Photo via Bigstock

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.

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.

[Geek kid photo via Bigstock]

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  • Tim Cooke

    Great thoughts. In
    a time honored tradition for comments that follow list-based articles, I want
    to be the first to propose “the one you forgot” ;-)


    you want your geek to make the most of this honored status and not be just a basement
    dwelling science whiz and perhaps even graduate to tech-entrepreneur stardom,
    ensure that you enroll them in activities that bolster their communication
    skills. Perhaps that’s some speech classes, or school dramas or improv classes.
    If they’re still nervous about speaking in front of others be sure they at
    least give equal focus on creative writing or other non-STEM classes/activities
    that will help them communicate their great ideas to peers, managers and

    • FrankCatalano

      Tim, good addition. I didn’t think to include it because communicating enough was never an issue when I or my son were growing up. (Though I did do some theater in high school.) It was, as our teachers would likely tell you, more of a case of getting someone to stop communicating.

  • Betsy

    Wonderfull Frank! Esp. the star trek references…. :)

    • FrankCatalano

      Careful. I almost threw in a “Brain and brain, what is brain?” reference. Although, considering his namesake Academy’s current prominence in geek child educational technology, perhaps a drawn out “Khaaaaaaan!” would be more appropriate.

  • Roy Leban

    Are you trying to start a Star Trek vs. Star Wars flame war?!

    • FrankCatalano

      Actually, my son — when he saw the column — had a great alternate line, “Mindmeld with your child.  (Or use the Force, if you must).”

      Geek parenting does work, no matter what one’s fictional universe preference.

  • Kepaluka

    A conversation between me and my gorgeous 12 year old daughter…
    Me: “Good night Katie… Love you…” Katie: (with monotone voice) “Live Long and Prosper…” Me: “Dork” Katie: (giggling)

    Talk about “Proud Mama”… She’s 12, in STEM, could be a model if she wanted, but she wants to be an engineer and says “Geek is the new sexy, mom”… (cheesy grin)

    • FrankCatalano

      Maybe she could build her own IDIC pin.

    • Catazog

      Kepaluka, your daughter sounds amazing!

  • Donna

    I’ve taken it one step further- I homeschool my geek in training (who, at age 7, has set her sights on being a game designer/writer/artist for the Neopets website, and has a portfolio of Scratch programs and drawings/stories to submit the next time they interview for junior team members).

    I’d add one more thing-expose your jr Geek to adult geekdom. My dd went to her first Lego brick fair and came home with two goals-reconstruct ancient Greece to enter in the next one, and go to the sci-fi/fantasy/gaming con that one of the exhibitors had invited her to attend. The torch has been passed.

    • FrankCatalano

      Science-fiction conventions (Norwescon, Westercon, Rustycon, others) were regular events for me and my son as he was growing up. Not only was he exposed to a larger adult nerd world, but also met kids of other geeks with whom he could chat about similar interests (and similarly weird parents). They’re not for everyone, but there are so many conferences for geek interests — such as LEGO, maker-tech, science fiction, comics, cosplay and so on — it’s hard not to find something a kid can obsessively explore for a few days.

  • Michele

    Also, don’t hesitate getting them involved in sports and sometimes that doesn’t mean a team sport (team sports aren’t for everyone). We enrolled our son at Elite Brazilian Jiu Jitsu out in Redmond (instructor is a 5-time world champion). Never hurts for geeks to be able to defend themselves:-) Also, gives great confidence 

    • FrankCatalano

      I completely agree. I didn’t have the athletic ability, but my son certainly did and does. Still, I tried judo as a kid and he did soccer and football, among other sports. Perhaps another way to think of it? These tips may help turn jocks into well-balanced geeks. 

    • John

      NIce addition, athletics in any form was the addition I was thinking of.  I have 2 college age geek kids, with all of Frank’s good training, but they also did sports.  It underscores the value of hard work and teamwork, two things every person (and geek) need to reach their potential and enjoy life.

  • Deborah Hogg

    Hi Frank
    Thanks for your post. Mr 11 recently declared that he needs a new whizz-bang graphics card so your post has come just in time! I am already the recipient of his Help Desk support!
    I do wonder how many geek cultural references one child can manage – his generation have the joy of the Sheldon model as well as Star Trek and Star Wars, although his current explorations are the reruns of Doctor Who. This week I witnessed an exchange between my Aussie 11 year old and a 30 year old British MD about which actor was his favourite Doctor Who! His analysis was detailed and passionate – much laughter ensued! Doctor Who opens up so many possible futures!
    Our next challenge is the choice of high school (a move into Year 7 here) and I am already exhausted by the options and the challenges – for geeks and non-geek alike. The joys of parenting!
    Regards, Deb (Sydney, Oz)

    • FrankCatalano

      Deborah, I do think Dr. Who, because of its longevity, counts as extra credit (though I’m not certain I’d want my offspring running around the house, shouting in a Dalek-inspired frenzy, “EXTERMINATE!”). On the whole, I’d rather have kids read actual science-fiction or fantasy literature. But as that’s not always going to happen, good pop culture may spur the same interest.

