An Open Letter to My Son, Who Yesterday Was Called a ‘Nerd’


Even when the world is dark, and people are picking on you for wearing glasses, Mom and Dad are here and we’d take a bullet to spare you pain. 

Dear Son,

The hardest thing to do, as a parent, is to let your kid go out into the world on his own, even if it’s just to kindergarten. Dad and I may talk a tough game about loving that you guys are getting bigger, but if we’re honest, it’s pretty scary.

See, we were here before you. We remember when there was no you at all, and then one day we watched the teeniest flutter on a screen when you were just 9 weeks into being something other than ether. You were only a few millimeters long, but we already loved you.

And when you were born, you were a mysterious and helpless little lump who needed us so entirely that you weren’t even conscious of yourself as an entity yet. And that was a heady experience for Daddy and me. Never before had we known what it was like to create life, and suddenly you were here—both separate and a part of us.

Yesterday I watched you skip into school, eyes full of sparkle, so proud of your new glasses and haircut. We got you the same black Ray Ban frames that both Daddy and I wear, by far the coolest ones they had at Lens Crafters. We also got you a super short haircut just like the one Dad wears so that your hair wouldn’t get in the way of your new specs.

All weekend long, our friends and family were enamored of your new look and told you how awesome you looked, how much you looked like Dad, so you felt really good about now being the second kid in your class with glasses.

But everything changed with one word from a boy in your class.


And your spark went dark.

“Mom, I thought ‘nerd’ just meant ‘smart’? Why did Billy say it to be mean?”

And so I explained it all to you. How some people think calling someone a nerd makes them seem cooler, but that nerds are the ones who do all the cool stuff that he loves. Nerds invented the iPad, discovered dinosaurs, have gone into space, and make the coolest movies. Nerds are the bosses, the ones who worked hard to get what they wanted, and who have the coolest lives as grown-ups.

You liked the idea of inventing the iPad, and of making a lot of money, and making cool movies like Star Wars. But you were still hurt.

And so I told you about the people who love you. Jake, Kian, Bebe and Franklin who are your best friends, who think you look cool in your glasses. Your cousin Petra who considers you her most trusted friend. Your brother who wants to be exactly like you in every way. Your aunts and uncles who love you like you’re their own child, your grandparents and mom and dad who would step in front of a bus at any moment to spare you pain.

And I told you to tell that kid Billy to mind his own business and find something better to do than be a jerk. But I know you won’t do that, because you’re too sweet and you don’t want anyone to be upset.

And there are also things I wish I could tell you that I know I can’t yet: That kids like Billy are messed up inside, that they have pain that is so great they don’t know what to do with it except be mean to other kids. That doesn’t give them a right to be mean to anyone else, but someone is hurting them, and that’s why they choose to be that way to you.

I can’t tell you this, but if you punched that Billy kid in the face, Daddy and I wouldn’t be mad. The fact that he took your spark of pride away from you makes him the lowest of the low in our book, and even though he’s just a kid, being knocked down a few pegs would serve him well.

Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad

I also can’t tell you this, but your dad has glasses and he got laid like crazy, well before he ever met me. I mean, more than you should probably ever know. He may have been the valedictorian of his graduating class, but that certainly didn’t stop him from dating the hottest girls.

I’m not saying that’s what you should do in your life, but if you can figure out how to adopt your daddy’s swagger, I guarantee you that kids like Billy are going to be tagging along after you, hoping to catch the tail end of the trail of women (or men, if that ends up being your thing) that will end up following you around.

And maybe you don’t want that, and will never have Dad’s too-cool-for-school aura or my big personality and no-bullshit attitude. That’s okay. We love you for who you are, and who you’re going to be.

The truth is, we don’t always understand you. When we were kids, we didn’t like the same stuff you like, and for some reason we continue to be surprised that you’re not a carbon copy of us. You’re a sensitive, curious, goofy guy who at 8 years old loves reptiles, rocks, and video games more than skateboards or surfing. But we see you for who you are, and we think that’s great. Even though sometimes we have no idea what you’re talking about.

