when a kid is shunned
October 30, 2008 7:41 PM   Subscribe

My son, 9, likes math, playing music, computers, video. He's not athletic; he likes Wii Fit better than real sports. He's starting to get shunned by other boys: he seems nice and normal to me but I guess he's a geek to them. What do I do, besides support him in every way I can?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (43 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
There are plenty of others like him. Maybe there are some interest clubs at school where he can hang out with kids of similar interest. Also, check into the local Boys' Club. I went to Boys' Club as a kid, and some kids were in the gym and boxing ring, while others (like me) were playing chess and pool and hanging out in the library.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 7:51 PM on October 30, 2008

I remember when I was a kid my dad used to play tennis at his company's recreational club, and that got me playing tennis at a pretty early age, without his direct encouragement or involvement (as far as I can remember).

I'd suggest that, if you want your son to me more social and active, you should try to lead by example, and use positive reinforcement when you do see him being more social and active.

One problem is that there is a lot of pressure in team sports when you are young and no good -- kids can be brutal to other kids at time. Maybe you can get him involved in some unusual sports, like indoor rock climbing, or fencing, etc, where there is less social pressure to perform, and which can help him build his confidence when dealing with the other kids.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 7:56 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

W/r/t Fuzzy Skinner's suggestion—I was like your 9 year old, and I went to the local Boys & Girls Club. It was a bit of personal hell. The geeky, shy, non-athletic kids were few and far between, and the athletic kids gave me endless amounts of shit. The staff, for the most part, were terribly unsympathetic as well.

My suggestion would be for you to find your son some activities with similar kids, like a computer camp or the like. Also, teach him to learn to fight for himself when necessary. A good slug to the nose and the local bully won't mess around with you any more. I speak from experience.
posted by SansPoint at 7:56 PM on October 30, 2008

For health reasons alone, try to eventually get him involved in something athletic or some form of exercise. Team sports can be way too high-pressure and stereotypically jock-like for geek types and individual competitive sports can demand an uncomfortable monomania: if he's not interested in the exercise options on the table, start casting around for something unconventional.

Outside the exercise thing, I really think you need to try to guide him toward his own balance between "Fuck 'em" and pursuing friendships with worthwhile people. If the boys are already hypercompetitive or sports-obsessed, that probably means (awkwardly enough for him at that age) seeking out female company in addition to whatever male friendships he can establish. But take heart: he's in what, 4th grade? He's got a long ways to go before he needs to make many hard social decisions. To flesh that out a little bit: In a few years, suppose his 8th grade class numbers 100 boys and 100 girls. Maybe 20 of the boys will join the modified football team and continue on that track through high school, and even assuming they all turn out to be dicks (impossible) and shun him (impossible), that's still 90% of his grade that's more accepting.

Your son sounds like a bright kid who just doesn't follow the popular 5%. So what? He'll have his ups and downs, but he'll be fine. Hell, being as conscientious as you are puts him at a great advantage relative to all the children of hands-off parents.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:00 PM on October 30, 2008

If he likes Wii Fit, maybe an activity like Karate would appeal to him. For a kid his age, there's no real expectation of atheltic skill to start it, and it's usually less about direct competition than it is about discipline and self control. If he met new friends doing this, so much the better.

Keep a communication line open with his teacher, and make sure he's not being bullied or setting himself up for alienation by acting like an easy target. If he's not connecting with any of his peers at school, look around for other activities or groups outside of school that would appeal to him and provide him with a set of kids that are more like him (trust me, they're out there, just rarely congregated all in one place inside of a school).
posted by brain cloud at 8:00 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Older friends can be a godsend. If he's gifted, get him into a program where he meets other kids of like abilities. I was exactly that kid and there are plenty of us about. There are computer clubs and chess clubs for a reason!
posted by unSane at 8:06 PM on October 30, 2008

Also, many kids get turned off athletics because it's competitive. Non-competitive, individual, semi-social activities like biking, skateboarding, snowboarding, swimming, even archery and target shooting, may be much more attractive to him than competitive team-based sports. They are also often seen as cooler than jock-y activities. Also 1 on 1 kinds of games like ping pong, tennis, badminton can be easier to deal with since they only demand you interact with one other person.

