For a geek dad, geek mom or geek parent whose heart and mind are filled by the songs and stories of popular culture, there’s nothing quite like seeing your kid run through the house with a towel playing the part of a hero’s cape or a wooden spoon transformed into a magic wand or a rock star’s microphone.
Geek parents like these await any sign that a seed of shared interests has been planted and a new fan has bloomed. But is there a right way to cultivate a young fan and encourage kids to love what we love?
As a couple of geek dads old enough to have seen the first Star Wars movie in theaters and eaten bowls of sugary cereal in front of Saturday-morning cartoons, our short answer is: We hope so.
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Is pop-culture fandom a product of nature or nurture? Were any of us initially wired to love what we love? We may not remember all the details of when we watched our first Super Friends cartoon or college basketball game, but the great likelihood is that we didn’t turn on the TV or walk into the arena by ourselves.
Our parents found ways to introduce us to characters and musicians and sports stars. Once something started to take hold with us, they supported our interests with birthday and holiday gifts, with school supplies and T-shirts and bedding. They may not have been fans themselves, but our parents enabled us when we were in that sweet spot of childhood.
Whether through cartoons, movies or small plastic figures, dinosaurs have maintained a generations-long grip on kids’ imaginations. That does not mean your child is ready to see a pack of realistically rendered giant lizards terrorize families enjoying an island vacation—or get eaten by one in a video game.
As with anything else, it’s always best to know your audience and trust the ratings. What might give some kids a rough night of sleep just as easily might give other kids the inspiration to create stop-motion videos with their favorite toys and a smart phone.
When your child (or you) just can’t stay away from sharing something on the edge of appropriateness, talk out the details ahead of time even if it means spoiling a plot point. Sometimes we parents get more scared about our kids being scared than the kids actually do get scared. Go figure.
A lot of our favorite stories run deeper than plotlines of good vs. evil. They might be intended as metaphors for what might lurk within our own insecurities or what problems we’ve brought on ourselves. All our kids might want from a movie, though, is the chance to see some wormy creature popping out of some screaming dude. And that’s okay!
So many of what were our favorite movies or albums or storybooks as kids remain fun to revisit as adults. The better of those works reveal more layers and different lessons to us over time not because the works have changed but because we have.
The greatest stories grow with us, just as they will with our children. Don’t fret when they don’t see now what you see—because they will.
One huge advantage kids have today—and a big responsibility we have as geek parents—comes from the ever-growing number of diverse characters and diverse content-creators. Our fantasy and future worlds are a lot less white and straight than in previous generations, and our kids will be better people and better imaginers as a result. We need to explore these fresh voices ourselves so we can steer our kids toward them—and learn from those voices ourselves, too.
Fandom should be a big tent under which everyone is welcome. We have lifelong friends with whom we first connected because we loved watching and reading the same stuff, and so will our kids. And now, we can throw online gaming in that mix.
But being a fan now means dealing with users of social media who try to shame us for what we enjoy. We can guide our young fans away from painful tweets and memes—and we would do well to discourage them from adding to that negative energy.
And then the day comes when we see our kids pulling down the posters and packing away the toys to make room for the new stuff they love. We parents can feel a little sting in those moments.
Take comfort in knowing everyone is likely to come back to whatever it is they loved so earnestly; it happens to us all when we remember what made us a fan in the first place.
Then you can look forward to seeing your own children fueling their kids’ interests just as we did with them and our parents did with us. We will see the process of the baton pass—and feel like kids again ourselves.