And know that Mom and Dad and your family love you, and we think you’re one of the most awesome human beings ever to be put on this earth. And be assured that we will fight for you, for your happiness, safety, and sense of self, for as long as we’re alive. Because you’re worth it, just for being the kid that you are.

Love, Mama

Photo: MIKI Yoshihito/Flickr

Also read:

 15 Reasons It’s Better to Be a Kid Than a Grown-Up by Joanna Schroeder

6 Princess Books for Parents Who Really, Really Hate Princesses by Tom Burns


About Joanna Schroeder

Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and editor with a special focus in issues facing raising boys and gender in the media. Her work has appeared on Redbook, Yahoo!, xoJane,,, and more. She and her husband are outdoor sports enthusiasts raising very active sons. She is currently co-editing a book of essays for boys and young men with author and advocate Jeff Perera. Follow her shenanigans on Twitter.


  1. Oren Eisenberg says:

    Joanna, I appreciated the intent of your piece, particularly with regard to how you and your husband tried to put wind in your child’s sails about his new look. That said, I was deeply concerned by some sentiments in this short confession:

    “I can’t tell you this, but if you punched that Billy kid in the face, Daddy and I wouldn’t be mad. The fact that he took your spark of pride away from you makes him the lowest of the low in our book, and even though he’s just a kid, being knocked down a few pegs would serve him well.”

    I think it’s safe to assume that deep down you don’t believe violence is the right answer, and I suspect the idea here is a raw emotional frustration as a parent to anyone doing something to hurt your child. That said, I think how you’ve handled it here is questionable. Violence isn’t the answer to a bully, and though you may have some of these feelings deep inside I think putting them out there in a public forum such as this article is grossly inappropriate. Particularly when it’s addressed as “knocking him down a peg,” this becomes a more calculated desire for aggression than it would be if your child simply punched this bully in the face during a moment of unrestrained passion.

    My other problem is this: you explain to your son that the bully probably has some deeper pain of his own that he is struggling to handle. But when you express this secret wish (on some level it is) for aggression, you are ignoring this fact. The bully is no longer a person and instead becomes a punching bag. To recognize the drivers of bullying, then to still express that aggression in this article, just seems wrong to me.

    I don’t think you’re a bad person and i don’t think you meant ill here. But i think when it comes to statements in the public, you need to think carefully about every word. You may have those raw feelings of pain for someone hurting your kid, but you can’t let that blind you to the potential harms you’re also creating when those admissions become statements online. It came down to a minor yearning for aggression, which helps no one.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      You DO understand that I did NOT tell him that, right?

      The difference is absolutely huge.

      Show me a parent of a kid who is being bullied who DOESN’T think this. Thinking it and saying it are different.

      If you honestly think I don’t see the kid as just a kid, then you haven’t read the piece well, and you haven’t read any of my other work.

  2. As someone who went through 13 years of bullying in school I wish I had some words of advice for your son unfortunately I still don’t know whether I am any wiser when it comes to bullies.

    I would like to say he should punch billy in the nose, but I know from experience that doesn’t work.
    I would like to say just ignore it but frankly our brains aren’t wired that way and you can’t
    I would like to say things get better (at school) but I know they can get worse, much worse.
    I would like to say tell a teacher but then I’ve been strangled to unconsciousness by my principle for complaining about being bullied.
    I would like to say speak to the other parents about their son, but I have had my nose broken by the other parents so I know that doesn’t work.
    I would like to say don’t keep it a secret but the attention gets you extra secret beatings
    I would like to say keep away from the bullies, but they seek you out
    I would like to say there is a good comeback or something you could say which will stop the bullies, I never found it

    Sorry for being so dark but my bullying stopped only after I left hell. And I really don’t have any answers even after all these years. Some people and kids are just assholes and the only thing that works is never seeing them again.

