-year-old boy.

Dear parent, if by some miracle you’ve found this site and are reading this, please talk with your son. It’s your best way of learning to understand him. If you need help, let me offer this one little bit of advice, just to break the ice: Dip into his LEGO stores and find all the blue, green, brown, and white LEGO bricks you can find. Look at his Death Star sculpture and find the circular “dent” in one side. Scatter the bricks you’ve collected on the floor in front of this feature of the sphere. Be elaborate if you can; place a few bricks on furniture, door and window frames, etc. ideally evenly spread out in a cone radiating out from the “dent”. For extra credit, tie some bricks to fishing line and suspect them in midair at varying heights within the cone. Now be prepared for your son to freak out a little when he comes home and finds out you’ve been messing with his bricks. Try to calm him down and assure him you haven’t affected the original sculpture in any way. (You haven’t, right?) Eventually he’ll look to you completely flabbergasted and utter something to the effect of, “Mom, what is this?”  Reply simply and plainly: “Alderaan.” (“All-dur-on.”) It may take a minute for this to sink in, but when it does, he’ll laugh his head off. Once he’s able to breathe again, use this as an opportunity to open a dialog. You may even get him to help you clean up the bricks you scattered once you’re done.

* Based on an average 8-stud LEGO brick size of 9.6 mm x 32 mm x 16 mm or  4.9152 cm3, taken from here. Please excuse rounding and metric-to-Imperial conversion errors; this was a quick and dirty calculation.

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