Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Nature of Nerds and Neutralizing the Bullying

I'm a nerd, my husband is a nerd, and our kids our nerds.  We have lovingly joked about it with our kids for some time - even through middle and high school, when it was a bit painful.  The humor and love seemed to help us relieve the pain and create a more cohesive unit.

A few weeks ago our family 'nerd-hood' was relived when my daughter's friend, Daniel, gave me an essay by Paul Graham, "Why Nerds are Unpopular"  (http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html) which started me thinking.

Two weeks ago (http://departingthetext.blogspot.com/2011/10/labels.html), inspired by Graham's essay, I addressed the effects of labeling in and out of school and in adult life.  Today I return to discuss the essay more directly.  It is a powerful, provocative essay I strongly recommend you read. In it, Graham ruminates why nerds are nerds, and why they are so often persecuted by their peers.

The Nature of "NERD":

According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nerd):
The stereotypical nerd is intellectual but socially and physically awkward...Stereotypical nerd qualities have evolved in recent years, going from awkwardness and social ostracism to an allegedly more widespread acceptance and sometimes even celebration...
Why Nerds are Unpopular - Graham sites several reasons for this:
"One argument...the smart kids are unpopular because the other kids envy them for being smart...[But] in the schools I went to, being smart just didn't matter much...Intelligence counted far less than, say, physical appearance, charisma, or athletic ability."

"Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular...but they want even more to be smart.  [But] popularity is not something you can do in your spare time... it takes work to be popular.

"The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about...books or the natural world, not fashions and parties... Few smart kids can spare the attention that popularity requires....
    Graham then takes this issue and looks at it from a socio-anthropological lens:
    "Around the age of eleven...[parents and family take a back seat] kids create a new world among themselves, and standing in this world is what matters... Kids persecute nerds to make themselves feel better...People unsure of their own positions will try to emphasize it by maltreating those they think rank below...
    "But ...Popularity is only partially about individual attractiveness.  It's much more about alliances...By singling out and persecuting a nerd, a group of kids...create a bond between themselves.
    From: facebook.com
    What We Can Do To Help:

    This is where Graham's essay becomes really interesting.  He blames schools for often turning a blind eye to abuses, and for creating vacuums of empty time and work - all of which leave kids to their own devices - in search of meaning and identity.  He notes that,
    "Bullying was only part of the problem...we never had anything real to work on. Humans like to work; in most of the world, your work is your identity.  And all the work we did was pointless [his emphasis], or seemed so at the time... More often it was just an arbitrary series of hoops to jump through, words without content designed mainly for testability... And there was no way to opt out.  The adults had agreed among themselves that this was to be the route to college..."
    He then continues by comparing teens today to teens in the Middle Ages.  There was no high school or college - just apprentices. They were not left relatively unsupervised to create their own societies - they were junior members to adult activities and societies.
    "Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn...Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers...[And] the real problem is the emptiness of school life.
    The truth, anger, and sadness in these words were quite moving for me and I think we need to take Graham's words further.  For many kids there's often an emptiness in family life as well.  We as adults often have so many hoops to jump through that as our kids become teenagers, we are there less for them.  We are working two jobs, we're busy networking on our electronic devices, we can't find a common time to eat dinner and talk together, and we as parents often rationalize that our tweens and teens are fine on their own.  And maybe we are, but the family unit is fragile and even though our teens need to become independent, they also need a family unity solidly with behind them, continuing to shape boundaries, rules, and identities. 