Again, speaking from experience, both mine and my kids.
posted by unSane at 8:10 PM on October 30, 2008

Nthing everyone: Definitely get him involved in clubs with other kids that share his geeky interests. That way, he'll know he's not alone.

A martial art is a great idea for his physical and social development. I recommend judo. (Disclaimer: I am a judoka and, thus, biased.) They work students, but let them all learn at their own pace and stress the two founding principles: Mutual welfare and benefit and maximum efficiency with minimum effort. That first principle gets kids to help each other out and not shun the kids that aren't as athletically gifted. The full resistance training (don't worry, there's no hitting in judo, and they don't allow kids that young to choke or armbar) will build his confidence, and he'll know how to deal with kids bigger than him, should they try to bully him. I totally wish I started judo as a kid.
posted by ignignokt at 8:12 PM on October 30, 2008

Well, he sounds like me at age 9, as well as most of my friends, as well as (and this is just a guess, but a confident one) many of the smart and wonderful people who populate places like Metafilter.

In time, he'll find his own crowd, and find a way to fit in with the broader world without compromising who he is and what he likes. But it can take time, and I don't expect it's any easier for a dad to live through then it is for his kid.

The best thing to do is to get him into places where he'll find peers who share his interests. Maybe it's a school band, maybe it's a chess club, maybe it's a community theatre group. It'll probably take some trial and error. But the joy and relief of having a social group that's on his wavelength (as, doubtless, the bulk of his classmates will not be for the near term) will be enormous.

I guess it goes without saying (but I'll say it, just in case) that one thing you shouldn't do is try to entice him into activities that he doesn't show any interest in, but you quietly hope will help him fit in. Kids can smell that hope, and it can lead to the feeling that not only do you not fit in at school, but you're not living up to your parents' hopes either.

I'm not a dad, and I won't pretend I know how it's done. But I asked the part of me that's still 9 years old, who liked programming computers and playing music and was shunned by other kids for years, and that's what he told me.

Also, he asked that a Wii Fit be sent back to 1988 for him. That would be nice.
posted by bicyclefish at 8:13 PM on October 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

"The work students hard..." that should be.
posted by ignignokt at 8:13 PM on October 30, 2008

Give him opportunities to hang out with people of other ages- the old ladies at church, the older men at a community theatre, the college students at the local youth group. The more he sees people living outside the bubble of his school, the less he'll care about the acceptance of his peers.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:19 PM on October 30, 2008

You need to be a parent. That is, you need to expose him to a variety of experiences, some of which he will not like and will not be good at. You are not his friend. You are a parent. There's a big difference -- which I think you sense intuitively, but I wanted to throw that out there before you get led astray by other comments about protecting the poor little geek from the mean jocks.

He's not athletic? Bummer. Sign him up for Little League anyway. Or more likely, sit down with him and explain that he will be taking part in some kind of athletic experience, and he gets to choose what that is. Wii Fit doesn't count. If soccer/baseball/football/basketball doesn't work out, the suggestion of karate / martial arts above is a great idea. Think outside the box. Lacrosse? Swimming? Gymnastics? Cub Scouts?

And find out what "shunned" really means and get down to the WHY of being shunned. Ask his teachers. Is he dressed normally? Does he exhibit typical mannerisms for someone his age?

Look ... anecdotally ... I vividly recall the "shunned" kids from my elementary school years. It was never a lack of athletic skill. It was always a lack of social skills that were no fault of the kids themselves. It was always just plain old ineffective parents that sent their kids to school dressed like freaks and never instilled good social navigation skills. Those parents may as well as hung the "kick me" signs on their kids themselves.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:25 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Heh, sounds just like my boy :) Same exact age and interests.

Maybe I can offer a couple of thoughts I had that help me zen out any worries I get about the whole shunning thing:

1. Often, it only seems like a shunning is taking place because of a dearth of play dates and birthday invitations, etc. What may actually be happening is that most parents have gotten so ridiculously busy with various extracurricular activities that no one else is doing play dates, etc., either.