  3. Joanna —
    While I think this is a wonderful article with quite a bit of insight into great parenting, I found that some of the ways you discuss women were somewhat problematic. I am sure you had no intention of this, as you referred to yourself as a sex-positive feminist in earlier comments. However, I was somewhat concerned by these comments:

    “I also can’t tell you this, but your dad has glasses and he got laid like crazy, well before he ever met me. I mean, more than you should probably ever know. He may have been the valedictorian of his graduating class, but that certainly didn’t stop him from dating the hottest girls.”

    In part, it seems like you are commodifying sex, as though the more a man ‘gets laid’ the more valuable or impressive he is. Also, the way you speak about your husband “dating the hottest girls” seems to insinuate that the more stereotypically beautiful or ‘hot’ a woman is, the more value she possesses and the greater accomplishment it is for a man to be able to date her. It seemed that, while you were trying to prove your husband’s romantic/sexual prowess despite his ‘nerdiness’ or intelligence, you pointed towards the beauty and quantity of his partners as primary proof of his success. To me, this seems to contribute to the problematic ideas of beauty as a woman’s primary merit, as well as the idea that somehow a man that has sex with a large number of women is more valuable or impressive than a man that does not.

    I hate to be disparaging because I really did find your article insightful and well-written, but I wanted to point out my concerns in case you had not considered the implication of a few of your comments.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      I think you’re completely wrong about my commodifying sex. I think you’re being overly academic about a non-academic scenario.

      That being said, I’ll recognize that I placed a higher value on “hot” women than other women. Definitely problematic. Is it a deal-breaker for the piece? Certainly not.

      The point is, nerdy guys don’t lack for sexual attention by nature of their glasses, intellect or academic pursuits.

      And when it comes down to it, that’s a perfectly feminist message. In fact, the implication otherwise (that women only go for so-called Alpha Males) is actually significantly less feminist, in my mind.

      • Hottest to him isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if that includes a personality. I am sure you are the hottest woman ever to your husband.

      • I would be interested in knowing why you think I am wrong about commodifying sex — it is certainly possible that I do not understand the concept fully or had an off interpretation, I was just offering my take on things.

        I also think you make a very good point in that there is a time and a place for being overly academic and too critical. I think you are right in saying that this piece, given its tone and message (which I agree is overall a feminist and positive one), likely didn’t warrant my dissection of minute details. As a proud wife to a nerdy guy, I definitely appreciate the vast majority of what you wrote.

        • Allie, I agree with you. The way this read is detrimental to both men and women, as if the amount of sex a man has validates or invalidates him. I hope this insinuation dues out one day…

  4. An interesting thing: when I was at work today the owner of the company I work for, that provides interactive games for social events, said that cerebral events like murder mystery dinners and treasure hunts have a much wider female following than a male one: “I know it’s sexist” she said; “Well, no it isn’t.” I reassured her, “that’s an observation based on your experience, but why is that, is it nature or nurture?” because I’d been led to believe that we were the nerdier of the sexes, generally – all those nerdy learning difficulties like aspergers, dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD all that – one of the common things that’s said is these are predominantly male disorders. They’re also predominantly very smart males, that are just slow in developing social skills. I’d been a bookish lad myself; obsessed with word puzzles and logic puzzles and trivia and whatever; looking back I’m fairly sure I had, and still have dyspraxia. My ex-partner has recently got my eldest son diagnosed with aspergers and thinks I have the same. Initially I’ve doubted the diagnosis, but my friends teenage daughter who I have watched grow up now declares herself to be aspy, and she’s as atypical as I am; but it manifests differently in girls, I’m told, so much so that it used to be a difficult thing to diagnose in girls.