    Potential Solutions: 
    From: photobucket.com
    • Help all kids comfortably define who they are - what their strengths, weaknesses, and passions are, and what their pursuits might be.  We have to accept their gifts and embrace their differences, and help kids think out of the box.  Maybe we have to remove the box entirely.  [That is what many are doing with homeschooling - quite successfully.]
    • Set aside family time - even though they need independence, they need the structure of family time and family rules.  Eat meals together as often as possible, but at least once or twice a week with no television, no phones, and no outside distractions.  Talk, laugh, support each other.
    • Create opportunities and diverse environments in and out of school with larger masses, where even the smallest minorities can achieve a critical mass.
    • Help bullied kids find and create 'safer' communities in and out of school.
    • Model tolerance, acceptance, and self worth. 
    • Help schools become safer havens for our kids - maybe creating parent monitors walking outside the school at arrival and dismissal times; make sure there are teacher monitors during lunch and recess.
    • Teachers need to make learning more fun and meaningful.  Reading texts and teacher generated lectures must be balanced with group and individual projects, and multi-sensory, multi-media presentations.  Many teachers ARE doing this already.  They are bringing graphic novels into their reading lists, generating meaningful project units that integrate leadership and social skills with learning about our past and present world.  They are relating subject matter directly to their students lives, and are even having kids act out events in tableaus or tableaus vivant ("living pictures") where kids mime events by acting in 'frozen scenes' of history. 
    • Help kids, teens in particular, find meaningful things to work on - in and out of school - be it through community service or meaningful, possibly community related school projects:
      • Visit sick in hospitals - create songs to sing or scripts to perform (can be school project where the songs and scripts are related to a particular subject unit)
      • Volunteer in community food shelters - or have the school offer (occasional) healthy, cost effective menus (through math, social studies and science projects)
      • Organize charity drives
      • Create and/or clean up parks and playgrounds
      • Have the school / class visit with a responsible city official - talk about critical issues facing kids in the city - brainstorm as a class and create community relief projects.
    The point is to add meaning in and out of the classroom, to create large diverse communities in and out of school; help all kids find their voices, their identities, and their intrinsic value. Help kids realize that they're not losers - point to Steven Jobs,  Bill Gates, President Obama and other major players and contributors to our society who were (and still are) nerds.  And enjoy Pop Culture's answer to nerds with Revenge of the Nerds, Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Peter Parker and Spider Man.

    And most of all, reassure them...It does work out.

    And, for some lighter fun... check out:  How nerdy are you?  at:

    As Graham puts it in his essay:
    "Nerds aren't losers.  They're just playing a different game, and a game much closer to the one played in the real world.  Adults know this.  It's hard to find successful adults now who don't claim to have been nerds in high school....It's important for nerds to realize, too, that school is not life.  School is a strange, artificial thing, half sterile and half feral.  It's all-encompassing, like life, but it isn't the real thing.  It's only temporary, and if you look, you can see beyond it even while you're still in it."


    1. How can I not like this post. I identify as a geek rather than a nerd, but we're all in this together.
      Maybe you'd like to participate in Speak Out With Your Geek Out next year? It's a five day event where people blog or twitter about the stuff that makes them geek out. It was a ton of fun this year, just to meet other geeks/nerds, to share our hobbies and to see what else is there in the great geekspace.

    2. nerdy, but not that much - that's what the test showed.

    3. As adults, it's easier to look back and understand all this. For young people going through it, though, it can be more difficult. True nerds don't really care about the "cool kids" because, as you say, they're busy doing other things. But those caught in the in-between (not nerds and not cool) are the most vulnerable. They can/could be easily swayed by their environment to get into activities that are not healthy for them. It's a subject that one of my students is researching right now - how environment can influence people. Always a pleasure to come over and read your weekly post! Have a great week, Meryl.

      abcw team

    4. PS: Not nerdy but then again, maybe not all that cool either.



    5. hey meryl - a great post and what a high standard to set off the week's ABC Wednesday. So many sound ideas and thoughts - a few I will be passing over to my nephew believe me.
      Denise ABC Team

    6. H'mm, I'm nerdier than I thought!

    7. Great post. I certainly was/am a nerd, but was lucky to find my way to a nerd-friendly high school. Couldn't have been better. My ABC Wednesday this week is Neil Armstrong which in hindsight is also pretty nerdy.

    8. My blog name is Mama Dweeb....need I say more? I totally loved this post and related so much to it! I cared more about my academics than I did about being popular but I still wanted to be popular! The result was me being more of a wannabe....trying but not putting in enough time. Luckily I wasn't really bullied. And I did have a community outside of school where I felt I belonged.

    9. This is such a great post! I shared it with my "geeky" husband. He's a geek and I am the nerd. Just about the same grouping really. Love it. It's all about perspective. Happy WW!