      • Deborah Hogg

        I’m not sure that “read” is the right verb for what Mr 11 does to books – probably more like “consume”! It’s difficult to meet the challenge of feeding books to children who’s chronological age is so different to their reading age – so either the books are limited in concept and vocabulary but the themes are appropriate, or the style and story development are sufficiently engaging but some of the themes are not yet his experience of life… I hope that makes sense. Even within the Science Fiction/fantasy genre we have found it difficult to provide enough material to suit the profile of the 11 year old geek – would love some suggestions or a direction to follow to find some new choices.

        • Tim Cooke

          I feel your pain!!! We need to find a way to convince authors that there actually is a market for meaty text that is contextually age appropriate for our younger geek readers. Authors used to write “up” with youth literature. Check out the style and vocabulary in The Yearling.

  • Pati

    All great suggestions, several of which brought back wonderful memories.  As the mom of three geeks in college, I’d like to add one that may be more important to share with non-geek parents who want to raise their own tech support.  Help your geeky offspring connect with other geek children through clubs or summer camps.  (truth in advertising: I run summer STEM programs at a university)  I often see kids bloom over the course of a week when they discover they are not alone in their interests and that the counselors they see as super-cool were just like them a few years ago.  I love my job!

    • FrankCatalano

      Funny how “geek” (like “nerd”) has gone in a generation from being a negative epithet to a laudatory epaulet. STEM summer programs and camps are great; I wish they’d been around (or I’d known of them) when I was a kid.

    • FrankCatalano

      Funny how “geek” (like “nerd”) has gone in a generation from being a negative epithet to a laudatory epaulet. STEM summer programs and camps are great; I wish they’d been around (or I’d known of them) when I was a kid.

  • Nicole P

    I love this! My son is 5 and he has excellent math skills for his age…It’s important to know how to add when you spend your evenings rolling 20 sided die…

    • FrankCatalano

      Nicole, your comment reminded me that, if it’s not obvious, I would be remiss not to note that all of the tips apply equally to male and female proto-geeks (I just happened to raise a male one, so my personal examples are inevitably skewed.) Geekdom is wonderfully equal opportunity.

  • Rosa Mama

    I have identical guidelines for college, however, I included no body piercings (ears exempt) and no tatoos.  Call me an old-fashioned geek mom.

    • FrankCatalano

      Didn’t think to add those. Another one I didn’t think to add and – in retrospect – am glad I had no need to add was, “and no children of your own.”

  • TooVo

    Full disclosure: I am a profesional geek; I even put it on my business card. I encourage my kids to explore *ALL* areas of life. These should simply be 7 rules for raising a kid … period.  I’ve actually been using all of them for well over a decade now with my own kids.  I think focusing on “geek kids”, however, is doing a dis-service to the non-geeky kids and parents thereof.  (Yes, I realize we’re on a geeky website but that doesn’t negate the point.)We, as parents, shouldn’t be pushing our children into any specific area of interest. It doesn’t matter whether that’s geeky pursuits or not!  Yes, my kids are geeky to a degree.  My 14 year old, however, has found an interest in auto mechanics, something that I tinker in but wouldn’t consider a passion.  I couldn’t be more thrilled to have him find his own way!  That’s what we’re supposed to do.

    • TomVo

      Nice … I couldn’t even type my own name right.  LOL … Should have been TomVo up there.  *facepalm*

    • FrankCatalano

      I agree. The key is to expose kids to all of the above, and definitely not push them. Perhaps the headline might be “7 steps to raise a geek’s child,” because the advice is to geek parents and the objective is balance. No child should be helicopter-parented down a pre-set path. That’s very, well, anti-geek.

  • Guard Up! Inc.

    Frank – Love your article.  I don’t know if you have ever heard of our summer camps:  Wizards & Warriors Camp (… and also NERF Zombie Camp (… but we specialize in “unplugging” kids from computers and getting them involved in exciting LIVE adventures… with that important real “face time” as mention.  

    If you are local to the Boston area, I’d like to invite you to visit our camp this summer. and a number of other bloggers will be in attendance.  We’d love to show you our version of Geek Heroes. :)

    • FrankCatalano

      Sounds like fun. No plans to be in Boston this summer (my humidity tolerance is low), but I do like the idea.

  • Adam Gaber

    The helicopter / bulldozer parents of today would most benefit from the tenet of letting a child fail. The concept isn’t new, but few ever seem to recognize the benefit of embracing it.

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