If you ask my kids what they think of me, they will offer an array of compliments. It is also likely they will say something like “He’s such a nerd.” Those comments will not be offered to disparage me, they are only speaking a truth I have encouraged. I am a nerd. It is the bedrock of my personality and I am creating an environment when my kids feel free to be interested in whatever they like without any shame or fear of what others might think of them. But it wasn’t always this way.
I grew up in a generation before the mainstreaming of geek culture. I was picked on and teased for my nerdiness. It never bothered me until I got married and had a kid. Until then, I didn’t care what other’s thought of my hobbies and fandoms. When my oldest was born, things changed. I thought it was time for me to grow up. So, I quit playing video games, I stopped reading comic books, I gave up on scary movies, and I put away the fantasy and sci-fi novels.
Of all the parental advice given to new dads, the one I most commonly heard was that the thing my kids needed most was my presence. They needed me to be there. These days we tell people to put their phone away and get involved. To the best of my ability, I thought I followed this rule: to be there. I fed my kids and stacked blocks with them and read them bed time stories and sang lullabies and changed their diapers. I did everything I thought good dads were supposed to do.
On the surface, I probably looked like a great dad. However, I was miserable underneath. There was a geek inside me dying to get out and I buried him. I thought I could not indulge in nerdy pursuits because it would distract me from giving my kids the time they needed. I spent years trying to be someone I am not: the boring suburban working father, devoid of any semblance of character. Because I denied my own personality, I was grumpy. I was mad at myself. My misery began to infect everyone around me. I was telling my kids to be happy but they could tell that I was depressed.
A question lingered. One that took me a while to answer. How could I teach my kids lessons of self-acceptance if I didn’t embrace my own identity? I wanted them to be comfortable in their own skin while I failed to lead by example. Sure, I was there for my kids. I showed up for school functions and doctor appointments. I took them to play at the park and shopping for clothes. I gave them my time. They had me, but they didn’t really have the best version of me.
Changes were needed. I allowed myself to be myself. I gave myself permission to geek out. I stayed up all night one night binging on horror movies. I got caught up on Doctor Who. Then I started buying comic books for my kids. I introduced them to Narnia and Middle Earth. We played Lego video games together for bonding time. We watched The Goonies, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The NeverEnding Story, and Flight of the Navigator. We began talking about quantum mechanics and astrophysics. We spent a summer taking Spanish lessons on CD in the car while driving to take a hike or spend the day at the beach or running errands.
What I’ve learned is that I am a better dad when I am fully being me. I talk in silly accents and sing and dance with my kids. If my daughter wants to talk about Marvel superheroes, I’m ready. If she wants to play My Little Pony, I’m ready. If my oldest son wants to discuss time travel, I’m ready. If my youngest son want to throw a football with me, I’ll need to change into a Star Wars t-shirt first, but I’m ready. We have learned how to laugh together and cry together. I am happier and my kids enjoy having me around. Now, when I tell them to be proud of who they are, they believe me because they see I’m proud of who I am.
This isn’t a fully transferable blueprint on how to engage with your kids. It is what works for my family. But the concept is the same whether you are a geek like me, or a handyman, or a sports junkie, or an outdoorsman. Be the real you because you’re the only one who can. Your kids need your presence but they also need your personality. Showing up is good, and it’s better when you’re wholly you.