Discuss: A Home Computer’s Role in Your Family

What role does a home computer play in your toddler’s life, and how will it be used 10 years from now? I’ve detailed my answer below; I expect it’s very different from your response.

My 4-year-old daughter is pushing me to give her a computer so she can write, blog and send e-mails to friends and family. It hasn’t occurred to her that her friends don’t write e-mail. She wants to do what Dad does.

This clashes with my philosophical approach to electronics detailed in chapter 7 of the parenting bible I’m never going to write.

“In the formative first five years, focus on activities that involve personal interaction or solo problem solving, exploration or creativity. Avoid electronic games when the electronic function serves as a substitute for a human being. Don’t use electronics when a sufficient analog option exists. Teddy bears that read stories aloud are a fine example of a toy that will send you to parenting hell. Instead, read in person to your child.”

I’d be fine with my daughter not touching a keyboard until first grade, or later. No advantage in rushing it. No harm in waiting.

But here I am with a daughter that, since age 3, has sporadically asked to use my computer to write her blog. Meaning, she types gibberish into Microsoft Word. It’s been maybe six times in a year, so I entertain it. And before that, we looked at animal photos and videos at around 18 months.

My guiding principle has been to present our home computer as a tool for performing tasks and as a learning resource. My favorite thing is, when my daughter asks a question I cannot answer, I’ll say, “Good question. Let’s look up the answer on the Internet when we get home.” Then I read to her about the mystery subject and we review photos and sometimes Youtube videos.

I also use the Internet as a targeted supplement for learning. Last week when we read her a story about Helen Keller, it blew her mind, moments after completing the biography, to watch a video of Helen Keller speaking with her mouth and communicating with her hands. The story became real to her.

I don’t want our home computer (or game console) to become something, years from now, that she gets sucked into playing games on and I have to negotiate with her about how much time she’s spending using it. Such an outcome isn’t inevitable, nor is it easily addressable once you’re faced with it.

This is one of many issues I believe is greatly influenced by the choices we make now, as parents, in the early years. Her peers will influence her behavior, surely, but parents by far provide the greatest influence.

Yes, that means I’ve changed my own behavior. In The Before Time, I was a gamer, very much into first person shooters. Heck, going way back, I was the teenager who pasted Wite-Out and black permanent marker on his PC’s lights so his mother didn’t know he was operating a Bulletin Board System out of his room 24/7. I even compiled a BBS list published in two local magazines. Total computer geek. (Sorry Mom. I even opened my software Christmas gifts early, copied them to play, and rewrapped the boxes.)

Today, I’m lucky to sneak in a web-based game after my kids are in bed. Again, this comes back to parental behavior. Are you a parent who vows his life will be no different than before he had kids? Or are you changing because of your child?

Having said all this, I don’t discount the possibility that my daughter might, for example, acquire an itch for programming a few years from now. But that in my mind is a learning experience, a positive outcome of having a computer so long as it doesn’t consume her life.

My point is: think and plan. What things and activities will your child grow up viewing as normal in her life? What role will this awesomely powerful device play in your home? How will you use it?

Two weeks ago, my daughter diligently typed out an e-mail to her mother who was working at the time. She typed our names, her own name, and one sentence saying she wanted to work at her mother’s hospital. I helped her correct typos, showing her the arrow and backspace keys. She was determined to be successful no matter how much time it took.

Tomorrow I’ll look at ‘my first computer’ products I’m considering for my daughter.


13 Responses to “Discuss: A Home Computer’s Role in Your Family”

  1. Jeanne says:

    Oh, please write that Bible! Or at least the ten commandments!

    November 10th, 2008 at 2:49 am

  2. brandy says:

    Our home computer(s) play a big part in our kids’ lives, though not always directly. My husband is a designer/illlustrator/animator and his laptop is the center of this universe. The kids love seeing his work and are anxious to learn the programs he uses to create. (On an analog note, pencil and paper are used to begin these creations, a fact the children are aware of–and go through ream after ream of paper as a result of.) I use my laptop for “regular” stuff…email, music, and to maintain a private blog. My oldest two, ages 4 and 5, are allowed to play computer games at one of two places: PBS Kids or Up To Ten. They each get 20 minutes. We dole this out as “screen time” in place of watching a DVD or show of similar length. Sometimes they choose to “write emails” instead of play games, and my 5-year old is familliar enough with the keyboard to type emails a few sentences long with little assistance. Computers are and will always be part of their lives, but I do not want to send the message that it should be the center!

