When you hear that word, what do you think of? Does it bring to mind the accusations of playground bullies, or perhaps the stereotypes of characters in movies and television? Do you picture a short person with glasses, hiding in the corner of the library, quietly hunched over a stack of books? Or do you picture yourself - or even your child?
Kids and Name-Calling
Nerd, geek, dork, and teacher's pet - smart students throughout the centuries have been labeled with these words. Some love the terms, others loathe them. Some fight stereotypes while others play to them for attention (good or bad) or social status (or lack thereof).
Sharon, a parent of two, declares, "My child is too young at 8 to be deemed a nerd or anything else, as far as I'm concerned - he hasn't begun to figure out who he is yet or what he likes that will stay with him." She loves her little boy and her stepdaughter and is proud of them both. She says her son is not boastful about his intelligence. "He hasn't been called names because of his grades - yet."
So Who (or What) is a Nerd, Exactly?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word "nerd" may stem from a book itself. The dictionary says the term is "perhaps from nerd, a creature in the children's book If I Ran the Zoo (1950) by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel)." This tidbit is interesting, to say the least, and is an example of how inexact etymology can be.
The renown dictionary goes on to define nerd as "an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits."
Wikipedia, a popular online encyclopedia, claims that the term can be traced back even earlier, to 1951, when Newsweek reported that the term was being used in Detroit.
Alethea Allarey offers a personal definition. "'Nerd' refers to a person whose socialization skills are underdeveloped. Many people also associate this with high intelligence and excellence in academics, but I prefer to focus on the social distinction." She goes on to say that people can be intelligent and well-liked at the same time. "Nerds typically have no friends except for other nerds, and failure to successfully interact with other non-nerds results in even greater social awkwardness and introversion . . . this in turn projects an unfavorable image to non-nerds, who shun them even more. It's a vicious cycle."
Holly Interlandi offers a more succinct definition:"(A nerd is) anyone who knows more about a particular subject than they probably should."
"I initially think of someone who likes gaming and Star Wars movies," Tlace admits. She smiles as she adds, "Or someone like me who enjoys analyzing television shows."
When asked if that means she herself is a nerd, Tlace responds, "Aren't we all in some capacity?"</p>
Just Being Social
Just because a person is perceived as a nerd does not mean that he or she is not adept socially. Some people are naturally shy while others are outgoing and boisterous. Two siblings raised in the same household could have completely different social lives, not only in childhood but in adulthood, with one being the textbook teacher's pet while the other flits and floats like a social butterfly.
Likewise, anyone can be both book smart and people smart, with a wide range of interests and skills. A child whose nose is in a book one day may be a winning goalie on the soccer field the very next day. The popular kid crowned at Homecoming could be named Valedictorian at graduation.
College student Suze sometimes wishes she was less shy around others. She is a self-proclaimed bookworm who says her high school's smartest students were not socially inept. In fact, the majority of the popular kids at her school excelled; they had smarts and status.
Maren Haws likes being a nerd. "I even have it as part of my license plate. I prefer reading a book or taking a class than (going to) parties." She has a penchant for art history and loves visiting museums. She also loves Eeyore, old movies, and crafting. "Nerds are smart about something, but smart people aren't always defined as nerds."
Don't confuse the reluctance to be social with being completely anti-social. A child may simply feel out of sorts at first in a new environment, at a new school, on a new team. Perhaps he or she will warm up within a month or two; perhaps he or she is naturally reticent, or caught up in personal thoughts.
Parents may nudge their children to interact with other kids in the neighborhood to make their home extend beyond just their own four walls. They may also have their kids take part in after school activities in order to have them socialize with their peers and develop social skills as well as special skills.
Most importantly is to spend time with your children. Encourage them to be themselves, to learn more about what interests them, to express themselves artistically, to figure out what and who they want to be when they grow up. Teach them that it's cool to be smart.
In 2007, I wrote another piece about nerds. Read this article about Nerd Fighters, an awesome group of folks!