    Just to dispel a myth, the theory that aspergers kids lack a theory of mind, and don’t have much in the way of empathy has now largely been discredited; the newer theory is that they are overwhelmed by emotional intensity – rather like Clark in Man of Steel being overwhelmed by the onset of his X-ray vision. The reason they avoid eye-contact is not because it doesn’t mean anything to them, but because it means too much. This made sense… there was a poem written during my mid-twenties in which I described eye-contact with a girl (who later, as it turned out was the mother of my children) as being like a feeling of vertigo…

    “When I look into your blue blue eyes
    I feel like I’m standing on a precipice”

    it began and after the fugue of themes throughout the poem, it returns to the theme in the penultimate lines:

    “But as I look into your blue blue eyes
    The calling of my fatal vertigo
    I’m inclined to forget everything I just said,
    As I see you have already done so.”

    I do distinctly remember that feeling of terror of making eye-contact with people especially when the eye contact was communicating too much, as in her case of course because she was attracted to me, as much in denial about the fact as I was. So maybe she’s right and I am, and the reason I don’t recognise it, in myself or in my son (at age five he stood up to the neighbour’s kid, who was older than him, for chasing their pet rabbit “stop it! You’re frightening him!” he demanded – and I still feel pride about that – that isn’t the actions of someone who lacks empathy; possibly it is the actions of someone who has more than the usual amount of emotional receptivity).

    But the reason it manifests differently in girls is open to question. One argument is that girls are more adept at social skills anyway, or possibly they are socialised into social skills more effectively. But another possibility is, since the learning difficulties I mention are all associated with the upper quartile of intelligence and if being intellectual is more ostracising if you’re a boy than it is if you’re a girl – that is if it’s not a valuable social commodity, could it be the smart males have less socialising opportunities than smart girls? I know by the time I got to university I found my closest friends were female because they were the ones I could have the deeper more interesting conversations with. As I say, not exclusively; I have two or three male friends, but they’re in the minority. And I don’t think it is a rarity to be a smart male, on the contrary, but I think are we not comfortable engaging in cerebral activities with each other.

    Particularly in the teens, there is a social stigma attached. Anything that is a hobby that isn’t sport is ripe for ridicule, by both peers and the media, and if you’re a teen that’s a massive atrophication of your social outlets, if your hobbies and interests have to be a guilty secret. So anyway, what I was suggesting is that boys drawn to more cerebral pursuits might suffer more social exclusion that girls drawn to those same pursuits and that may account for the more detrimental effects on their social skills. The choice offered would appear to be dumb down and conform, or don’t dumb down and be excluded.

    But it’s changing now, hasn’t there been a geek lib revolution in the last twenty years? Or is that just my perception because I live in the adult world now?

  5. So…you’re upset at the nerd comment but you’re OK labeling Billy as damaged based on a run of the mill name-calling incident? Sorry, that doesn’t make sense to me.

    Billy acted like kind of a jerk. I’d tell my sensitive son pretty much the same thing as far as solidifying his self-worth. But getting through sleights and petty name-calling has been, is, and always will be part of growing up. Anyone who thinks it can or should be completely eradicated is delusional. Why is it that so many parents (not specifically you Joanna, just in general) want to eliminate all hardships instead of better preparing our kids to overcome them?

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Important distinction – I didn’t tell my son that about the other boy. That was my internal narrative!

      I think teaching my kid to think about the word “nerd” differently is actually a coping skill for the hardness of life. As a teen, I was called alternately a “slut” (meaning I was having sex with someone) or “stuck-up” (meaning I wasn’t having sex with anyone) depending up on the boys in my school’s mood. I had to think differently about both words to not be profoundly damaged by both terms. Probably why I am a sex-positive feminist in my adulthood.

      But no, I wouldn’t tell my kid that Billy is messed up. I did tell him that Billy might be feeling sad, or insecure somehow, and that we should try to have compassion for him.