2. The lack of constant interaction with "other boys" is not always a bad thing. This was hard for me embrace at first, until I recalled from my own childhood that kids can often be little assholes. I think it's frequently better for your kid to have quality family time than to endure the Lord of the Flies.

3. Nice kids exist, but sometimes elsewhere! The whole plenty of fish in the sea thing. Don't waste time fretting over whether the snotty kids approve -- find the nice kids. They might be at church or some other place. Cultivate those friendships.

4. Speaking of cultivating friendships, I found it good for my boy's social life to cultivate friendships (or at least positive acquaintance-ships) with the parents of kids that my son has mentioned having as friends (or wanting as friends).

5. Have perspective. In a very sort period of time, your boy will have forgotten all about most of the kids in grade school and moved on to other circles.

6. Geeks rule.

7. Above all: Unconditional acceptance of your kid! Lots of love and affection. You can never overdo it with love and affection.
posted by Toecutter at 8:25 PM on October 30, 2008


I wasn't going to get into biographical detail, but now that I see ignignokt's post above, recommending judo, I can't resist.

One of the activities that my infinitely loving and concerned parents signed me up for was judo. I was a small and ungainly child, who never showed much interest in coordinated movement of my limbs, or really any movement at all. It wasn't that I was sedentary, it was just that I was happiest playing piano or pressing buttons on a computer keyboard.

Judo classes were held in a tiny matted room in the basement of the local YMCA. I never succeeded in throwing anybody, but I did become quite good at being thrown by other people. The instructor's name was Larry, a kind soul with a thin comb-over and a thick blonde mustache. This went on for some time, despite the lack of any appreciable progress. I think I even re-enrolled once. The other kids started showing up in judo robes and white belts, then brown belts; I don't remember anyone telling me about buying them, so I just kept showing up in sweatpants and getting thrown around, feeling more and more like a fraud and failure with every passing week.

Eventually they had a parent-teacher interview night. I remember driving out of the lot that night with my mother.

"What did he say?" I asked.

"Well," said my mother, "Larry said that on the upside, you have the... longest attention span... of anyone in the class."

"Did he say anything else?"

"Not really," she sighed. We drove off.

That was the end of judo.
posted by bicyclefish at 8:34 PM on October 30, 2008 [6 favorites]

Bicyclefish, that's an awesome story. I guess my post should have had a YMMV attached to it.

I've only been to one judo club, and the guys teaching there all try to break things down for the students that don't get it, but yeah, it might not be the same everywhere.
posted by ignignokt at 8:44 PM on October 30, 2008

The natural history museum in my area offers some really interesting summer camps. My nephews have really enjoyed participating in them. Since you mentioned he enjoys music, are there any choirs or junior orchestras in your area that he could join?
posted by Sara Anne at 8:54 PM on October 30, 2008

As a kid I was slow and uncoordinated and hated P.E. I thought all the sports were stupid and I never paid attention to the rules...then all of a sudden I was in high school and I had absolutely no idea how to play basketball, baseball, soccer, etc. Which is rather embarassing. So I always encourage kids who hate sports and P.E. to at least learn the rules!
posted by radioamy at 9:05 PM on October 30, 2008

Write him a note permanently excusing him from sport.
posted by pompomtom at 9:16 PM on October 30, 2008

He's not going to like any sport he's no good at. Would you?
On the other hand, it's hard to get kids to stop doing something they are good at, whether that be team sports, individual things like skateboarding, playing a musical instrument, video games, or what have you.

You just need to find something he sort of likes, or even just doesn't hate, and then get him lessons so he can get good at it and like it. Nobody likes sucking at something, even when there aren't a bunch of other kids there teasing.