    November 10th, 2008 at 5:02 am

  3. A Dad's Life says:


    Great post.

    My kids are a bit older, nine and eleven. I can tell you that the family computer (my wife’s candy apple red Macbook) is a big part of all of our lives. Each year, it becomes more and more integrated.

    That being said, my kids use their computer as a tool. It’s second nature to them. They have no fear of it.

    They want to learn about something, they Google it. They want to play, they go on one of the many toon sites or Club Penguin. They need to do their homework, the open up Open Office. Heck, next year my daughter will only be able to turn in school homework on her school-issued laptop.

    Used wisely with parental supervision, the computer should be part of your child’s life.

    All the best

    November 10th, 2008 at 6:50 am

  4. Sara says:

    Our 2.5 year old knows about a few things from the computer: fun videos on YouTube which we watch together, sending e-mails to family, and video-chatting with grandparents who live thousands of miles away. He loves to write e-mails to grandparents, which right now include me supervising him typing whatever he wants, and then painstakingly coaching him to write his name. The fun part is they respond to his gibberish with e-mails that I can read to him. The video-chats are the best, the grandparents are creative in how they interact with him over the internet…my favorite idea is that they have copies of some of the same books we have, and they read to him over the computer. They have also done puppet shows through the webcam. It is great for them to see each other’s faces since it does not happen in person all that often. So much fun!

    November 10th, 2008 at 7:04 am

  5. ptozier says:

    Ahhh, yes, AJ, I remember the old days well. When you upgraded from a 300bps modem to the lightning fast 1200bps I thought I’d seen the Almighty! My 11 year old frequently uses our computer to email his Scoutmaster for Boy Scout related matters, researches for school, and plays games (rarely). He has discovered YouTube, but we have to be VERY present when he is on it since it’s so easy to pull up a video he shouldn’t watch. Our own little one loves to go to the preschool oriented sight owned by a gigantic mouse and build her own princess, play very simplified matching games, etc. Our computer(s) are an important part of the family, but not overly so. We also substitute computer time for TV time, so if they spend 30 min playing on the computer, that’s 30 min less that they have to watch a show…

    November 10th, 2008 at 7:22 am

  6. Allison (CodeCrafter) says:

    My 2 year old has had a fair bit of exposure to the computers in our house (right now that is a laptop running vista and a linux box) and once or twice I will admit he has “played” or watched us play Xbox 360 (racing games and Guitar Hero!).

    We have used YouTube to find videos of things that our son thinks are cool but we just don’t have a lot near us like trains or digger trucks. He has watched dance, music and instructional snippets of how to play the piano.

    He types on the keyboard some and we also type and ask him to identify letters and numbers.

    We also use our laptop to talk to my husband’s mother every week. Since she lives in Jamaica and does not travel often our son has only met her 3 times in person. He does recognize her over the webcam now and she has been able to watch him grow week by week. It also helps our phone bill a lot!

    I think part of the reason we have softer stance on computers then we do on TV is that both DH and I are computer professionals. It is part of our lives and naturally it will be part of our son’s life.

    Video games are also a big part of my life since that is what I do for a living. Personally I really can’t wait until my son is old enough and has enough coordination that I can introduce him to the Wii. A big part of the reason I took the educational and career path I did was because of the games I played and the exposure to computers I had as a child.

    I also think that unlike watching TV using a computer or playing video games can be a highly interactive and social activity. It is not the same or a substitute for face to face social interaction but it is also becoming a larger and larger part of how our society and the world communicate I think some early exposure that is well guided is beneficial for learning how to use computers in the future.