  6. Butterfly says:

    Our kids’ school still has Nerd Day during Spirit Week. I enjoyed helping my daughter pick out a silly outfit that exaggerated what we wore in the 1980s for 80s Day, and I know it’s all in fun and not meant to be taken seriously. But it seems so backward and hurtful to poke fun at a stereotype of a smart, socially awkward person.

  7. Joanna,

    You said this very well. He’s lucky to have you as a mom. You might also tell him that he’s a little bit lucky to be living in a time when NERDS RULE THE WORLD! We didn’t always.

  8. Great read. I remember when I got glasses, about 10 years old. I wear contacts now but still rock the thick frames every now and then.

    Here’s a little photo I took to support Izz. I hope you can pass the photo along to him.

  9. Great letter, Mom. Reminds me of a funny episode of Frasier where his son Frederick is called a dork and Frasier tells the bully: “That dork will be operating on your prostate one day!”

  10. wellokaythen says:

    Will you adopt me?

    Before you say no: I’m potty trained, I share my toys, I can give you sibling references that show that I’m a good brother, I have a job, and I come with my own transportation and my own health insurace coverage.

  11. wellokaythen says:

    I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. Damn you. :.-)

  12. As the mom of two kids in junior high who both wear glasses, just like mom AND dad, and been dubbed band geeks, and get the best grades, let me say, now is the time to install in your child the sense of self-worth because it gets far worse in junior high.

    Let them know that it’s fine to be smart, kind, sensitive and goofy, that who they are is who they are and if other people don’t like it, it is their problem and loss, not related to your child. Let them know that while you and the family love them, the reality is not everyone in the world will like them and that’s okay. We’re all unique and the people who like you are smart enough to see what an amazing person you are. Those are the ones to stick around, the kids with their heads on straight who have bright futures. You don’t need to worry about the opinions of others who don’t like you or won’t include you. They are just in that small group that’s going to miss out.

    You’re doing a beautiful job of helping your child see that people lash out because often something is going on in their lives that you can’t see. You don’t know how many times my son has come home shaking his head and telling me about someone acting out only to follow it with,”There must be something really wrong. Kids who are happy don’t act like that.” And for my daughter who’s gone through the tough transition of losing long-time elementary friends to the “cool click” who no longer will give her the time of day because she’s an A student, a band geek playing trombone and co-captain of the dance team, she’s learned self-confidence and kindness have far more impact and attraction factor than who you hang out with or the brands you wear.

    Is your child still going to feel hurt the first time these things happen? Absolutely. So be prepared. Does it get easier as their self-confidence grows? Yes. And when they cry and ask you why people are acting this way, be honest. You can’t control how other people behave. You can only control how you choose to respond and what you choose to do with it.

  13. Pesky Vrmt says:

    ^^^That was for Joanna.

  14. Pesky Vrmt says:

    Bravo! That was very well done!

  15. Joanna, I hope your son sheds the nerdiness and grows up to be a good looking, confident, charming man who is desirable to women. I hope he grows up to be the kind of men they really want.

    Why wouldn’t a mother wish for this for her son?

  16. Great article! It sounds like you handled the situation like a champ.

  17. A beautiful piece, Joanna.

  18. @ThomasM:

    If it hurt, it hurt…and for a reason. Some boys are more sensitive that others. I was an open-nerve of sensitivity till the Summer I turned 8. Izz, from all I have gathered, is likewise a sensitive boy.

    Not all mothers are created the same either. Some are very engaged and attuned to their children’s emotional states. Some are mother lions and will let you know it in clear terms.

    Calling someone a “nerd” is purely an emotional attack. Kids do that, or say that in order to hurt the perceived weaker kid. There’s no need for that crap anywhere…but it certainly ought to be verboten in schools. Its bull crap and not welcome. It tells kids they cannot be themselves without harsh condemnation from the Billies of the world.

