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Image by Chris Lewman.

Sad Tomagotchis. Dead batteries in Robotics Camp capstone projects. Discarded Legos discovered by bare feet in the middle of the night – with no one around to blame.

If you have experienced any of these symptoms, it’s possible your geek child has made it to adulthood.

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Challenging feet for generations

It’s true. Geek kids do grow up, move out, and move away – or right back into our basements.

They take geek titles, many of which (“Ninja what?”) we may not recognize. There are new geek friends and geek adornments, either permanent or removable.

I’ve been through it.

And having watched what emerges from the other end of the adult-making-machine, I realize that it isn’t just the geek children who have to make changes to effectively deal with the non-geek world. Geek parents have to adjust, too.

So allow me, as your advisor on 7 steps to raise a geek child and 5 steps to prepare your geek child for college, to help you prepare for that most difficult transition: a geek child’s adulthood and the dawning realization that you, too, are seeing an increasing red shift from bright geek adolescence.

Start by embracing these five principles.

1. Don’t be quick to dismiss a “fad.”

Tech is lousy with Twitter-and-TED (once newsletter-and-conference) propelled bright shiny objects. As you progress past the age of easy impressionability, it’s equally easy to abruptly dismiss the unfamiliar as faddish. Hell, it happened to personal computers (IBM, 1977). The Internet (Bill Gates, 1994). The iPad (um, Bill Gates, 2010).

Father, author, and 100 years of photo history

But before deciding whether a new product or service is either the next eWorld (Apple’s failed consumer online service) or Facebook, investigate it. Maybe actually use it.

As we and our geek kids get older, it becomes too easy to develop a kind of intellectual inflexibility that could lead to our pronouncements also littering the shoulders of the Information Superhighway.

I was reminded recently of how changeable our perception of cutting-edge tech is when I asked my 91-year-old father (as we leafed through more than 100 years of family photos he’d kept, and was giving to me) what the most interesting technology of his youth was.

“The movies,” he definitively replied, “Because I learned new things … I built on what I saw and remembered and used it as a library for living.” (My dad’s favorite? Cowboy films starring Tom Mix.) The one-time civil engineer saw definite parallels with how he used film to how many today use the web.

And yes. Movies themselves – our familiar “talkie” feature-length form with sound from 1927 – were once considered fads, too.

2. Become your child’s mentor first, parent second, and if in doubt, friend.

Adult geek children will need guidance. But they don’t need it delivered by helicopter. The best approach, I’ve found, is to extend your offspring the same courtesy you’d offer a promising young colleague: mentor them.

Bad parent-mentor
Bad parent-mentor model

I don’t mean offer them only professional advice. What I do mean is give them the benefit of your experience in similar situations without insisting it is also right for them. A little, “if I were facing that, I’d consider” can go a lot further than thinking you can make the decision for them. And sometimes, realize adult kids just need someone to listen and provide support through difficult times.

Sure, you can always fall back into what my son calls my (and I call my father’s) “Dad mode” and offer brief bursts of unsolicited sage advice in an all-too-serious tone (“You MUST be in line for the new Star Wars movie, as I am YOUR father.”). But master the transition from parent to mentor and you’ll do it less often.

3. Never stop playing.

A secret benefit of being the parent of a young geek is you get to again engage in all the behaviors you loved, but set aside once you thought you’d become too “mature:” visiting science museums and zoos, building with Legos, watching fantastic animation.

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Don’t leave adolescence without it

Why stop? Keep those memberships and viewing habits.

But supplement them with deeper dives into what really interests you, outside of your work life (Pacific Science Center’s Science Cafes are a good example of geek-adult-friendly programs). A single new idea generated outside of your routine can combine with others to spur a constellation of intellectual fireworks. Many of my best columns have started this way.

All those things you did as enrichment for your child, now do for yourself.

4. Connect with others face-to-face.

As you selectively disengage from your geek child’s once-packed schedule, don’t forget to re-engage with others, and make some of them new others. The set-in-your-routines-and-expectations trap is easier to fall into than a “Death Star” ambush. Challenge your comfort zone.

I hate networking. I love sleep.

Yet I try and attend one evening event per week (travel permitting), despite a suspicion at my first few New Tech Seattle gatherings that I was the oldest participant by a generation. The benefit? Surprising exercise of mental flexibility and socialization muscles that went far beyond anything I’d experience in carefully controlled online or app environments.

5. Realize that simply by continuing to exist, you represent the status quo others want to “disrupt.”

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Well, at least THEY’RE back in style

The reason your geek child is now a geek adult is that they’ve gotten older. Which means… yeah, that. It also guarantees that eventually, if you’re a geek who works in any industry even slightly tinged with tech, you will become the personification of the established order ripe for “disruption.”

Just as Microsoft upended IBM only to itself be upended by Google, you will be replaced. We all will. But replace does not have to be a synonym for obsolete.

I’ve directly experienced this as a long-time proponent for the intelligent use of technology in education – two decades ago, before it was cool for startups and hot for VCs. Now many ideas of that era are perceived as “old,” even if they have yet to become mainstream.

So turn it into an advantage. You’re not a dinosaur. You’re offering an historic perspective. It’s a huge difference in both how you, and young geek adults, view your part.  It also just happens to be how GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop once carefully described my role in the tech industry.

If all done well, these five steps will prepare you for that final stage – guiding geek grandchildren. Or grand-robots. Won’t it be exciting to find out?

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