Why Kids Deserve Crappy Gadgets This Holiday

This may sound weird, but maybe the children—the future engineers, programmers and techs of our world—deserve crappy gadgets as presents this holiday.

It's not that I think all kids are bad. Nor is it about avoiding breeding spoiled brats. Buying high end gadgets for kids is not quite like buying new driver a sportscar. Not exactly. But a kid driving a beater that is slow, handles poorly and needs mechanical love once in awhile can teach an early driver a lot more about how to coax the maximum performance and life out of a car when learning on a piece of junk. Likewise with tech. Giving them great gadgets can deny kids the unavoidable toil poorly designed or rough-around the edges technology offers that can be so educational. I don't have kids, and I won't presume to actually propose parenting advice to anyone, but I can draw on my own childhood, where I learned tech by taking the harder way.

My dad wisely refused to buy me a complete toy remote controlled car, but instead had me work on a Tamiya kit car, which required me to learn how to solder at age 7. The kid across the street from me eventually had to ask me how to build his own car. He was 16. In another instance, one of many, I couldn't get Ultima to run on my dad's old 386 until I got the autoexec batch file set up right. It was a pain but getting that game to run right taught me a nugget of knowledge. I had plenty of experience like this, and they all added to my collective experience with machines.

One famous geek dad I put this theory to said he didn't think high end gear in itself was the problem.

Because computers suck so much, every high-end gadget requires learning all sort of tricky OS stuff like managing several devices, understand DRM, password and username management, updating firmware, rebooting when things go wrong, etc. Compared to a games console, practically everything involving a computer is a mini lesson in IT.

I can agree with that, but I think it strengthens my point. What's funny is that the types of devices I use manage most of these problems he mentions very elegantly. Today, most of the gear I use is from a certain manufacturer that prides itself on making things very easy to use and consumer oriented. And I appreciate it, but I can't help but feel like I'm becoming dependent on technology so polished, its no harder to use than biting into an...Apple.

Then again, other tech parents I talked to believe what I'm saying is nothing new. One creative family in particular thought the philosophy here could be applied to all mediums. For example, Instead of having their kid listen to pop music, they give her weekly music lessons. And although their daughter has total access to all the gadgets her father and mother do, they're using it to ramp her up to more difficult and advanced ways to interface with and control tech. That is, she's getting programming lessons soon. Knowing the girl, I think she'll enjoy them, even thought she's been raised on easy to use tech. But perhaps the difference here is how that energy is diverted — instead of using a tinkering mentality to get the baseline OS working, she might use it to write programs.

Another parent says this is all theoretical. I heard on some NPR show awhile ago that there's not much you can do to encourage or discourage the spirit of a young person. I guess what I'm saying is that giving junior geeks personal tech problems from a young age can be can be good basic training, so what benefit do we get by buying them stuff that works out of the box?