I Keep Trying to Make My Son Cool


Joanna Schroeder admits that she thinks coolness matters…and she wonders if that makes her a jerk or a good parent.

Sometimes, as parents, we have to admit stuff we’re not so proud of.

Today it’s my turn.

My son is in third grade and is suddenly at the stage where you can look at him and see what kind of guy he might grow into. His big grown-up teeth are coming in and his hair is getting long and heavy. Suddenly, he walks like a dude and talks like a dude, picking up some unsavory phrases from his friends and shocking me regularly with them. I will admit that I love it as much as I hate it. The other day he called the bad driver in front of us on the highway “a douchebag” and told a creeper in Minecraft to “Suck it!” before blasting it away.

So, yeah, that’s happening.

I think the fact that I’ve always talked to my kids like they were little men is coming back to bite me. The other day we ran into a former coach, a really cool guy with a ponytail and the ability to do a standing back flip. The coach put out his knuckles for a fist bump and said, “What up, dude?” and my son said back, “I’m good, but I feel like a strange weather pattern is rolling in. My allergies are driving me crazy.”



Yeah, he can be kind of awkward. So can I. And I’m kind of a hypocrite. Last school year, when my son got glasses and kids called him a nerd, I wrote about how proud he should be that he is a nerd. Nerds rule the business world. Nerds know who they are and don’t care what other people think. Being a nerd is awesome.

But somewhere inside of myself, I wish he knew how to act cool. Not like an entitled popular jerk, but laid back and mellow.

This isn’t for me, I don’t care if he’s cool. I’ll love every cell of him forever, endlessly, every second, regardless of what he chooses to do with his life. But there are times when it’s just easier to be a cool guy. The cool guy gets a lot of breaks. The cool guy doesn’t get bullied (or so it seems). The cool guy knows how to make people comfortable, and put people at ease. That’s a real asset in life.

Call me shallow, but I look at what the older kids in his school are wearing and try to steer him toward those things. Left to his own devices, he’d be a mess. He doesn’t mind if his pants are way too short, but it drives me crazy. He looks like he’s about to go grunion hunting or wading in a shallow river. And yes, I make him go change because I don’t want him to be made fun of. The idea of someone teasing my kids and making them sad is just too much to bear. Especially when it’s over something as easy to change as a pair of pants that are two sizes too small.

Every once in a while I’ll even eavesdrop just to see how he’s relating to other kids. I was doing said sneaky thing last week while waiting for him to finish soccer practice. I sat in my car, windows cracked, and listened to him make jokes to the three best players on his team. The jokes weren’t flying. I saw one kid roll his eyes.

Why isn’t this easy for him? I asked myself. How can I teach him to just be mellow? Because isn’t that what coolness is—being the dude in the room who isn’t trying to be noticed? The guy who doesn’t have to say anything? The guy who can get along with anybody?

And so I tried talking to him about what it means to try too hard. I talked to him about the skill of reading the room. I explained that if people aren’t laughing at the first joke, it’s not the time to be funny. In this case, his teammates were working hard, and they weren’t in the mood for screwing around.

As I said this, I realized that I had no idea what was the right thing to do. Will attempting to coach him into coolness make him feel bad about who he is? I tried to be really positive and upbeat, but it still worries me. If I let him flounder socially, am I neglecting a certain aspect of parenting that could make his life better? Am I failing to teach him a very useful skill if I don’t try to push him toward coolness? At the very least, everyone should learn how to read a room for social cues.

Or am I trying to take away the things that make him unique?

The reality is, my son does really well. He gets along with everybody in his class and he’s a great kid. Every day I look at him and think of what an astounding person he is. If it were up to his dad and me, we’d say he was as near perfect as a son could get.

But as parents, we’re always trying to give our kids the skills they need to navigate the future. And you have to ask yourself, is coolness one of those skills?


For her indispensable book, Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World, Rosalind Wiseman studied the lives and social habits of 160 boys in order to determine what makes boys successful and happy in their adolescent and teen years. In the book, Wiseman explains that boys’ happiness isn’t hinged upon being popular. What seems to matter most is having at least one really good friend who “gets” them. Even guys on what she calls the “Bottom Rung” – the least cool group in the school – just want to feel accepted by their inner group:

“Guys on the Bottom Rung know their low social position, know they can appear odd to others, and don’t care as long as they have at least one strong friendship. Many of them believe that because they aren’t even in the running for high social status, they have more dependable friends [than the kids in the most popular group do]. That’s debatable, but what is true is that the members of the group are usually very connected to each other and don’t feel like they have to constantly prove themselves to anyone.” (pp 41-42)

A lightbulb went off in my mind when I read that. The most important thing isn’t being cool, it’s the ability to build really strong friendships with the kids they can be themselves around—and not trying to please the rest. The real skill I’d like my sons to carry forth into their lives is knowing who they are, and knowing that they don’t have to make everyone like them in order to be happy.

