We try to teach children not to discriminate against others because of their colour, religion or gender, but there’s one characteristic that is still fair game – nerdiness. The stereotypical nerd is the kid with glasses (of course), shirt buttoned up to the top, who likes to play Dungeons and Dragons, and gets more nervous than most kids around members of the opposite sex. Oh yeah, he’s also really smart.
So it may not come as a big surprise that researchers find children pulling away from the idea of being smart. Professor Indhu Rajagopal of York University in Toronto says that “learning has become an anti intellectual process.” She blames popular media, the rise in digital technology, which “throws out endless quantities of both hardware and software and machines and information,” and an acceptance of the notion that young people should learn solely to fit into the job market.
Yikes. Is there a growing trend against being smart in our society – and what is that doing to our kids? What’s so bad about being smart?
To examine how the nerd stereotype is hurting young students, ParentsCanada spoke to David Anderegg, an American professor of psychology with a private psychotherapy practice for children and adults. He is author of Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them. Anderegg sounds a warning to North American parents. He believes the rise in anti-intellectual sentiment is turning smart kids away from subjects in which they are interested and eroding their self-confidence.
PC: How do you define a “nerd”? Who are nerds?
DA: A nerd is a complex stereotype that has several cardinal features: they are people, usually men, who supposedly have high intelligence and talent in science and math but who are lacking in physical, social and especially sexual appeal. I don’t believe that nerds exist in real life, because no real person meets all the criteria of such an exaggerated and extreme stereotype.
PC: Why are our children so scared of being labelled a nerd?
DA: Nerds are vilified in school! The first thing kids learn about nerds, before they even learn the
components of the stereotype, is that nobody likes them. Younger kids, around ages five to seven, always want to know one thing about an unfamiliar kind of person – are they good or bad? And kids learn while very young that being a nerd is bad.
PC: Why is it considered nerdy for children to act like children?
DA: Kids who are very peer-oriented try to separate from parents by acting prematurely independent. Kids who do what parents like, who please parents – by being studious, or prudent, or careful, or conscientious – get labeled as nerds because they’re not prematurely independent. In my neighbourhood, the popular boys are the ones who refuse to wear their winter jacket at the bus stop even in the dead of winter, while the nerdy kids are the ones who dress appropriately when it’s cold!
PC: So, let’s talk about the opposite of nerds for a minute; the popular kids. Who are the popular kids in late elementary school? What is it about these kids that make them popular?
DA: For boys, being athletic, funny and good looking. For girls, being pretty and nice. And for both genders, being interested, but not too interested, in pleasing adults.
PC: So being popular doesn’t have anything at all to do with “smarts”! In your book, you indicate that the nerd stereotype can be dangerous to our kids, especially those in the middle years of school. Why is that?
DA: Kids in middle school are making choices about their talents, their courses and their future interests. If they feel that being good at math and science is equivalent to social death, they won’t choose to pursue these interests. They do outgrow these stereotypes, but sometimes not until college, and by then, they are years behind in preparation for advanced work in science and math.
PC: Can you give an example from your own practice of a child who was suffering from being labelled a nerd and how you helped the family cope with the situation?
DA: I worked with a nine-year-old girl, extremely talented in math, who was starting to be called a nerd in school and was beginning to self-sabotage her school performance. We found her a young, hip, attractive female college student as a tutor who constantly demonstrated that young women can be pretty, cool, and interested in math all at the same time. This kind of modeling, and also peer support, can help kids through the worst of nerd labeling.
PC: Why do parents allow and even voice anti-nerd prejudices when they condemn other stereotypes, such as racial or anti-gay stereotypes?
DA: Many adults think it is a harmless stereotype, because nerds will end up doing well in the long run. Bill Gates is always held up as an example of how a nerd will triumph in adult life. But parents don’t understand how instructing children in anti intellectual stereotypes is crippling our kids’ future by encouraging kids to avoid science and math.
PC: Do you have any suggestions about what parents can do to help their nerdy kids?
DA: Yes. We can help all our kids, nerd-labeled and non-nerd-labeled, by avoiding harmful stereotypes that reduce the complexity of real people. We can challenge our kids to think about how harmful stereotyping is when we hear them do it, and we can certainly avoid modeling such thinking. We can also monitor their media consumption to reduce their exposure to movies and television that reinforce these harmful stereotypes.
Advice for parents and children from David Anderegg’s book, Nerds: Who they are and why we need more of them.
Look to the future. Patience can be hard, but kids in high school are much more tolerant of outsiders than kids in grades 6 to 8.
Find a subculture.
Involve your kids with like-minded kids in other schools, by joining
clubs or doing an activity they enjoy. Sometimes the payoff comes when
the loner kid who is derided for being a ‘music geek,’ becomes the front
person for a popular band in high school or college.
Parents need to recognize that their kids have to make it through to
high school so they should do what they can to help them fit in and find
some social acceptance, even if it means buying them new clothes, or
helping them work on their athletic skills, if that’s what they want.
It’s called finding a middle ground.
And for parents of “nerd-bashing” kids:
When your kids use the term “nerd,” get them to define exactly what
they mean using other, more precise, words. And lose the term yourself.
Turn off the brainwashers. Don’t allow tweens to watch movies or television shows that portray intelligence as negative.
Published in ParentsCanada magazine, May 2010.