Parenting and Passions and Making Nerds of Your Children

by Jason Boyett

jason boyett one eye squinted

“Dad? Can we listen to Fun?”

One of my most significant life developments over the past couple of years is that my kids have progressed from mostly consuming Disney Channel music (read: High School Musical soundtracks) to enjoying the same kind of music I like. Even better, they skipped right past the transitional Taylor Swift/Selena Gomez/Justin Bieber pop-zone in order to arrive at this glorious place of shared fandom. For instance:

• Owen and I drive to school most mornings singing Matisyahu (“One Day” is a favorite) or The Swell Season’s “Falling Slowly” at the top of our lungs.

• Ellie finally gave into our family-wide insistence that she listen to Mumford & Sons, admitted that “I Will Wait” was a pretty great song, and has now embraced folk rock.

• Four heads immediately start bobbing during our family card games when The Script shows up on Pandora, when we pull up The Lone Bellow on Spotify, or when Imagine Dragons rotates up on a shuffled playlist.

I am delighted at our arrival at this strange destination. Maybe I’m too culturally conditioned by the you-kids-turn-that-crap-down cliché of film and television, but this multi-generational musical overlap isn’t always the case, is it?

This got me thinking last week about the musical tastes of my own parents—namely that I’m not certain what theirs were. I do know they showed zero interest in the music I loved during my teen years (U2, REM, rap).

My inability to pinpoint their musical passions is strange, because our family has always been a musical one. My dad plays the violin. One of his sisters played the cello in our local symphony. Another sister teaches flute. Meanwhile, my mom plays piano and her sister plays the viola.

We have actually had family gatherings during which we all stood around a piano and sang together. (No, we did not all wear clothing our governess fashioned from drapes.)

I play a smattering of instruments, too. Musical ability is a big part of my family’s strong musical heritage. But, still, I keep running into a gap in that legacy: Despite their love for playing and singing music—and despite nearly four decades in each others’ proximity—I have no idea what kind of music they listen to.

Do they have a favorite band or album? My dad has been a casual fan of Mannheim Steamroller for at least a couple of decades, but I haven’t heard him listen to much but talk radio since I was in high school. While he owned the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, he never spoke of it with the typical Baby Boomer reverence.

My primary musical memory with my Dad involved rolling down the windows and removing the T-tops from his 1984 Nissan 300 ZX and speeding down the highway while blasting the Rocky soundtrack theme song. “Gonna fly now! / Flying high now!” (Yes, he was a cool dad, but I’m not convinced he’s got a robust “classic American sports anthems” playlist in his iTunes.)

And my mom? She has taught deaf preschoolers for thirty-plus years, and spends her days singing songs for three-year-olds. Many of these songs she made up herself. I feel like a horrible son, but other than simple songs about flags, ladybugs, and busses, her musical tastes are a total mystery to me.

I asked my brother and sister for help. Micha recalled that Mom, who spent her late teen years in Southern California, had once been a Beach Boys fan. Brooks remembered long car rides filled with the music of Dallas Holm and Sandi Patty (yes, looooooong rides) and recalled that our parents once saw Elvis in concert at Texas Tech in the early 1970s.

(This was news to me, so I asked my parents for a review of the Elvis show. Mom: “We sat far away and Elvis was very small.” Dad: “Binoculars only proved he had a white jumpsuit on and threw scarves to the audience.”)

My parents played music, but the evidence suggests they weren’t really into music.

So how is it that the Venn diagrams of my kids’ favorite music and my own favorite music contain so much overlap? I think the only reason is because my wife and I have tried to pass along a passion for listening to music. I regularly bring up music in my podcast. We’re always trying to introduce new songs and artists to the kids. We have music playing constantly.

Along with exercise, reading, writing, art, and the virtues of lying in a hammock on a spring day, a love for popular music is one of those cultural batons we want to hand off to the next generation of Boyetts. It’s a priority.

It wasn’t necessarily my parents’ priority, and that’s just fine. Instead of music, Dad taught us all to flyfish. He took us camping often, where I learned to build a fire, read a topographical map, and clean a trout. Mom took us jogging at six in the morning, involved us in her lifetime of work with the disabled, and instilled in us the virtues of books, words, and reading.

Our parents introduced us to their passions, and that kind of cultural heredity changes from one family to another. My foodie brother-in-law feeds expensive cheeses to my preschool-aged nephews. My screenwriting and podcasting friend Rob uses Toy Story to teach his girls about character arcs and story structure.

In a wonderfully ad-libbed answer to an audience question at the Calgary Comic Expo, actor/writer/cultural ambassador Wil Wheaton explained in a much-shared YouTube clip about why it’s “awesome” to be a nerd. He declared that the defining characteristic of being a nerd was loving things. It’s not what we love, he said, but how we love: with passion. That passion makes us nerds.

Ours is a world that often seems cynical, detached, and passionless. Ours is a world that needs more nerds. And we need more parents to pass along their nerdery to their kids. I can think of few things more life-giving than saying, “this is something I love and I want you to love it, too.” Maybe it’s music. Maybe it’s backpacking. Maybe it’s cheese.

Doesn’t matter the subject. What matters is the passion.

What kind of nerd are you?

