Speaking in public is nerve-wracking for most people. When giving presentations, one of the things that helps me lower my anxiety is the reassurance that I can move on or linger on a slide, as I wish. Giving an Ignite talk — where you are limited to 20 slides that progress automatically in 15-second intervals — removes that control, making it one of the more difficult challenges I attempt. I have made myself do this on a few occasions, but this time I had some help.
Last week, my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, had their 10th Ignite. Although we didn’t intend to be trailblazers, I was joined by my wife in giving a talk, the first duet for our town. Our topic — How to Raise Good Geeks — was informed by experiences we have had working with kids and their friends of all ages.
Being called a geek used to be an insult, but we all know it as a badge of honor and a label we willingly self-apply. Especially given the challenges of institutional education, fostering geekiness is often an intentional choice to get out of the way of our innate joy of learning.
Here are eleven things to consider when encouraging your own young geeks:
1. Ask before you answer
A recent study revealed that good planning is a key factor in predicting educational success. Planning begins by questioning what is possible and letting that hypothesis guide what you do next. Start projects with a prediction about a possible future.
2. Focus on the journey
At our family Geek Camp, we don’t provide step-by-step instruction. Rather, we try to model how to ask good questions, and where to go to seek reliable information. The approach to finding an answer is more replicable than the actual answer.
3. Celebrate failure
As one of our favorite shows likes to point out, failure is always an option. When we provide a supportive environment for recovery, we learn through our mistakes.
4. Do nothing
Sometimes, the best thing a parent can do is allow the laws of physics to play Bad Cop. While we may see the outcomes they don’t, those looming failures become visible due to our prior experience. Young geeks need the same opportunity.
5. Participate to observe
When you do act, seek a shared experience. To really know a community, you have to be a part of it. That means playing with the same tools and toys your kids do, whether it’s Minecraft, Google Plus or Legos. Be present as they explore.
6. Promote context
The experiences we share become a creative material. The things we make are steeped in a common language, which we use to express ourselves to the world. It is important for geeks to know that language.
7. Learn together
We don’t learn as well in isolation. Teaching skills to others, sharing our problem-solving strategies, and collaborating on creative projects allow us to internalize the knowledge by externalizing the process. Geeking is a social activity.
8. Repeat to comprehend
The answer to the question, “How many times do I have to tell you?” is: a lot. Kids need to hear things over and over, and they need to try things over and over while they process information.
9. Reject reality
Our kids may enjoy things I don’t, or approach problems in a way I wouldn’t. Entering their world, however, is the first step to connection. We engage our kids by getting down on the floor with them, and letting them make the rules of play. If you learn to play their games, they’ll be more inclined to play yours.
10. Change the challenge
Arguing is an art that is best practiced in plain sight. Just like Frank Eliason calling attention to customer problems, teaching kids to respectfully disagree and compromise requires that we be willing to demonstrate the same. Kids need to see that part of passionate debate is the collaborative problem-solving that helps relationships heal.
11. Cherish success
When orbiting the moon, the Apollo 8 crew sent back a breathtaking image of an Earthrise. It had an impact. At the end of a tumultuous year, one telegram to the astronauts read simply: “You saved 1968.” A small, wondrous moment can offset a long string of horrible ones. Bad days are made insignificant when my nine-year-old hands me a gift for Father’s Day, and we see our creations create.