    November 10th, 2008 at 7:52 am

  7. thordora says:

    Mine like the games (obviously), especially anything I might play for a little while to relax. Except Catan. They hate that one.

    I spend most of my day working at a PC. They will likely have a life that revolves around a PC. We integrate it. Music comes from it, answers come from it, oodles of insect pictures (sigh), science experiments.

    It’s a tool. It’s up to us to wield it correctly.

    November 10th, 2008 at 9:25 am

  8. Jen says:

    My oldest is nearly three and so far, her experience has been limited to watching videos on YouTube, viewing pictures of our family and friends, and watching me create videos in Vegas. (She likes watching that process). I haven’t really let her do much on her own, (if anything at all, really). But I’m not sure why… maybe in an effort to limit screen time? Or maybe because I don’t want to share. :)

    I do remember a time before my kids were born where I watched a friend’s three year old navigate through one of the preschool websites like he was born using a computer mouse.

    Knowing how integral computers are going to be, (and how much they are already), I do think it’s important to teach kids how to use them, and how to use them safely and property.

    Also, I want to foster a love of computers and the amazing potential they have so that she will continue to grow up to be a curious researcher… not only in books, as she is now, but also through the online world.

    November 10th, 2008 at 10:51 am

  9. jen says:

    When my older daughter turned 3, she started bugging me any time I turned on the computer (which wasn’t much… which is probably why it took so long for her to become interested). I bought a kidz mouse (that’s how it’s spelled!) where you can disable the right click, so I wouldn’t have to worry about her clicking stuff she shouldn’t, and now I let her play games on pbskids.org for short periods of time every once in a while.

    I am right there with you on preferring kids to play with things that aren’t electronic! I especially hate toys that play themselves… the kid pushes a button and just watches it do something. what a waste!

    November 10th, 2008 at 2:51 pm

  10. Sandy W. says:

    We admit to allowing our son to have his own computer with us monitoring his usage. His strongest interest is in technology and we realize that it will likely play a major role in his future career so we decided to nurture that interest with much guidance on our part.

    We gave him one of our old computers when he was 3 and at that age he could type, cut, paste, change font size and color, type in web addresses, draw things in Photoshop and AutoCAD and the list goes on. It’s amazing what he can do. I think he knows more about the computer than his grandparents do.

    Still, I think there is no replacement for direct human interaction and play in a child’s life. But if monitored appropriately, the computer can also be a great learning tool.

    November 11th, 2008 at 3:07 am

  11. Shane Groah says:

    Interesting thoughts.

    Although I blog and my wife works as a professional photographer (thus making both of us stick our noses to the screen quite a lot in our children’s eyes), the kids are still thankfully not computer obsessed. Unless you count making stupid faces on photobooth or using the warp tool in photoshop to distort their faces into demented shapes until they collapse in laughter.

    I do think that computers will become increasingly unavoidable for them as they advance in school. But hopefully they will not lose their interest in going out to play ball, go fishing, or digging for worms!

    Shane Groah
    dad to two crazy manimals

    November 11th, 2008 at 12:30 pm

  12. Kathleen says:

    I never had anything to do with a computer until I was FORCED into it in college. I used my mom’s old word processor for typing high school papers and I was just fine with it. However, when starting college and needing to learn all things computer, I was very stressed. This still sticks with me today and I want our boys to have computer experience right from the beginning. So yes, our 3.5 year old does play letter games and spelling on the computer. He also is given computer time at his pre-school.
    Now-a-days computers are such an integral part of our lives and our kids have to learn them or I’m afraid that they will fall behind.

    November 11th, 2008 at 12:54 pm

  13. Stephanie says:

    I have to say, I was PLANNING on limited television and computer. But I work full-time and my husband is a work-from-home dad. As a result, our child sees him at the computer all the time. Now she wants to see what it’s all about. Our house is pretty small and open, so we can’t hide the computer. So I try to give her a little time where she and I watch Sesame Street videos online, which I feel are entertaining and education. It is important to understand how a computer works since it is a huge part of our lifestyle, but I prefer if it’s for an educational reason rather than just games.

    November 11th, 2008 at 4:55 pm