Sunday, October 10, 2004

Family night at school comes to its usual end. Children run amok in the gym while parents cluster in circles, holding outerwear for the entire family in a feat known as being a human coat rack.

In this mayhem, I find myself buried under a load of jackets, chatting with another mom. We’re making idle small talk about the vagaries of parenting.

At some point in the conversation, I allow as how my children are geeks. I can’t honestly recall why I say this, but it’s true. I know it. They know it. Everyone who knows them knows it. We’re OK with that.

This mom, however, is shocked. “Oh, no,” she comforts me. “Your kids are very popular — really.” She’s telling me this as though A) I don’t know what it means to be popular and B) I want my children to be popular. (I don’t).

I argue the point — with a smile, of course — but I get it pretty quickly that she thinks I am insulting my own children.

“It’s OK,” I explain. “We like that our kids are geeks.” I mean, as long as I’m comfortable with it, why isn’t she?

“That just isn’t true,” she insists. Now she’s getting upset with me. This is absurd. What started as a punch line is turning into a discussion about popularity and social status in children. With the load of jackets on my arms, I’m starting to sweat.

I make excuses and a hasty exit, unloading my coat collection as we head out the door. All the while, I’m wondering why it was so important to that mom that my children be popular. What’s wrong with bringing up geeks? We’re doing it on purpose — and quite successfully, I might add.

The fact is, raising unpopular children takes effort. You spend a lot more time than you might think thwarting the path to a robust social life in the fast lane. Are we sadistically imposing a miserable youth on our offspring, just for the sport of it? Heck no.

We subscribe to the “late bloomer” philosophy, which holds that children who reach the pinnacle of social status by middle school are more at risk. We’re eliminating some of the risk with strategic parenting decisions. It takes planning, and it helps to start early — say, in preschool. If you do, you’ll be assured a geeky child in middle school and beyond.

For example, when you enroll little Susie or Bobby in preschool, you’ll be asked to volunteer for a parent committee. This is a key decision. Whatever you do, don’t sign up to plan the class parties. This will put you with the parents of cool, popular children and, by association, your child will be hanging with the A-list before she knows the entire alphabet.

Instead, volunteer for a geek job that involves preschool governance. Write the bylaws for the board. Work on the strategic plan. Best of all, offer to write a grant proposal. You’ll be working with just one or two other geek moms and dads, whose children will become your son’s or daughter’s fast friends. Now you’ve got the ball rolling.

Before your child gets too old — say, by age 5 — teach him or her to play chess. Also, watch the History Channel together. You just can’t beat World War II for geek development.

Once your child learns to read, get him or her to read the newspaper. Also, explain the political process and talk about the headlines over dinner. This assures that your child will answer all the current-events questions in fourth-grade social studies — the sign of a geek in the making.

Next — and this is important — make sure your child is comfortable talking to adults. Geek preteens actually are more comfortable talking to the parents of their peers than to their contemporaries.

When your son or daughter chats about the presidential election cycle while riding home from soccer practice, parents will be impressed. They’ll mention to their more popular offspring that they’re impressed with your child’s political savvy. When they do, your risk factors will slide like horn-rimmed glasses on an adolescent nose.

Through the years, you’ll have plenty of chances to promote the geek within your child — academic bowl teams, Scout ceremonies, religious milestones. When these events come up, encourage your child to really get into the spirit of the thing. This will keep the cool crowd at a healthy, risk-free distance.

By middle school, all of these tricks will have created a reputation for geekiness that repels invitations to high-risk social functions. You won’t need to argue about whether he or she will go to make-out parties, booze bashes and R-rated flicks. That’s because there’s virtually no chance a teen who reads historical fiction or collects stamps will be invited.

Is it lonely to be a geek? Sure, sometimes, but only for a while. Eventually, your strategy will pay off as your child gravitates to other geeks, who will spend their time together doing safe, geeky things. (Chess club, anyone?)

The trick is to do what we do in our house — be geeky together, as a family. If you cop a sense of humor about your true selves, it’s cool.

Of course, if it ever really does become cool to be a geek, we’re in trouble.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 17 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks .com), or send e-mail to

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