Charles, a 43-year-old father of two in North Carolina, has always been a nerd. Growing up, he became enamored with vintage Apple products, even more vintage video games and building computers. “Pretty much any pre-microchip doodad holds my interest, too,” Charles tells me. “I hope to get my son into soldering when he’s steadier and more trustworthy with a hot iron.”
There’s only one problem: Charles’ son isn’t following in his geeky dad’s low-top Chuck Taylor footsteps. In fact, at 10, Charles’ son is already well on his way to being more athletic than Charles ever was.
And so, Charles has become an inverted pop-culture trope of sorts. That is, from Chicken Little to How to Train Your Dragon, macho, athletic dads trying to find common ground with their geeky sons are hard to miss. (Usually, it takes the geeky son losing a few feats of physicality but impressing their father with their wits for the two to find common ground.) Over the last decade, however, there’s been a huge cultural shift where geeks are no longer the underdogs, and jocks are no longer the sexist pigs.
So if geeks are cool, should a geeky dad force his geekdom onto his child? Or more to the point in Charles’ case, how exactly does a geeky dad raise a competitive athlete?
“My son started out, as most boys do when they’re 3 or 4, with too much energy to simply let him sit still,” Charles says. “My wife and I figured we had better put that energy into something organized — or at least directed.”
Six years of gymnastics, soccer, baseball, tae kwon do and flag football later, and Charles’ son is a bona fide athlete. “His latest endeavor is basketball, and again, he’s better than I ever was,” Charles explains. “I could show him how to dribble, but that was the limit of my basketball skills.”
Which is why Charles is worried. In theory, or in movies at least, a jock dad can sit down and learn Dungeons & Dragons with his son. But what can a geeky dad do when his son wants to play catch? Or shoot hoops?
“I can give him the insights of experience in any number of geeky things, but at best, I can only give him the basics when it comes to sports,” Charles says. “He likes robots and video games and wants to program computers enough that we usually end up talking about nerdy stuff together, but that’s not the problem. The trouble is, he also wants to be good at sports. I can give him advice on the former, but I’m at a total loss on the latter.”
All of this came to a head the other night, when Charles was teaching his son a basketball drill in the driveway. “He was watching me and goes, ‘That’s not how Coach taught us.’ I was a little taken aback,” Charles says. It was, however, a moment of clarity: If his son wants to be better at sports, he’s going to need other male role models than Charles, and that’s okay.
“With basketball, specifically, I’ve watched the games, and I have no idea what the kids were doing to trigger a foul. Or which fouls garnered a free throw, and why. So if my son wants to get better, he’s going to need to listen to the coach, not me.”
Ultimately, Charles says, he just needs to love his son and encourage him in whatever he does. “I can teach him to do his best and not give up if it’s something he truly loves, and perhaps more importantly, let him teach me.” Plus, he adds, “I might not make a great coach, but I can go to all his games.”
More largely, Charles concludes, “What I really want for any kid who’s smart and athletic is to be able to be both, without feeling like one is somehow exclusive of the other. There are jerks on both extremes, and I’ll be happy with my kids — no matter what they become — as long as they’re not jerks.”