Low-Tech Tips for High-Tech Parents

Here’s a universal truth: We parents want only the best for our kids. If that means spending a bit more for the latest technology, so be it. Twenty years ago, when I was a new father, such technology consisted of desktop PCs, baby monitors and an electric wipe warmer that I convinced my wife we needed. No chilly wipes for *my* baby’s rear end.

Today’s new parents have a much trickier job. Kids everywhere, it seems, have glowing faces, illuminated by some type of screen. Is this a good thing?

Parents, I know, are very divided on this question. Some think screens cause autism or ADHD, so they avoid it. Last summer, I saw a neighbor and her son as I waited in our pediatrician’s office. “Would your son like to help me test an app?” I offered. “We’re not into those,” she snarled, eyeing my iPad as if it were a pack of smokes.

On the other end of the scale … geek moms and dads who saturate their homes with tech. Don’t believe me? Search “iPad” and “baby” in YouTube. There were 14,800 examples as of last week of iPad baby experiences. It used to be that you captured your child’s first steps. Today, it may be a first app.

The truth certainly lies somewhere between these extremes. So here’s some low-tech advice.

Admit that iPads won’t be uninvented. Ready or not, tens of thousands of apps are headed toward a screen that lies in your child’s future. If not at home, it will be at school or future workplace. The genie is out of the bottle, folks; it’s up to us to make the best of the situation.

Be wary of experts. No expert knows your child. You wouldn’t give your baby rice pudding that is too hot or too cold, right? So you take a tiny taste. The same goes for that new app. Try it out, play along, and watch. Do you like what you see? If so, try another app.

Go back to school. Some of the best technology advice was written decades ago. Take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. That famous triangle reminds us that a child’s curiosity won’t ignite without a low-or-no-tech base. Most screen-related experiences will work only after things like clean sheets, a warm snuggle, and a regular schedule are in place. Piaget’s stage theory is a powerful idea, no harder to understand than figuring out a new car seat. The four stages remind us to view technology developmentally. A toddler crawls before she walks and she’ll swipe before she understands. That’s why you download a Busy Box app like Pat the Bunny instead of the free version of Cut the Rope. Your future Steve Jobs can start editing videos and programming with free languages like MIT’s Scratch. This is also time to keep an eye on the screen — not as a cop but as an adviser and friend — literally, in the case of Facebook.

Focus on quality. Childhood minutes are scarce, so filling your $500 iPad with freebie apps is like setting up a huge fish tank but skimping on the fish. Fifty dollars on apps can go a long way. Make sure your list includes Toca Boca, Touch Press, Moonbot, Duck Duck Moose and Nosy Crow — young brands that have come to stand for quality.

Get ready to fail. The cost of being born into the first generation of digital parent means trial and error. Don’t be too hard on yourself when things don’t work. I recall plugging in my electric wipe warmer the second my wife went into labor. But it was a week before my daughter came home, long enough for the wipes to ferment creating a small explosion and a smell worse than any diaper. Being part of the first generation of digital-pioneer parents will most certainly involve such glitches. But it can’t keep you from trying.

Get a puppy. Some childhood experiences can never be replicated by an app. Puppy breath is certainly one of them.


Warren Buckleitner is the editor of the Children’s Technology Review.