One of the booming trends in the ‘youth-achievement-industrial complex’ is computer coding camps (and after-school coding programs). Here is an article in which I was interviewed that discusses this new, and to me troubling, development.
I think this trend is driven by two unhealthy forces. First, economic uncertainty that has created immense anxiety in parents for their children’s futures. The financial upheavals of the past two decades and data showing that the current generation of children may be the first in which it will be worse off economically than their parents have left parents terrified that their children will not ‘make it’ and will move back in with them (‘boomerang kids!).
There is no doubt that many future jobs will be in the technology industry. My question is whether exposure to coding at an early age will best prepare them for the STEM world. Consider Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Marissa Mayer. They have become wildly successful and wealthy, but not because they learned how to code at a young age. Rather, they reached such lofty heights because they learned to think creatively, innovatively, and expansively. And that type of thinking won’t develop from coding. Ironically enough, it will arise from free play at an early age.
Second, we live in a hyper-achievement culture that has been driven by both the economic uncertainty that I just discussed and the rise in values such as materialism, consumption, and enough is never enough. This distorted culture has been fostered by a world dominated by financial interests (a topic best saved for another time) and the Internet which provides a conduit for those interests to be ever-present in people’s lives. No longer do we compare ourselves to our neighbors, but rather to all of the ‘haves’ of the world. This culture in which good is no longer good enough has caused parents to feel as if they must ‘keep up with the Joneses’ or they will bad parents who are setting their children up for failure.
Proponents argue that this tech-dominated world is the one in which children are growing up and, if they don’t get on the tech train early, they will be left back at the station. I, however, argue that coding has far less value at a young age than, say, good, old-fashioned play. Unless children plan to have careers in the computer sciences, coding at such a young age is not only not useful, but also costly to other more important aspects of their development.
As with most things related to technology, I think there is a place for it in children’s lives. They certainly need to learn relevant tech skills to find success as adults. But they are going to learn how to navigate the tech world simply because that is the world they are growing up in; they don’t need to go to coding camp or taking coding classes to develop those skills.
A fundamental question that has not been answered yet is: How early do children need to be exposed to technology, such as coding, for it to have a real impact on their lives? Too many answers to this question are driven by greed and fear rather than reason and evidence.
If you compare coding to other professions, this contrast stark and just plain absurd. I don’t see parents sending their children to physician camp or lawyer camp or astrophysicist camp (though there are math camps; don’t even get me started on those!) when they are eight years old. Yet children somehow grow up prepared to be successful in these professions. Shockingly (note the irony in my use of that word), specialized training doesn’t begin in these fields until college or even graduate school and somehow people gain the necessary competence to do things like brain surgery, argue in front of the Supreme Court, and travel into space without starting in elementary school.
There are many reasons for parents to be wary of early and excessive exposure to technology, but my biggest concern is perhaps the simplest: opportunity costs. Time spent in front of a screen coding is time not spent engaging in other, developmentally more important activities such as free play, interacting with other kids, running around, playing sports, learning a musical instrument, or participating in cultural activities that will be far more enriching to them in the long run.
Look, if your child develops a passion for coding at eight years old, far be it from me to tell you not to encourage that interest. At the same time, what kids are into when they’re young rarely ever becomes their life’s passion or career path. And coding at a young age is not likely to have much impact on their career choices when they grow up.
My advice to you is to step back, take a deep breath, gain some perspective, and send your children to camps that involve being outdoors, playing with other kids, swimming, sports, arts and crafts, and all the things that I (and perhaps you) did at summer camp when I was a kid. I can assure you that your children will have plenty of time when they get older to sit at a desk and stare at a computer screen. Now isn’t that a pretty grim view of the future for them.