The first thing you try may not be the thing that catches on. Something will, though.
posted by ctmf at 9:20 PM on October 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

He might like wrestling too. It's graduated into fairly narrow weight classes, so he could be competing against kids his own size.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:46 PM on October 30, 2008

ignignokt, I don't really view judo having let me down so much as I let *it* down. It really was a humane and fascinating sport. I think YMMV applies to everything, and I agree it's totally worth at least trying to get kids involved in new things, just in case they stick. But probably best not to push too hard, especially if there's no progress or enthusiasm...
posted by bicyclefish at 9:51 PM on October 30, 2008

Find a decent martial art studio and stick with it. Besides the obvious helpful advantages of more confidence and being better able to defend himself, it's that rare physical activity which can engage his sort of intellect, and is also non-competitive. It's a must.
posted by dong_resin at 10:23 PM on October 30, 2008

Don't shun your kid by neglecting his own interests to pursue social norms. Help him find his intellectual passions, which, in the long run, bring much more meaning and vitality to his life then kiddie soccer. Teach him chess/go. Get one of those home electronics / chemistry kits. Do model building. Pursue things you're interested in too that you can do together. Or, I would recommend a musical instrument, piano, guitar or (electronic) drums. Music remains my friend when nobody is around.
posted by emptyinside at 10:53 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Disclaimer: I have never been a 10 year old boy. I have been, however, a kid with seemingly no athletic ability when it came to PE or team sports. I grew up thinking of myself as unatheletic. Then 15 years back I was encouraged by a friend to try rock climbing. I absolutely loved it and the experience made me rethink my perception of myself as being unatheletic. Hell, I used to spend hours climbing trees everyday as a kid. Turns out that I have athletic ability... it's just that none of it is in team sports. IMHO, the idea that team sports = athletic is a toxic one that discourages kids from being active.

So my advice to you is to figure out if there are physical activities that your son enjoys and look into some low stress ways for him to explore those activities in a more social setting. My ten year old self, for example, would probably enjoy climbing lessons or being involved in a kids club at a local climbing gym.
posted by echolalia67 at 11:30 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

If he's being shunned by other kids, it's probably not because he isn't athletic. I went through my own period of "social difficulty" when I was a little older than he, and what really helped was activities - any activity - where I was with kids who weren't from my school. This helps in two ways -
1. for me, church and other non-school activities were a haven in middle school - not because the kids I was with were of a different kind - it's just that these kids didn't know they weren't supposed to like me. also -
2. for geeks and nerds, school is tough in those middle years - activities outside of school are great because you aren't caught in that teacher-pleasing / kid-resentment cycle. Being in a situation where you can succeed without being disliked - or - for once, be the wiseass in the back who doesn't care without disappointing your parents and teachers - can be incredibly liberating.
So - I'd hook him up with some outside activities - and step back and not put on any pressure to perform. Again - it doesn't matter if he's "good" at whatever.... let him make a fresh start with some new kids, however he decides to play it.
posted by moxiedoll at 11:51 PM on October 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

He doesn't have to be good at sports to be a sports fan.

Too many kids make the mental leap from 'I'm no good at sport' to 'I'm no good at sport, therefore sport sucks and I am far superior to those brain-dead morons who throw balls about for fun.' And as people upthread have pointed attitude isolates kids far more than ability.

Don't let your kid fall into this trap. Encourage him to support his local team and to praise his classmates' sporting victories rather than belittling them. Set-up a fantasy baseball team together or take him along to see the occassional pro game and let him learn that watching sports can be fun.

After all, nobody would go around saying a kids needs to play an instrument in order to enjoy going to concerts and discussing their favourite bands...
posted by the latin mouse at 3:07 AM on October 31, 2008

He could be a late bloomer -- my bud started playing baseball when he was 11, and football at 14. Seems he needed a couple of years to just observe and get a real feel for it first.
posted by maloon at 5:28 AM on October 31, 2008

I have a friend whose son was in a similar predicament. She introduced him to rock climbing, indoor then outdoor and it became his "thing". Lot's of personal satisfaction and not competitive. As a bonus, kids later found out he had this ability no one else had and that was cool.
posted by Breav at 6:27 AM on October 31, 2008

It sounds like he'd like kayaking — you're in a group but on your own, there's lots of applied maths, you do it at your own rhythm and the jocks usually stay away. Many kids come to the training sessions at the swimming pool here, so he'd be able to make friends too.
posted by stereo at 7:05 AM on October 31, 2008

This sounds a lot like me growing up. Hell, it still sounds like me.