But as his parents, we also owe it to him to try to guide him in how to read social cues. Doing that in a loving way won’t hurt his self-esteem, but rather it’ll give him a gift he can use his whole life. The ability to make people comfortable while still being yourself starts on the playground, is honed on sports fields, and eventually becomes an asset in the boardroom. But in the end, regardless of whether he’s popular or unpopular, knowing that we’ve prioritized building strong friendships is what really matters.

After all, if you know you’ve got good friends, you can stop trying to please other people. And that’s when you truly become cool.

But I still can’t bring myself to let him wear those short pants…





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, MariaShriver.com, TIME.com, 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. Hey Joanna, I think it’s really “cool” to put your more vulnerable feelings o the web and attach you’re name to it – I can’t do that yet, and I admire you for it – as a parent, it’s nice to know that others have question marks surrounding these things.

    My thoughts are this: I was a “cool” kid at school, skilled at getting people to like me, talented at music and art – that was my handle, tall, good looking, pretty smart. And miserable as hell. I didn’t have supportive parents, like your son, so would contort myself into whatever shapes appeared acceptable by the overiding consensus. A miserable way to be, but the envy of many of my peers. Thing is, I never had to act “cool”, I learnt this when I moved from a more destructive friendship group of unstable kids, to a more stable one. They were kinder, more confident in themselves, and we all admired each other for our quirks, talents and failings. They were secure in a way I wasn’t, but with them I felt cherished and loved, which is what I was missing at home. And they were happy, and by high school standards: “cool”, though they weren’t chasing it. Your son is cool. The older I get, the more I admire those kids who simply march to the beat of their own drum and have no care for how they are perceived. I breathe a sig of relief that they have support and will not endure excruciating doubt and depressions for lack of love. To embrace yourself and not adjust yourself entirely to fit someone else’s of what is approved: that is strength, that will bring admiration and they will inspire confidence in others. Just continue loving your kid as you are, with that assurance, he will navigate and negotiate everything in his path, including strange weather patterns.

  2. The local culture — the local KID culture that is, dictates the terms of coolness. I came from a very hostile kid culture, so I only knew one set of cool-rools first hand. Said “coolness” varies greatly from town-to-town, or school districts.

    I very bound and determined to let my kids go on auto-pilot for cultural melding, so that’s what my wife and I did. My son absolutely rocked at baseball, to the extent of causing petty adults to reveal themselves as such. It turned out, his peers admired his ability and were totally “chill” with it. He is an academic rockstar, and still receives nothing but positive-pal reactions.

    This town of ours must have been modeled after a Normal Rockwell, as the kids are universal saints, despite the yuppie parents’ efforts at shaping them to their own ideals. the kids handle the annoying kids without hurting their feelings. Even the early-outers (6th Grade) would never be treated with disrespect. “He’s our friend! Why would we ever say anything to make him feel bad about himself?”

    I just don’t think you can shape the collective or the individual to work with each other. Kids are very good at demonstrating “cool” and “acceptable” to the less-informed.

    Its a perfect article topic for you Joanna, as you are one of the most vigilant Mom’s in history. Given that you skateboard, you already carry a rather large collection of “cool-points.” He’ll get all the tips he needs for you and his peers.

  3. Theorema Egregium says:

    I’ve been wrestling with a similar issue lately, thinking about how I will try to bring up my children when I have them (in a couple of years).

    Having always been the clueless bookish nerd at the end of the social food chain, I fervently wish my children to be spared that hell of friendlessness, bullying and dating misfortune. So I definitely want them to be cool.

    On the other hand, what if being cool means you have to be shallow, proudly anti-intellectual (proud of being bad at school), a fashion victim addicted to the newest gadgets, and bully those below you?
    I remember that I never even knew the music artists or TV series all the other kids were always talking about. Then I estimated how much time of the day it would cost me to keep up with all that, and it did not seem worth it. I dreaded the thought of having to sacrifice everything valuable about me and become somebody I had no respect for, just in order to belong.

