(excerpted from Thriving in the 21st Century: Preparing Our Children for the New Economic Reality)
Ultimately, schools have enough on their plates teaching children the three R’s; adding a requirement for insuring that children become computer-literate can often overwhelm even the best schools. So if children don’t learn to use computers in school, where can they learn this vital skill?
My experience has been that children are very capable of teaching themselves to use a computer at home. We bought our first computer when our older children were 11 and 9. My husband used it each evening after work, learning the design software that would eventually allow him to start his own business. That’s why our children were only allowed on the computer during the day. I quickly learned that they would stay on there all day if I let them, so we established the 45-minutes-per-day rule, enforced by a kitchen timer on top of the monitor.
Before long, our older children had taught themselves all about how to use the computer. Once we began accessing the Internet, they designed their own Web sites. They soon needed more computer time than they were allowed, so each saved up and bought their own computer. Our daughter started a Web zine about music, attracting a following of kids who shared her interest. Our son ran a Web site about his favorite major league baseball player; his site was later written up in Baseball Weekly. They achieved this level of proficiency after only a few years of using the computer, and each was entirely self-taught. (They later took a few online courses to hone their computer skills.)
They (and, a few years later, their younger sister) quickly became more proficient in computer basics than I have yet to become after many years of computer use. Our fourth child, who has developmental disabilities, is not as computer-literate as the others were at his age (that is partly due to his limited reading ability), but he can find and start different educational games on our computer without assistance. My point here is that all four were given access to a basic computer and the time to experiment with it. Based on their success, I believe it’s up to parents and the kids themselves, not the schools, to produce computer-literate children. Parents should provide the computer and the time. Given that opportunity, the children will take over from there.
One reason children pick up the computer so quickly is that they’re more willing to explore the computer and press keys without worrying that they’ll mess up something. We adults are often hampered by that fear, so it may take us longer to learn how to use a computer. While we sit flipping through a tutorial book plotting our next move, they’ve already clicked back and forth between screens and figured out what to do (and what not to do).
Of course, they do make mistakes in the process, and sometimes lose information they had painstakingly put in there. But once they become more proficient than their parents, they realize that it’s up to them to solve the problem, and they learn to do so.
I think the fact that I couldn’t come running to my children’s rescue each time the computer “ate” something important forced them to figure things out for themselves; they learned pretty early on that I wasn’t going to be much help, no matter how good my intentions. They became fearless when it came to using the computer, which helped them become computer troubleshooters for the rest of the family.