7 steps to raise a geek child

2/24/2012 3:45:00 AM

By Frank Catalano

It’s inevitable. New babies are coming into the world. I began to notice this when former colleagues were no longer available for a chat, coffee or Words with Friends.

Photo via Bigstock

Instead, I heard them use long-forgotten phrases, terms such as “t-ball practice” or “play date.” And I suddenly realized my geek acquaintances were producing little geeklets.

Or were they? What if these offspring were just mere children? How could my friends ensure their proper geek heritage would be passed along, those long years spent attached to a game controller, cathode-ray tube or Star Wars novel series not, somehow, wasted?

While first taken aback, I began to look upon this conundrum as an opportunity. I’d raised a child. He’d turned out okay, even though at times I balanced single parenthood with work for the Apple Programmers and Developers Association, Egghead Discount Software and many subsequent years as a tech industry analyst, consultant and writer.

My son went on to graduate from the University of Washington in industrial engineering despite the fact the only real instruction I gave him upon starting college was to get out – in about four years – with any kind of degree, no outstanding warrants and no incurable diseases. He chose engineering as a major on his own and now has a real engineering job.

With that and my own childhood as track record, here are my seven tips for raising well-balanced proto-geeks, progeny who keep their nerd heritage and don’t wind up living in your basement until age 38.

1) Let your child fail. Yes, everyone says this. I mean at World of Warcraft or, my son’s favorites at the time, Starcraft and later Half-Life. Do not offer tips. Let him or her discover cheat codes independently. Do not buy a faster graphics card, set up a low-latency connection or unblock certain router ports unless the kid earns it or learns how to do it. It will be good preparation not just for entrepreneurship in a not-much-stranger business environment, but as training for the tech support you likely will need as you age.

Fine art, such as Marc Chagall's, can be as weird as any good fantasy

2) Expose your child to fine art. Not Penny Arcade’s comics. I’m suggesting traditional fine art, like the kind you find at the Seattle Art Museum or see on stage at the Seattle Rep and Pacific Northwest Ballet. You’d be surprised how small amounts of exposure at a young age, even if initially rejected in a squirming fit, can lie dormant and gestate into a burst of later creative interest and expression, providing deep reference points for his or her own work. I credit my mother’s efforts in this arena for giving me the context to successfully consult Corbis on its first consumer multimedia title, A Passion for Art: Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse and Dr. Barnes nearly two decades ago. And I expect my son will find his equivalent, yet very different, inspiration later.

3) Expose your child to Star Trek. (Or, if you must, Star Wars.) It’s harder to build the future if you’ve never seen, or read, others’ classic visions of possible futures. It helped me, as an avid science-fiction reader growing up, internalize what could be, good or bad. Likewise, my son spent hours watching omnipresent science-fiction television reruns to the point where he came home one day after school in sixth grade and asked, “Dad, how come I’m the only kid in class who can quote dialogue from Star Trek?” I have never been so proud.

4) Let them see you reading for pleasure. All good digital games and entertainment media at their very core begin as text, as story. So let your child see you reading, paper or digital, for fun. Leave physical books lying around where they can be picked up and explored (it’s also a tacit reminder that not all the world’s knowledge or worthwhile content is digitized). Get a library card and use it. Your kids may not become writers, but they will likely have a better vocabulary and develop an appreciation that words are the heart of many works ultimately expressed in forms visual and verbal. If they can manipulate language that spurs the imagination, they can create anything.

Building is easy in Minecraft, without painful LEGO feet

5) Encourage them to tinker, hack and obsessively explore. LEGO with Mindstorms or Minecraft with mods, it doesn’t matter (though you can’t hurt bare feet by stepping on digital Minecraft blocks). Regardless of the age, building rule-based things and learning rudimentary programming and logic is good knowledge to have in a competitive STEM (science technology engineering math) world, even if it doesn’t lead to a career in code. Nor does it hurt to make your own tech. My son built two computers and, in addition to basic technical skills, he also learned how to research what needed to be done, where to buy the components and how to assemble them. A recent study by SUNY’s University at Buffalo showed that the best way to learn a new tech is to immerse yourself in it; this comes naturally to kids, and helps develop a deeper understanding.

Early exposure to Star Trek leads to appreciation of logic and killer robots

6) Volunteer in elementary school. You may think you know what’s happening due to parent-teacher conferences, report cards and PTA events. But nothing beats the inside view when you help during school hours, as I did, even if it’s only for a couple of hours every few weeks. Not only will you better understand kids’ true interests and challenges in real time, but also how best to support the teacher – and as a geek parent, that may occasionally mean offering digital expertise and devices (I used to donate appropriate tech I’d reviewed, and couldn’t return, to the special needs room at my son’s school). Besides, you’ll be rejected when they reach junior high and high school, so best to act now.

7) Promote face time. Not Apple’s. Actual. Building relationships online is only a complement to building them in person. Both are important, as we’re social animals and the key word is not the “social,” but the “animal.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, technology doesn’t outstrip biology and psychology in less than a generation. The warmth of human contact persists long after the pixels have faded.

Finally, fellow geek parent? In addition to the standing advice of being patient, maintaining balance and pushing personal responsibility, never stop learning. Otherwise, there’s no hope. Not in keeping up with your child. But in keeping that all-important geek parent cred.

Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies who takes a practical nerd’s approach to tech. He tweets @FrankCatalano and consults as Intrinsic Strategy. His son Michael turned 25 this month, ushering in what Frank recalls as a joyous new adult era of lower auto insurance rates. This essay originally appeared on GeekWire.

[Geek kid photo via Bigstock]

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