    What would you recommend?

    • It is not a black or white choice. Cool doesn’t have to be anti-intellectual, and bookish doesn’t mean deep.

      My parents were nerdy. I was socially flexible and could hang out with the cool kids and nerds without any issues, all the way through school (though in middle school, I started avoiding the cool kids as I determined their influence made me act meaner).

      The thing that made that possible was respect. I treated every human being, from the older Downs kid to the most popular girl with respect and understanding. I did not believe anybody was better than me based on hierarchy- or that anyone was worse. That showed, and people reciprocated the respect I showed to them.

      Giving your kid life experiences where he can learn self-regard and compassion for others (rich, poor, ugly, beautiful, male, female) will take the target off his back better than anything else. Take him out to the mall, and point out all types of people. Ask him to think of nice things to say about them, and to make up stories about the strangers that are kind and compassionate. Then, when he is down on himself, he will have practice saying nice things about himself, and searching for the good underneath the bad.

  4. Terry Washington says:



  5. Being cool is being unattached to any outcome. You do what you like and what anybody else thinks is something you have no control over. In some ways joanna, to be blunt without malice, you’re instilling people pleasing in him, and that is definitely uncool. His answer to his coach was perfect. He understood the question and gave his heartfelt answer. To say back to coach, rockin’ dude, or something similarly inane just continues the hiding men do all their lives. And guess who’s teaching him that? Yep, the most important and loved woman in his life. So when another love comes into his life what do you think he’ll remember at the more than likely subconscious level? Yep again. I have to show this woman too that I’m always hip.

    I really am not dissing you here. It is tough. But I get the distinct impression that your saying your mom things like love you any way you turn out, and at the same time perpetuating the strength of the feminine perspective of what a man is supposed to be do and act all the time. And that is simply perpetuating the male privilege and contributing to the continued gender confusion we’ve all suffered with for too long.

    Personally, I believe that the only things we need to teach our kids is a relative few items. Be kind to others. Don’t take touch of the sun. Other people like it too. Be confident in yourself. The opinions of others are just that, their opinion. If it’s good then it doesn’t matter any more than if it’s bad – it’s merely their opinion. Do not hurt anybody on purpose. If you do so unwittingly then apologize. And finally above all, be responsible for what you say and do. There is no free ride and life owes you nothing.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Yeah, I don’t disagree and I actually love the way my son is. But it is often awkward for others – this coach smiled and responded well, but sometimes other kids are like “Whuu?” and I would NEVER change how he talks to people. Maybe that was unclear. I do worry about the “trying too hard” much, much more. As I said in the post. I like that he’s brainy and thoughtful. But as I said, and as noted by Wiseman, I think my job is to just help him nurture those friendships where he feels 100% accepted. Then he won’t feel the need to try to please anybody.

  6. Thought it was a great article, just one thing though; if you don’t want him to wear pants that are two sizes too small, then why are they still in the house? 3rd grade = 9/10 yrs old, guessing he doesn’t make a lot of buying/shopping choices yet.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      They’re his brother’s pants, who is 6!

      • Wow, why does he like those so much?

        My brother had a thing at that age for pulling his socks up to his knees for ‘comfort’…and both he and mom were totally oblivious to how negatively it effected him in middle school. If you don’t want to be struck by lightning, don’t go out in the rain with a pole, you know?

        For my brother, a lot of his friends moved away, and then it was the divorce. I think the stress made him a little over particular, a little OCD-ish. Maybe if you give him control over something else or address the underlying motivation, he’ll stop raiding his little brother’s closet? I mean, that isn’t merely uncool. It is developmentally odd to aspire to dress ‘younger’ at that age.

  7. I didn’t think your son’s comment about his allergies was jerky at all. It was the coach with the fist bump and the “What up dude?” who sounded jerky to me. Trying way to hard to be hip.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Oh I didn’t think it was jerky at ALL. It was a little awkward and didn’t bother me at all. I’m a bit awkward. There are social conventions I truly do not follow. The coach is actually an amazing guy, we’re lucky to have him in our lives. My son just isn’t a “dude” – he’s wonderful, he’s very sensitive and science-minded and likes to talk about things he’s passionate about a LOT. (Like his mom!)

      Anyway, no I did not think his comment to the coach was jerky. Just a bit unexpected.

      I do think he was trying WAY too hard with the teammates though. And that’s what worried me. As I summarized in the piece, the bigger point is to cultivate the friendships that are meaningful to you in a really authentic way – and you won’t feel the need to make people like you.

