20 Questions: Marybeth Hicks

This week our 20 Questions subject comes to you from the Reagan White House. Marybeth Hicks writes a column for The Washington Times and worked as a writer in the Reagan White House.

But most importantly, she’s a proud geek. Now based in Michigan, she recently came out with a parenting book called Bringing Up Geeks: How to Protect Your Kid’s Childhood in a Grow-Up-Too-Fast World. And since it takes one to know one, Hicks can say with authority that Washington is crawling with geeks.

Would you say that you’re a geek expert?
Yes. My husband and I are the parents of four children, and our geek parenting style has become legendary. I often say it was my destiny, because I was always interested in politics, and that seems to be a geeky subject, and my husband was captain of the academic bowl team in high school.

So you were or are a geek yourself?
When I was in high school, I was kind of a cool-girl wannabe. I think by the time I finished high school, I realized my geek roots. By today’s standards, I’m claiming “geek” as my very own. I’m loud and proud, and I’m raising geeks of my own.

What got you interested in writing about geeks?
I was at a school function and talking with a bunch of moms, and I made some cracks about how my kids were geeks, and one mother was aghast … I was like, “Lady, have you met my kids? Everyone knows they’re geeks.”

I remember leaving there thinking, “So what’s the big deal? We’re raising geeky kids, and we’re happy about that.”

I wrote two columns about that, and those two columns generated a ton of response. The word “geek” I use is an acronym for genuine, enthusiastic, empowered kids, so it’s kind of a positive spin on that sort of stereotype, that it’s OK not to be über-cool and popular, and to enjoy your childhood.

Did you encounter a lot of geeks while working in the Reagan White House?
I don’t know where a lot of them are right now, so I’m going to go ahead and say yes. Young people who are very tuned in politically tend to be geeky and in a good way — because they already care about real issues, not just what’s going on at the mall.

What was it like to work in the Reagan White House?
I interned in the summer of 1981, and so that was right after the shooting, so of course security got very tight.

It was such a blast. Basically, we spent the summer finding out how you could snag free food by going to receptions.

What strikes me is how all-consuming it was. We were there from 6:30 or 7 in the morning to 7 o’clock at night.

It was fascinating. But I would call home and talk to my family about what was going on, and they were like, “What are you talking about?” Talk about beyond the Beltway!

One thing I came away with was: If people think the president of the United States can solve every problem, they’re kidding themselves.

How do you think politicians could benefit from your new book?
Better parenting is truly our best public policy. Our culture has lost the skill in parenting. People always joke that kids don’t come with a manual. But I think parents used to trust their instincts. We live in a culture now where it’s so child-centric. Our lives revolve around them. We are raising children who are so self-involved, and that worries me.

Just for an example, you’ve got No Child Left Behind. In contrast, you could go look at the research about the benefits of children eating dinner at home. We could have this bajillion-dollar No Child Left Behind, or we could just send every kid home to eat dinner. Parenting has really lapsed to a level that is so unskilled.

Do you think politicians trend toward the geekier side of the coolness spectrum?
Yes. Most of the good ones are geeky. I don’t know of many who are all that cool that run for office. The thing is, the geekiest kids turn out to be the coolest adults. I do think that politicians are cool adults, but they were probably geeky children.

Do you think there’s anything government could or should do to help make kids geekier?
I’m not an “it takes a village” parent. Parenting is exclusively the role of parents. What government can do is help illustrate for parents the way their skill level at that job will benefit society. Government, when it steps in to be a parent, is a really bad parent.

What’s your philosophy on youth participation in government?
We talk politics around the kitchen table. One of my daughters, Betsy, just started a blog — IfBetsyCouldVote.com. I feel that’s our future. We have to get kids excited about the future and government. You can be a part of government and public service. We should be a nation of citizen-servants.

Do you miss Washington?
A little bit. Whenever I come back, I realize it would’ve been cool to stay. But I’m a Midwestern girl, and I’m raising a family here.

Are you still interested in politics and government? Do you follow them closely?
Yes and yes. Absolutely.

Why did you leave politics?
I grew up in a political family. My dad ran for office every other year, and in the off years they had a baby. My dad’s a judge. He’s the former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. Part of it was that it was so second nature to my childhood. It’s not that I left it. I became a writer and then I went into the public relations side and did a lot of nonprofit work.

Would you ever return to that field?
If somebody asked, in a role that I felt I could have a voice, I would.

I’d consider it, let’s put it that way. If Sarah [Palin] can’t do it, I’m certainly available.

Do you think there’s anything specific to Washington that makes it harder or easier for kids to be brought up here?
Yes and no. I’m going to say no, in that culture is so pervasive that the things that families have to struggle against are everywhere. I’m seeing parents here in the Midwest who are living beyond their means to give their kids things they really don’t need. Think cell phones for fifth-graders and those kinds of things.

Lots of members of Congress are parents. Do you have any advice for them beyond what you say in your book?
We parents cannot be thoughtless in this job. Too many parents are going along with what everybody else is doing. Even going through with things they feel everybody else is doing, even though they feel it might not be right.

People in Congress who have family or kids are under a microscope, and you have to be really thoughtful about the [parenting] job.

The presidential and vice presidential candidates have lots of kids. How do you think they’re doing with raising their kids as geeks?
It would appear that Michelle and Barack Obama are geek parents of the first order. So I’m very pleased about that. I think that they really seem to have a geeky lifestyle for their kids. I don’t really know enough about the Palins. Of course, with her daughter’s predicament, anybody who judges that is living in a glass house. I don’t think that precludes them from being geeky.
 
Do you think some of the things you cite as being “cool” might just be generational — like text messaging and instant messaging?
It is, in a way. The technology that we are facing as a family, much of it wasn’t available to me. It’s changing at lightning speed.

What I think it’s changing is that it’s opening up our children to have the freedom to communicate and to be part of the world without our supervision or knowledge. So I think it’s crucial that we don’t think it’s harmless, that they’re just texting their friends.

Kids are communicating, they’re out in the world in ways that parents can’t be on top of. That scares me.

So yes, it’s generational, but that doesn’t make it insignificant.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?
The pile of shoes outside my back door. I do have four children. In parenting, my biggest pet peeve is people who say that it’s normal and appropriate for teens to be rude and disrespectful. “Oh, well, that’s the teenage years. What are you going to do?”

We’ve dropped the bar so low in parenting. It’s not normal. It’s just common.

Can any of your lessons about bringing up geeky children be adapted for adults? If so, which ones?
No one’s immune to the whole acceptance thing. I just think parents and adults can be geekier in the best sense of the word and be truly happier just being their genuine selves.

It’s just kind of Personhood 101.

Who’s your favorite geek?
My husband. He’s funny, he’s brilliant, he’s totally himself, and he’s completely willing to be geeky with our kids. He’s genuine.

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