  19. ThomasM says:

    Seriously, you are overreacting. A kid called your son a nerd. So what? Kids are mean sometimes. Billy is not messed up inside. He’s just a kid. I’m pretty sure your son sometimes says hurtful things to other kids, too. If Billy is regularly picking on your son it’s a different thing. But one stupid comment is just one stupid comment. Don’t make a big deal out of it, you are not doing your son a favor if you are overprotecting him.

  20. Great thoughtful letter, Joanna!

    Izz is a truly awesome and lucky little man…!

    I got called a “brain” by my BFF, K., in 6th grade….I couldn’t understand why she was being so mean to me….and my other good friend, S., just told me that she must be jealous and to ignore it….

    Anyway, I am still BFFs with K. and it turns out she is a “brain”, too….so is her kid now, too! In the grand scheme of life, it is very good to be a “brain” or a “nerd”….we shall inherit the earth!

  21. Hey, Izz…

    You have great parents; listen to ’em; but don’t hit the kid who’s givin’ you trouble. As your mom says, he’s probably already being hurt in some way, and he’s certainly jealous of and even a little bit of afraid of ya. I mean, you’re Different!

    Everyone’s a little different, and then there are the Lucky Ones whose Difference just shows up in a brighter way. Hang in, kiddo; it gets better.


    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Kile, we really DON’T want him to hit the kid! But when you have one kid bothering a bunch of others, as a parent, you can’t help but feel like the kid needs to be reminded that he’s not the king of the world. But we would NOT tell him that or advocate for it! It’s just a parental knee-jerk 😉

  22. Joanna! As soon as I saw the title on my email i was flippin-sht!

    There’s nothing I can tell you about this that you don’t already know. You are much wiser then me on children’s emotional health. So again…I can offer no special angles or spin.

    I just want to compliment you on handling it so well for Izz. He had one of those days that etched into his heart. But Izz has something many kids don’t — Parents who got his back! And he KNOWS he has parents who’ve got his back.

    Maybe someday he’ll be able to pull Billy aside and privately tell him to keep his math and science grades up, and he may not have to work for me (Izz). If this becomes an escalating issue, I’d equip Izz with a stack of photos of very hot and famous guys who wear glasses. Let him place them down on Billies desk next time he needs to lash-out.

    Why do these “make you stronger” experiences have to hurt so darned much? Hang in there great Mom!

  23. Alyssa Royse says:

    As a lifelong lover of nerds and geeks, and a parent, my heart goes out.

    Not that you should share this with him, but I have always told my daughter that nerds and geeks are where it’s at. Once she got old enough I used my trademark phrase, “Those guys will tinker with your motherboard until they find an algorithm that makes it work.” Nerds and geeks are where it’s at. Totally.

    (At least partly because they’ve had to spend their life dealing with insensitive bullying and bullshit stereotyping and are therefore less likely to do it themselves. This Billy kid is teaching your son exactly the things that will make him totally awesome. And it still sucks.)

    • Yeah the nerds get the girl in the end, after she’s had her fun with the other type of guys.

      • Dude… people aren’t divided into fixed categories. You have a strange worldview, or maybe you’re just wallowing in self-pity because the hot cheerleader isn’t interested in you. There’s plenty of smart girls, nerd girls, fun girls around, and if you stopped thinking of them as a big giant evil entity and saw them as individuals instead, it would be beneficial.

    • “At least partly because they’ve had to spend their life dealing with insensitive bullying and bullshit stereotyping and are therefore less likely to do it themselves. ”
      Not always, sometimes it can be more passive aggressive but there are quite a lot of bullies during school who were bullied themselves, I bullied for a bit in year 6 or 7 trying to fit in and be cool, whilst I was being bullied by others. Later on I realized the impact n stopped it. Hell most of my bullies probably were abused at home or something….sometime has to give those kids such a need to control n hurt others.

  24. Hi 5. I wear glasses, it’s annoying but it doesn’t make me a nerd or a geek, it just means I have astigmatism!


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