Don't Worry About Your Nerd

When my son just started 10 grade, he told me he was invited to a party where there would be alcohol. In the same breath, he told me he didn’t want to go. We talked and I told him I’d trust his choice; I wanted to keep the conduit of conversation open between us, I wanted him to trust me as well.

When the night of the party came around he asked if we could do a drive-by of the house where the party was being held. We did, and Chris ducked as we got near, keeping just his eyes at the bottom of the window, taking in the scene. Girls stood on the lawn squealing in short dresses, his own crew of friends was approaching the house at just that moment, and while I thought Chris might change his mind and ask me to stop and let him out, instead he said, “Go! Go! Go!” in a sudden fit of anxiety that he might be seen. I drove away, wondering if it was my duty to call the cops, but also wondering why my son didn’t want to stay. My own anxiety took over and I started to simply worry about him: it looked like his entire class was there, if not the whole high school. Was it ok that Chris was not joining in? That he would not be part of the stories and memories this night at the beginning of the school year would certainly create? Was he (gulp) a nerd? And I simultaneously thought ― shouldn’t I be happy about this? Then I wondered what kind of mother would call her son a nerd?

It only took me a few more blocks before we pulled into our own driveway to forgive myself, and to put my own son in the context of so many students I’ve known at the college where I teach: My shoulders literally shifted down several inches with the relief I felt. No matter what, Chris would be fine.

Parents often find themselves in a quandary over their kid’s social status: if our child stays in his or her room on his computer rather than attending parties with classmates, we feel relief. We don’t have to worry about what he might be consuming or what activities she might be participating in, but another voice in our heads also has concern over whether our kid is alright, if the lack of a social life is a positive choice or ostracization.

My twenty-plus years of teaching at the college level has shown me that most of the time, the geekiest of geeks is going to be ok, even more than ok, when he gets to college. Nerds blossom for so many reasons: simply having the larger pool of personalities enables them to meet more like-minded kids; being a brainiac is celebrated rather than mocked; the maturity that comes as college continues simply allows kids to step inside their own skin.

Some kids get to college and try on a few different personas. I have literally not recognized some students a term later, what with hot pink or no hair, different styles of dress, etc. Now, more than ever, it takes a lot to shock — what body part haven’t we seen pierced? What gender bending attire would actually stop us in our tracks? This “anything goes” mentality also means that no one particularly stands out, which could be a good thing for the young adult who has no idea of which way to go. I often wonder about their parents; when they pick their sons and daughters up at airports and train stations or right outside their dorms, do some of them walk right past their own child?

Some kids get to college and stay firmly identified as the same person who came in: gamer, theater geek, extreme-emo hipster, or blasé basic. The thing is, they find themselves when they find more people like themselves. It’s ok to not go to “the coolest party ever” when you’re one of 60 who’d rather not go, than one of six. Kids find their crew and not only do they survive, they thrive.

“Was he (gulp) a nerd? And I simultaneously thought ― shouldn’t I be happy about this? Then I wondered what kind of mother would call her son a nerd?”

The best thing parents can do is to wean their kids off the technological apron string of texts home, trust the process, remember yourself at that age, and relax. I’ve known parents who have had to tell their kids they couldn’t come home on the weekends anymore because their child was fleeing the campus for the safety of the familiar. As harsh it sounds I agree with the tactic, especially in this era of being able to “virtually hang” with their old friends. They’re not going to find their way, literally or figuratively, unless they’re in that new environment, looking for that way. And parents have to step aside.

My son is starting college this fall. In high school, he eventually went to parties where there was alcohol, and I’d be a fool to pretend that other things weren’t offered. And now that he’ll be going to parties and won’t have to face me when he returns, I have to accept that there’s nothing I can do. He’s going to change and grow and find his people. The cliché of finding oneself rings true ― and they’ll find themselves as they connect and repel with all of the others in their new community. Nerds in fact, are super cool right now; kid might turn out to be the coolest.

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