Getting Kids Into Computing

Posted by tuxchick on Oct 27, 2005 10:53 PM EDT
Lxer.com; By Tuxchick
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It's a given that children need at least basic computing skills. Should you encourage your kids to consider a computing career? What if they turn into fat, nearsighted, socially-impaired, tunnel-visioned geeks?

How can you encourage children to get interested in computing as a career? Should you even try? I have mixed feelings, because I think kids already spend way too much time sitting on their bums, getting fat and nearsighted.

On the other hand, an entire generation raised only to be good little passive consumers scares me even more. And the demand for skilled IT persons grows every day. So let's start from the assumption that your little spawnlings are destined for greater things than menial temp work. Let's assume that they have the desire and ability to master complex skills, understand advanced concepts, and really make a difference in the world.

Where to Start

The number one skillset that will take your precious genetic heritages far is people skills. She who knows how to listen, understand, speak clearly, and advocate effectively will have the entire world at her disposal. Typically, computer geeks think that being right is enough. Those of us who live in the real world know that this is barely a factor in decision-making. Every aspect of computing requires dealing effectively with all sorts of different personalities, from non-technical managers to engineers who speak only in algorithms, to marketing people who know no bounds of taste or propriety, to the poor end-users who know none of this, but simply want something that works right and meets their needs. So meeting and interacting with all different kinds of people will put your little offsprings far ahead of the pack.

The V-word

Don't be shy about imparting strong moral values. High-tech can be used for good or evil, and has made it easier than ever to do evil. Look at the impact of a relatively small number of spammers, and virus and malware authors. With a few keystrokes they have polluted the Internet almost to the point of unusability, and made getting away with theft and fraud trivially easy. We can have a world with every citizen under constant surveillance (which is an even greater evil)- or we can raise citizens who don't need to be watched.

High-tech is also a powerful tool for good, and it seems that all the tools that protect and benefit ordinary individuals come from the FOSS world- encryption, sharing information, and sophisticated applications and programming tools. Wanna be the ultimate do-gooder? FOSS just might be the vehicle to take you there.

Go Outside a Lot

Don't let your mini-Mes stagnate inside. The world is beautiful and wonderful, and sitting is bad for us. Kids need unstructured time to run and yell and explore and loaf. You know, out there in meatspace. Go with them. It's fun.

Read Many Books

Real books on paper, because staring at CRTs all the time is bad for you, and there are zillions of books that are not online yet. We have generations of great literature to explore, and I think it's an absolute crime for children to not read the classics, and I don't mean the candyassed eunuched classics with all the disturbing stuff removed, but the real Brothers Grimm, and Lewis Carroll, and Toby Tyler, and the Oz books, and Kipling and Alcott and okay, you get the idea- ask your librarian for recommendations; she'll probably die of shock at being asked, but if she survives she will delight in helping you.

The last thing the world needs is generations of soulless skilled technicians who have no moral or philosophical foundations, and who have not been exposed to all sorts of mythologies, ideas, and fantasies. Or who have no idea how to assess the impacts of their actions, and do not understand that predicting and understanding consequences are the most important abilities they can develop. Not having these is how you raise, for example, Enron traders who see nothing wrong in lying, defrauding, and manipulating the market and inflicting hardship and suffering on millions of people. Because it's just numbers on a board, after all.

Encourage Hacking

Hackers are the very best kinds of people to be. Hackers like to take things apart and learn how they work, then put them back together and improve them. Hackers are not afraid to learn new things. Hackers make and repair stuff. Your little ducklings can saw and nail boards, repair and maintain their bicycles, fix broken dolls, build telescopes, fly little airplanes, re-cover furniture, and all kinds of stuff. Go to thrift shops to get cheap things to experiment on.

Growing a garden is the ultimate hack. There are nearly infinite variables, and some factors are beyond your control, so it's never the same, and never dull. And you get good eats.

Hackers know practical ways to get things done, so if your little darlings make noises about wanting to be scientists or engineers, encourage them to develop hacking skills first. Otherwise they risk becoming impractical, out-of-touch academics.

Encourage Arts and Music

Drawing, painting, sculpting; writing and acting; photography; sewing; cooking; playing an instrument; these are all proven ways to build strong, creative brains.

So, When Do We Get To The Computing Part?

Hey, we're 90% there. Selecting an education and career path are merely technicalities; the important bit is helping your little posterities become really good quality human beings, which is something I fear is not given enough attention in these here modern times. The computing world is going to continue to grow and change rapidly for many years, so your little baby wombles are going to need adaptability, pragmatism, and street-smarts more than a rigid formal education.

Note to aforementioned wombles: I am not saying that you do not need to go to school. Quite the opposite- the more education you get, the better. You need a strong command of whatever language you speak, so that you can write and talk competently. And yes, spell things correctly, and put punctuation in the correct places. You should have really good touch-typing skills. If your school is not adequate, go to bookstores and libraries. If you don't have those, the Internet brings a whole world to you. If you don't have that, make friends with smart people and learn from them. There is always a way.

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