      • Just curious about your definition of the word “dude.” In your article you say your son “walks like a dude and talks like a dude…” In response to my comment you said your son “just isn’t a dude.” What exactly is a “dude”?
        Not trying to be argumentative. Genuinely curious.

        • Joanna Schroeder says:

          Like a teen or a grown up.

          We live in LA, not far from a beach town. We’re all “dude” and “gnarly” in a way that is sort of embarrassing 😉

  8. Tom Brechlin says:

    Joanna, “cool” like art, is in the eye of the beholder. Your son has the benefit of a much more diverse society where “cool” comes in all shapes and sizes.

  9. Well Ms. Schroeder, welcome to the world of modern Parenthood! Seriously though, the more you worry about such things, in my estimation anyway, the more ‘involved’ parent you are and that aint a bad thing lady! What you refer to as ‘cool’ is what I see as self confidence. Not someone who’s a ‘self centered’ a-hole, but someone who’s comfortable in their own skin. If your boy can somehow find that and maintain it through High School (sounds easy but it’s not!) the world will truly be his! Otherwise, you and Dad keep reinforcing him (just be straight,no B.S.) it most likely will still work out! And trust me on this one, no matter how much he sees this as ‘ interference’ , one day, many years from now ( not that many though), he will come up, kiss you on the cheek , and say “Thank You”.

  10. My 13 year old son is navigating 8th grade surprisingly well…he has known many of the kids since nursery school and elementary school….he plays guitar at the beginner level and is learning to play with other people in a band or as a duet/trio, which is really cool…he can play his part but allow other people to shine, too…when his friends or troubled kids in his peer group behave in an obnoxious way, he calls them out on their behavior (and always in a nice way)…..we talk about stuff that happens at school (kids misbehaving when the substitute teacher arrives) or about when his friends say something hurtful….

    We are reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” together now, which is really entertaining and revealing….we talk about how Atticus and Scout and Jem are each challenged to stick up for the underdog and for what they think is right, even though the mob may think differently….I had to explain how Miss Maudie considers herself just a “regular” Baptist and not one of the extreme “foot washin’ Baptists” who think that every pleasure is a sin….! Sometimes you can’t just blindly follow the crowd….gotta think for yourself….!

  11. I have struggled in the back of my mind all day to find a way to say why the whole idea of this post really put me off, without being a jerk. For other reasons I just ran across this quote from Graham Greene (from a novel, The End of the Affair) that kind of sums it up:

    “I want men to admire me, but that’s a trick you learn at school–a movement of the eyes, a tone of voice, a touch of the hand on the shoulder or the head. If they think you admire them, they will admire you because of your good taste, and when they admire you, you have an illusion for a moment that there’s something to admire.”

    It is good for me to face your words and hear that there are people to whom social awkwardness is bothersome or painful to watch. Maybe it will also be good for you to hear that there are people (like me) who are literally fairly oblivious to it. I think over time I have become pretty dang adept socially, but I just have a tin ear for it because it carries no intrinsic value for me, myself. I learned to care because I care about people and want to engage with the good ones. It sounds like your son is in great hands and will learn the same. He sounds wonderful, by the way. “I’m good, but I feel like a strange weather pattern is rolling in. My allergies are driving me crazy.” That put a smile on my face and would many others.

    Cool is complicated. Uncool can be cool too.

  12. You’re reinforcing the idea of cool and making the “different” less cool if you try get him wearing cooler clothes. Not necessarily a bad thing but just be careful with it, it can suppress his own style.

    Teach him to be confident but happy, polite to people. Don’t worry about cool, a confident kid will always be cool in my books.

    Try teach him how to read female body language (probably far more important in highschool) and vocal tones, not everyone understands that and I really wish I did as a teenager. Get him talking to a variety of people older n young, women n men but I’d say especially to women too if he hasn’t had enough experience with them, this is a way to help reduce anxiety with the opposite sex which is pretty common for boys and men even though we don’t show it often.

    Speaking as a man who had a hard time with women and girls in school due to social awkwardness and bullying, I can’t express how vital it is to try get this out of him if he has it. Each gender tends to stick with their own and there can be a lot of annoying things to work out when learning the social landscape. Even harder if he has any autism or other issues that can affect socialization.

