The Parent Trap

By Seymour Papert

This article appeared in Time Magazine on November 13, 1995, p. TD34.


DON'T: get hung up monitoring your kids' every mouse click

DO: begin to share their joyful experience of discovery

A passionate love affair rages between children and computers. I have seen it in cities, suburbs, farms and jungles; in poor and rich, well-educated and illiterate families. Children across the world know they are the computer generation.

Passionate love affairs of the young are seldom understood by their elders, and although parents cannot always be specific about their concerns, an unusually wide generation gap feeds fears that children are off in dangerous places. Worrying about bad company in cyberspace has captured first place from worrying about children becoming isolated nerds.

Anxious adults fall prey to duels between cybercritics issuing dire warnings and cybertopians countering with appealingly easy technical solutions: Concerned about cyberporn and bad company? A clever chip will protect your kids. Unhappy about violence in video games? The industry has worked out a rating system. Worried about equity? Computers will be placed in every classroom and built into every TV set.

But both sides fail to see that the really serious problems are not about computers. They are about resistance to revising concepts of childhood (including modes of parenting and schooling) shaped in a bygone epoch.

To begin thinking about what this means, imagine how restricted life was in the past for a person afflicted with cerebral palsy severe enough to prevent speech or manipulation of books, paper and pencil. Today a computer with an interface no more restrictive than the keyboard can open the door to the entire heritage of human knowledge and culture and to making friends and working productively anywhere in the vastness of cyberspace.

Here our own lives provide the model for what can be achieved. But if the traditional model for the lives of children is unraveling, what can we put in its place?

Cracks in the old model and the outline of a new one are visible through a simple incident. My grandson Ian, three at the time, selected a videotape, loaded it into the VCR and spent half an hour immersed in a world of road-making machines.

What is remarkable is not that Ian can work the technology, which is no more complex than finding his toys, but how far I was at his age from doing what he did.

When I was a child, no one challenged a three-stage model of the development of learning: in an initial period a small child learns by direct exploration of everything and everybody within reach; in a middle period learning by self-directed exploration is subordinated to being taught; and in the adult period books, newspapers, libraries and laboratories support self-directed learning for work or play, using skills acquired in the middle period.

The love affair that kids have with the computer is fueled by sensing the possibility of exploring the whole big world with the freedom and self-sufficiency that they learned to love in their earlier explorations of their own small worlds. The VCR, the CD-ROM and now the Internet each represent a step in a development that will eventually short-circuit the middle stage and its frustrating and psychologically dangerous dependence on adults and schooling.

The prospect of independence that attracts kids is in turn a real source of anxiety for parents. Ways of dealing with children following the three-stage model developed slowly and richly over many centuries. Acquiring the knowledge and the social structures to handle far greater independence in the middle stage is an awesome prospect. It is certainly one of the many social factors making for ever greater independence at ever younger ages. But it can also be a powerful instrument to help forge a new kind of relationship between parent and child.

A place to start is revising attitudes about judging and using software. I deplore the violence in the video games but have observed that the culture around them is a practice ground for new ways of learning -- learning by finding out.

Children get the knowledge they need, when they need it, from networks of friends, hot lines and, when they are old enough, magazines and the Internet. A first step toward building a new relationship with kids is to join them in their exploration of new ways to learn. In addition to giving us their trust, children might teach us something about learning. A desire to be first on the block to master the latest game has led many kids to think much harder, and thus know much more, about the process of learning than people of my generation ever did.

We also need to recognize and hold back the habit of imposing our old-fashioned ways on our children. The large sales of many CD-ROMs touted to teach math or spelling demonstrate that parents are looking to the past. In fact the knee-jerk preference for a schoolish teaching program over a game reflects a concept of children needing to be taught by being told, rather than by being encouraged to take charge of their own learning.

Of course the context for sharing new ways of learning with your kids need not be playing games. It could, for example, be mathematics understood as a language for constructing space shuttles or making one's own video games.

This view of mathematics is the basis of an ongoing collaboration with another grandson, age eight. Samuel's interest in codes led to building these into a computer game we have begun to program. In this work we encounter many mathematical problems about shapes and patterns of movement.

But because they are grounded in a context he knows well, Samuel is able to solve them as often as I am, without even knowing he is "doing math." He is learning intuitive mathematics as Molière's M. Jourdain learned prose.

What we glimpse in these anecdotes is small steps for two children, but they represent the biggest step for childhood since the transition from oral to literate cultures. Although that transition brought adults a huge expansion in intellectual creativity, childhood came to mean a long period of subordination to an imposed agenda of schoolish learning.

We cannot say this approach was good or bad, because there was no choice. Today there is choice, and their passionate affair with the computer shows how children of the world are choosing. Fighting them means intergenerational warfare. Joining them means respecting their ways and learning from them. It means building working relationships of collaboration and trust. Surely this is the best antidote to cyberporn, as well as the best way to remake the family as a learning community, thereby perhaps recasting the old saying, A family that learns together stays together.