    10. I'm a nerd and proud of it! I also notice that you manage to be numero uno often on posting your ABC Weds link!

    11. Meryl, I was so happy to be introduced to Graham's essay. What a different line of thinking that I am used when dealing with bullying situations in my counseling practice. Focusing on making meaning in the world for bullies. This is something I can really get into! I will definitely tweet this article!
      Love Jodi Aman

    12. Hi,

      New follower from the blog hop please comes follow me back :)

    13. I'm visiting from Wobble Over Wednesday blog hop. I'm now following you on GFC as Ericka T. Please check out my blog and consider following me. Thanks.


      humanecats at gmail dot com

    14. I didn't know what "nerd" means and had to look it up in my dictionary. Interesting post. I never belonged to nerds I think, lol !

    15. great post...both easy to read and informative. thanks for sharing it with us
      New GFC foloowing and glad to have found your site.
      Cathy http://twinswithtots.blogspot.com/

    16. Great post! I really enjoyed reading it and it was really interesting!

      I also just started following you via GFC:) I would love a follow back, and I welcome you to check out some of the giveaways I have going on right now!


      Sarah Kay

    17. I wonder if different countries cultures and attitudes to education alter the perception of nerd. Couldn't resist the quiz, apparently I am somewhat nerdy.

    18. Interesting post. I'm fairly nerdy myself.
      I'm a new follower from Wobble Over Wednesday!

    19. This is a fabulous post - loved it - and i found so much in it that resonated with nerdy me,..

    20. I am not a nerd, but I have never been a popular girl. I didn't really care for their feather brain.

      It was only two days ago when I was watching the Simpsons when the Nerd was chosen to be a movie star. I like him.

    21. I like nerds! I was unpopular, not at the highest of my class, an artist type. All of my friends were smart, some were even in the debate and chess club. I liked them!!! They were easy to talk to, reliable and still and could have fun without drinking.

    22. Thank you for sharing this very important information. We all hope that our children will not have to go through the mean bulling that seems to be the problem as a whole. New follower stopping by from Wordless Wednesday. Hope you stop by for a visit and follow if you like.

    23. My husband and sons and I are all proud nerds. In fact, everyone was eager to take the nerd test - I got kicked off my laptop for about an hour :)

      I think it helps to have be proud of what makes you unique at home or in an outside community. It gives you the strength to deal with static from an intolerant culture.

      It's also really important for adults to teach kids not to be bullies. If we look the other way when they treat each other poorly, we are condoning it. We need to intervene in a positive way to teach new behaviors.

    24. love anything nerdy!!

      i found your blog from xenia's and am now following you.

      i hope you get a chance to drop by mine.

      happy weekend!

    25. This is a truly fantastic post!

      New follower! Check us out if you have a moment!

    26. I am your newest follower! You can visit me at http://mymodernguide.blogspot.com

      Beki :)

    27. I am a nerd . Not proud of it and not ashamed of it either. I am just a nerd, I cannot help it.

    28. As a Brit, I've always been fascinated and somewhat appalled by the social grouping that seems to happen in American schools. We don't really have the 'populars' and the 'nerds' and 'jocks' etc over here.With the popularity of American culture and the massive influence of movies and tv programes that feature such social grouping, I'm hoping that it won't take root here. I'm interested in why this seems so acceptable in the States and seems to be part of American school culture.
      Being labelled is such a destructive thing. Surely we should be looking to view people as individuals and encouraging our kids to be multifaceted?
      Or would the individuals be forced to sit in the weirdo's group?

      Sigh. It's tough enough just growing up without having to wear a label as well.

    29. Clearly I had not caught up on my comments when I posted earlier! Thank you for following and I have enjoyed wandering around your site!

    30. I just took the nerd test. It turns out that I'm not a nerd but not that cool either. Haha!

      Thanks for your comment on my blog. I'm a new follower.

    31. I thoroughly enjoyed this post!! Made me smile. I would associate myself with being a "nerd" - just a pretty nerd. ;) Haha. No, but seriously...enjoyed this post a lot!

      Thanks for the comment on my blog - made me smile!

      Have a fantastic weekend dear! ox

      <3-Cami from First Day of My Life

    32. Nerds are the new supermodels. Trust me :)

    33. ..for me nerds are cool..because they have make their own world..

      *_* maica *_* Buy and Sell

    34. i think you're not nerd as what you think you are.

      - nina