    Because of my bullying I wasn’t talking with many people in year 10 or so onwards, found it difficult to hold a conversation and froze up quite a bit. I got labelled creepy over that because I unknowingly lingered whilst trying to figure out what to say. Tried to watch other people and mimic their behaviour to fit in but failed at times, sometimes because I didn’t understand at the time the body language of girls especially but partly at times because my grade had a lot of downright bitchs who bullied a lot of people (plenty of jerks did the same too).

    Very rarely do people teach others about body language upfront, usually you learn by messing up and having the other person get annoyed at you whilst you feel like you’re a failure. It’s horrible to be called creepy because you’re completely stuck on what to say, so nervous and they can sense it. A lot of people, I think especially teenagers do not understand the difference between creepy and actual social awkwardness which is what I had. Because socially awkward and shy people tend to act differently or miss certain cues they can be mistaken for creepy and you really don’t want your son going through that. Although I’m not sure how much weight to put in my being called creepy by 3 bullies but the words did have a lasting effect on me that has made it even more difficult to talk to women.

    These day’s it’s much easier, I’ve always had excellent ability to read body language regarding danger but the teenage years upset it as I was learning new stuff like the sarcasm and passive aggressive behaviours which were hella confusing. Teach him how to spot those passive aggressive and subtle bullying methods! Boys are far more direct usually so if he learned more from boys then he may get confused like I did over girls behaviour. Learning the romantic body language also took quite a while, wasn’t until my 20’s I learned that so that may help him if you can teach him when he’s old enough (eg the hair flicking/playing, pointing body towards who you like, mirroring, etc),

    I think the teenage years are the hardest as there are so many emotions that are new, hormones, and the change between child and adult takes drastic turns in behaviour. Most of the typical “geeks” usually have some form of shyness or social awkwardness and without good education on it, it really does make it a lot harder as they fumble through trying to figure it out, and usually makes bullying worse.

  13. Doug Zeigler says:

    My worries are not that my kids won’t be cool, but rather that will be ridiculed for not being cool, if that makes any kind of sense. Well said, Joanna. 🙂

  14. Kathryn DeHoyos says:

    You are an AMAZING mom Joanna! Thank you so much for sharing this! I think most parents worry about stuff like this, but don’t want to say it out loud for fear of sounding like jerks. I know I worry about stuff like this with my girls all the time.

    Hugs to you and your sweet boy! <3

  15. I love your son! “I’m good, but I feel like a strange weather pattern is rolling in. My allergies are driving me crazy.”

    You’re not alone. I applaud you for your transparency. My oldest is an introvert and highly sensitive, so I worried about him. Thanks to Dr. Ted Zeff, who works with parents of highly sensitive boys, we were able to help him break out of his comfort zone while respecting his personality traits.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Izac is super sensitive but NOT shy, haha. We’re soooo lucky with our school. Every one of the kids is so interesting and unique. I’m sure it’ll change in middle school but we have a great principal and there is literally zero identity bullying that happens. We have a large number of highly disabled students on our campus, and I wonder if that contributes to the overall level of acceptance of kids. We’re very lucky.

      And he’s such a brain. He cracks me up. I’m certain I wasn’t too different. As it stands now, my friends tease me about my uber-seriousness. Apple doesn’t fall far, you know. 😉

      Love the info about sensitive boys.

  16. I think every good parent wants their child to do well socially, but it’s best to understand that it’s a long game and the situations they are in at this early age are often contrived and don’t necessarily reflect the ones they’ll embrace when they’re older. So long as they are given a foundation to discover who they are and become the best possible version of who that is, then they are set.

    And, Joanna, I think your son is set.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      I do think that it comes back to the thing I probably teach my kids the most… And that’s being thoughtful of others’ feelings. IE if they’re working hard at soccer, they don’t want to joke around and that’s not thinking about their feelings. Does that make sense?

      I wouldn’t say that about the playground. If he was like, “So and so doesn’t laugh at my jokes on the playground” I’d tell him to go hangout with a different friend. Does that make sense?

      I think the balance is in teaching them necessary social skills all while teaching them to be loyal to their best friends, the ones who already “get” them. So you can walk into a room and get along fine with people, but you don’t have to make them like you, because at the heart of it you know that you have your good friends who are your priority.

      Does that make sense?

      • It does, but I also think it’s important for them to understand that if they are in a situation where they’re the odd person out that they aren’t necessarily the one who is wrong. A person should always be kind, thoughtful and considerate, but if they’re in a room full of jerks who treat them like they’re a jerk, they should have the confidence to realize what’s really going on.

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