The suggestion of martial arts is a good one. I was always interested in those growing up, but my parents wanted me to play team sports (for convenience's sake and expense as much as anything else, I suspect.) My experience in AYSO and various school tennis teams left much to be desired.

I would also suggest you explore solo equipment oriented sports (if that's in your budget) with your son (possibly as a father & son activity.) Archery, hiking, bike riding, climbing, backpacking etc. Be enthusiastic about whatever he shows interest in. Some of these sports have huge geek draws.

Kayaking is a good suggestion, too. The canoe/kayak trips I went on through my school were the only group sporting activities I really enjoyed there.

There's more fantastic stuff that might catch his interest too, depending on his taste in books/movies/games etc. Fencing, for instance. Riding (horses.) Even parkour (although I think my parents would have strapped a mattress to me if I had tried that.)
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:37 AM on October 31, 2008

Also, I should have mentioned skiing. That was the first sport that really grabbed me, while all the team sports were failing.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:43 AM on October 31, 2008

Your son reminds me of my nephew. He does well in Boy Scouts. There are a lot of outdoor activities, but it's pretty geek-friendly, even geek-oriented, at heart. It's got a lot of rules and badges are accumulated by scoring points; geeky types love well-defined systems.
posted by Nahum Tate at 8:19 AM on October 31, 2008

From Cool Papa Bell:

Look ... anecdotally ... I vividly recall the "shunned" kids from my elementary school years. It was never a lack of athletic skill. It was always a lack of social skills that were no fault of the kids themselves. It was always just plain old ineffective parents that sent their kids to school dressed like freaks and never instilled good social navigation skills. Those parents may as well as hung the "kick me" signs on their kids themselves.

I was with you up until "It was always just plain old ineffective parents." I think this is pretty harsh and very likely untrue. First of all, I think it's the parent's responsibility to make sure that their child is dressed in good, quality, practical clothing. I don't think it's the parent's responsibility to figure out what's fashionable that season and make the child wear it, whether they want to or not. I'm not sure what you mean by "freak," but if it has anything to do with the aesthetic quality of the clothes, I think those decisions (within reason) belong to the person who is going to wear the outfit.

In addition, I don't believe social skills are something a parent can instill in the way you're referring to them in your answer. I was completely, totally, and utterly socially awkward and clueless until sometime late in high school. I had a pretty bad school experience as a result. I do not, in any way, shape, or form, think this had anything to do with my parents. They made me participate in every normal childhood activity I can think of from a very young age. I did preschool, camp, team sports, art and music classes, school clubs, and was thrown off the couch more than once to go outside and play with the kids in the neighborhood.

I just didn't get it. They were painful experiences for me, because no matter how often I tried to interact with other kids, observed them, etc etc, I just did not naturally get the social cues other kids were getting. I don't think this is even a particularly unique experience to me. Lots of other people I know (who are great people, and like me, learned to adapt socially) had similar school experiences. I always had much better conversations with the adults than I had with other kids.

I guess my point to the parent asking the question above is that you can do everything right and still have a kid who doesn't fit in. And that's where the rest of the good advice about encouraging them to find school clubs that reflect their true interests, supporting and validating them at home, etc becomes very important. And, as others have said, there is definitely hope. There are thousands of shunned kids walking around as perfectly wonderful and successful adults.
posted by theantikitty at 8:42 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Agree with everyone that you should try and find a extra-curricular group that your son might enjoy. Disagree that it needs to be sports-centered. (I offer my failed year as a Junior Varsity cheerleader, and the torment I went through from my classmages the following two years, as Exhibit A.)

As it happens, my (Wii-loving, computer-expert 7 year old) is in a junior bowling league. We took him bowling a lot when he was littler and he liked it, so we decided to encourage it. There's a nice age range of kids (5-17), it's team-centered without being OMFG COMPETITIVE, and it's indoors.
posted by Lucinda at 8:46 AM on October 31, 2008

"classmates", not "classmages". THAT would've been cool, actually.
posted by Lucinda at 8:47 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

You need to be a parent. That is, you need to expose him to a variety of experiences, some of which he will not like and will not be good at. You are not his friend. You are a parent.