12 Responses to “Parenting and Passions and Making Nerds of Your Children”

  1. Patrick May 7, 2013 at 5:23 am #

    I’ve been thinking about what kinds of passions I’d pass on to my kids, and music is definitely on that list (they’ll learn to LOVE Wilco), but I think books are going to take more of a precedence. My dad instilled reading in me all the time, and it’s definitely helped to craft me as a person. As to the kind of reading I’ll pass on, well, let’s just say my kids are going to know names like NT Wright, Jurgen Moltmann, and John Caputo by heart. I geek out over theology, and I hope my kids will do the same.

  2. Alise May 7, 2013 at 8:07 am #

    I’m also a music nerd. And this piece made me want to be really sure that you’ve heard the This American Life podcast, Music Lessons. And if not, check it out IMMEDIATELY. (Sedaris, Vowell, & Lamott all present in it and it’s one of my very favorite episodes of all time.)

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/104/music-lessons

  3. Caroline Starr Rose May 7, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    Books, for sure. Nothing is more satisfying than sharing with my boys books I loved as a kid, titles I read to my students, or those newly minted from a favorite author or someone entirely new. Books are a safe way to explore the world, a great conversation starter, a touchstone experience of all who share them together.

    They’re magical, plain and simple.

  4. Sarah aka MainlineMom May 7, 2013 at 9:34 am #

    Total music nerd here too. So far, my kids don’t get it, but they are only 5 and 8. We do not, do not, do not listen to kids music in our house or car. They hear some pop at school, in gym class, and I die a small death when I hear them singing it. The other day my five year old was in the shower and I heard “We are never ever ever ever ever ever getting back together.” He keeps me laughing.

    We alternate between the safe Christian family radio station which has a playlist so short it’s highly annoying and Alt Nation on Sirius. The problem with Alt Nation is the occasional F bombs, so they don’t hear as much of that. But when they do, I see them in the backseat getting their groove on :)

    I’ve also taken them to a few concerts, but not enough yet. Gotta work on that. Nothing better than live music.

  5. Amanda @wandering May 7, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    I am not a music nerd (I like singing and playing piano – but I don’t have a lot of “favorites.”) However, my preschooler LOVES Mumford and Sons. When one of their songs comes on, he tells us “Turn it up! That’s my song!” (Sadly, he also recently proclaimed loudly at a burger place “that’s my song” when “Call Me, Maybe?” came on.)

  6. Diana May 7, 2013 at 10:10 am #

    Oh, my, YES!!! Let’s hear it for nerds! We had kids and grandkids around all weekend and it was divine. One group went to a comic book store because it was ‘free comic book weekend.’ Another group played tennis, another went to see “Iron Man 3,” the women went to High Tea, the little ones played hide the tennis balls with Poppy. We are ALL nerds, passionate about different things, but happy to be so and glad to share those passions with one another. Music? Well, I was good about it with my own kids but have not listened much in the last half dozen years or more. I’ve learned to love silence, in my home and in my car. (My car is a primary place of prayer for me, actually), yet we do classical musical events with pieces of our family and most of my kids are avid alt/folk fans and now their kids are, too. Thanks for this, Jason. And thanks for that great clip – loved it.

  7. Micah May 7, 2013 at 12:18 pm #

    One Day and Falling Slowly are also high on this list of my jams. I very much approve.

    Right now our boys fall asleep every night to Glen Hansard’s latest solo album, so hopefully they’ll grow up to be as cool as your kids.

  8. Nancy Franson May 7, 2013 at 12:18 pm #

    When our kids were young, my husband’s work required a fair amount of travel out west. We dragged our kids up, down, over, and through many of the National Parks in Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. They didn’t always love it. I didn’t always love it. I told them they got home school credit for earning Junior Ranger badges.

    And now, my son will call me outside at night to look at a star-filled sky and my daughter is looking forward to taking her son to some of these places.

    So I guess we raised a couple of National Park nerds.

  9. ElizabethK May 7, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

    This made me cry. Wow. Thanks for sharing! My parents managed to raise a history nerd, a music nerd, a film nerd, and a philosophy/theology nerd… none of which are really things they are passionate about. I guess their passion for life in general – and their commitment to honesty and excellence – just filtered through to us in lots of different ways!

  10. Ashleigh Baker May 7, 2013 at 6:49 pm #

    Brilliant. I was homeschooled my entire life by parents who did everything with exceptional gusto – a double nerd whammy. My boys aren’t homeschooled, but we’re pretty darn passionate about life in a similar all-or-nothing fashion. The result is small folk who live fully and love deeply everything from Fun to Star Wars to skinny jeans to soccer to ballet dancing. What is life if not lived to the hilt?

  11. Shelby May 7, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

    I think I have the same music taste as you and your family! haha I love it.
    I’m a nerd for music, blogging, social media, hula hooping, art journaling, fun clothes, and cats.

  12. Sarah Denley Herrington May 8, 2013 at 9:18 pm #

    To answer your question–

    Me
    1. Reader Nerd
    2. Writer Nerd
    3. Music Nerd
    4. Analyzer of All Things (personality theory, psychology, sociology, pop culture, ect.)
    * I care pretty deeply about building a heritage of words and music in my kids’ lives. And I will engage them in conversations of the number four variety, but it’s not something I care too much if they enjoy.

    My husband:
    1. Reader Nerd
    2. (wanabee ;) Hiker Nerd
    3. Theology Nerd
    4. Economics Nerd
    * My guess is he cares most about a legacy of the first three, but I’m sure he’d fall over dead to have someone not bored to tears with four in the house.

    We are clearly out of control nerdy.

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