"Geek" is a bad word to some parents, and author Marybeth Hicks found that out the hard way.
"There was a chat with some moms at a school function in which I joked that my kids were geeks. One mom reacted really strongly, as though I had offended my own kids. I guess the idea that we knew our kids were geeky — and we like that about them — seemed truly odd to her," Hicks said in a recent e-mail interview. That encounter prompted her to write Bringing Up GEEKS (Genuine, Enthusiastic, Empowered Kids): How To Protect Your Kid's Childhood in a Grow-up-too-fast World ($14, Berkley Trade).
Hicks, a mother of four and a columnist for The Washington Times, finds examples of how children are growing up too fast are everywhere.
"My favorite example is the company that sells stiletto crib shoes for baby girls — in animal prints, no less! It's sad to me that the culture exploits our kids' innocence and corrupts their childhoods to extend their years as consumers.
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"In fact, the whole notion of the 'tween' is just a marketing demographic. The age from 8 to 13 used to be called 'childhood,'" Hicks said.
All that public pressure to look, act and buy things that make you seem older can take a toll, she said.
"Sadly, too many kids are willing to 'dumb themselves down' just to feel accepted by the cool crowd, and the studies I found indicate that the cool, popular kids are the ones who set the trends and fads, and also the ones who take more risks in behavior," she said. "It's the brainy kids who are statistically at the least amount of risk in adolescence."
Parents themselves may need to embrace their inner geek, she said. There's nothing wrong with passing along your secret love of chemical equations or the idea that sports can be a good experience even if you don't always win.
"The trick is to use sports programs as a metaphor for life. In that way, adults can help kids to enjoy their athletic experiences and also learn from them. This is the mark of the geeky lifestyle," she said.
Parents can feel peer pressure, too.
"Peer pressure for parents is sometimes worse than for their kids. Parents are too quick to go along with the decisions that others make even when they themselves believe those decisions are wrong for their kids ... think racy movies, owning a cell phone in fourth grade, high school spring break trips.
"Many parents will admit that they don't like many of the things they themselves allow for their children, but they don't want their child to be the only one who isn't included.
"In my mind, this is spineless parenting," Hicks said. "Our job as moms and dads is to do only what we believe is truly best for our own children, and that often means making decisions that seem counterculture to others. But when it's the safety or character of your child that's at stake, anything less is selling them short."