Gadgets and Games

Growing Up Digital: Can Kids Balance Tech Skills and Life Skills?



Kids today are better wielding a mouse or smartphone than swimming or making their own breakfast. What's a parent to do?

The evidence comes via a new study from security firm AVG, which argues that today's children have far more skills when it comes to high-tech tasks than with simple analog things like riding a bicycle or tying their shoes. If faced with an emergency, today's two to five year olds don't know how to use mommy's iPhone to call 9-1-1 -- but they could kick your butt when it comes to a game of Angry Birds.

As a technology reporter, you might think that I would call this awesome. But I don't think it's awesome at all.

As a new dad, I've seen my son take to technology almost innately. He slams his hands on my wife's iPad to play Magic Piano, and reaches for my MacBook's keyboard every time he sees it. As proud as I am that my son is tech savvy like his daddy, it's equally important to me that he have analog skills: the ability to bait a hook, start a fire, clean a gutter.

How do I teach my child balance, so he's tech smart but also knows the value of manual skills?

At the risk of sounding like an old timer, there's something to be said for good old analog know-how. And I worry that my son will miss out on those experiences.

Recently I built a garbage-can holder with my brother-in-law, so that bears and raccoons wouldn't rip through my trash in the middle of the night. I drew up a design, using some basic math skills, went to Home Depot, picked out the weatherized wood, and built something from the ground up with hammer and nail -- nary an electronic device in sight. Now those raccoons can only stare longingly at the trash and dream of eating my banana peels. 

I did that, and every time I look at the wooden structure I feel a small but significant sense of accomplishment. I want my son to understand that. If he only has skills that he develops with an iPad and a broadband connection, what use will he be when he has similar challenges in life?

Part of the AVG study found kids didn't know how to shovel snow! Really? My dad had me shoveling snow as soon as the first flake fell -- and I wasn't allowed to come inside until my hands were nearly frostbitten. With last week's snowfall, I put my shoveling skills to use, as my baby boy watched me through the window. And I hope he was watching closely; this will be his job soon enough, and he'll probably have to put down a game controller to do it.

I've been thinking about this topic quite a lot since I started reading Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew Crawford. In this excellent book, philosopher and motorcycle repair-shop owner Crawford argues for the value of making and fixing things with our hands. According to him, there's something Zen-like about a master craftsman's abilities that cannot be defined by computer algorithms.

Technology used to be a craft when it was for the geeks and programming nerds, of course. The beauty of it these days is that it doesn't take a lot of inside information to make your computer work. It just works. 

Let's be honest, the computers of 2011 are a heck of a lot easier to use than they were in 1989. My son is using an iPad; while growing up I was trying to write code on a Tandy 1000. I don't have to tell you how much easier he has it! But I worry that children will take it for granted that a touch interface responds to your fingertips. 

Life isn't always as simple as pinch-to-zoom makes it seem, after all.

If you're reading this hoping I can tell you how to achieve balance, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I don't know yet. I've only been a father for 6 months. But I'm aiming to find one. I want my son to have respect for the technological and the analog worlds.

And I think at least having that as a goal is a good start.

Clayton Morris is a Fox and Friends host. Follow Clayton's adventures online on Twitter @ClaytonMorris and by reading his daily updates at his blog.