While that may be true, but I felt a closer connection with my parents because they were my friends also. I've seen a lot of kids grow up hating their parents because their parents used this method, especially when the same sort of enforcement could be presented in a friendly way. That's why peer pressure from friends is such a huge thing these days. Remember, your sons and daughters didn't start smoking or doing drugs at young ages because someone was being a parent to them.

To the original poster, while you do have more authority than your son's typical friends, he's going to look up to you for certain advice since at that age he will see you as a god(or close enough). So just as a friend would, persuade him to try out new things. If he's super tense or shy about some activity, you can even offer to come along with him so he still has a friend to fall back on. I realize that as a parent, you're probably very busy, so perhaps instead of activities that meet regularly, you could try one time events so that you can come along. Maybe a weekend video game convention, or, if you want something more extra-curricular, maybe a football game or an overnight camping trip. Colleges and town halls also offer many types of one day workshops that you could enroll him in.
posted by nikkorizz at 8:48 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

One of the reasons I never got into sports when I was a kid was that I was clumsy, and tended to trip and drop things.

The best thing I ever did for myself as a kid was learn to juggle. It was fascinating and fun enough that I spent hours practicing, which meant hours spent increasing my physical dexterity, and learning how to learn a physical skill.

I never did get into team sports, but I did start working out soon thereafter, and later on took up fencing and aikido. The juggling skills I taught myself in my teens turned out to be the foundation for every physical skill I've learned since. Plus, suddenly, I could do something impressive that no-one else could do. And I could teach people to do it.

It helped a lot. See if your kid might be interested, and buy him Juggling For The Complete Klutz. And hug him a lot.
posted by MrVisible at 8:56 AM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

You need to be a parent. That is, you need to expose him to a variety of experiences, some of which he will not like and will not be good at. You are not his friend. You are a parent. There's a big difference -- which I think you sense intuitively, but I wanted to throw that out there before you get led astray by other comments about protecting the poor little geek from the mean jocks.

He's not athletic? Bummer. Sign him up for Little League anyway. Or more likely, sit down with him and explain that he will be taking part in some kind of athletic experience, and he gets to choose what that is.

...Erm, speaking as a kid whose parents gave them a similar speech, that just puts pressure on the kid that "oh, crap, now I HAVE to like gymnastics or I'll make Mom sad."

I can support the idea of tailoring the active interest to fit the actual kid, and getting to the root cause of the "shunning", but a sensitive kid may, if forced into a corner, pretend to like something just to make you happy, but secretly hate it and feel bad but not tell you about it because you made SUCH a big deal out of it and they don't want you to be disappointed, and...

Your kids are individuals. Support the individuals they are.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:57 AM on October 31, 2008

Nthing to help him find some activities in which he is interested and can give him multiple other peer groups. Maybe he'd be more interested in an individual-achievement sport, like martial arts, track & field, rock climbing, gynmastics, or swimming. Maybe there's some kind of other team competitive project that would thrill him -- soapbox derby or robot wars. Or maybe get involved with the educational programs at local science museums/aquariums, where he learn something, go on field trips, get involved.
posted by desuetude at 9:26 AM on October 31, 2008

As a child I shunned PE at school in favour of slinking off for secret music lessons. In fact, I was a completely unathletic child; chubby and uncoordinated. When I was 24 I discovered bike racing, then rowing, then triathlon, then marathons. Friends who know me now can't believe there was ever at time I wasn't being sporty.

So I guess what I'm saying is let him find something that he likes. I think that physical activity is important for a child - esp with obesity on the rise, and does teach team play and discipline. But if you make him to s/thing that he hates it'll be agony for him, and counter productive.
posted by poissonrouge at 10:22 AM on October 31, 2008

I know it has been said numerous times, but get involved in other activities. And too worry too much. I know a lot of geeks that turned out OK, myself included.
posted by Silvertree at 11:02 AM on October 31, 2008

My library system has meetings for kids who are interested in drawing manga, and others where they get together and play video games. Maybe yours has similarly geeky events.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:15 PM on October 31, 2008

Lead by example.
posted by BeaverTerror at 11:18 PM on October 31, 2008

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