Monday, October 18, 2010

Something I Had Vowed Never to Do

Andrew and I did something we swore we'd never, ever do. We have allowed our kids to have a computer in their bedroom.

For years I've sworn that my kids would never be allowed to have a computer, let alone one in their bedroom, I've said that parents who give in and let their children have such a dangerous piece of equipment are completely crazy and then here am I, breaking my own first commandment like a loony.

I've told my kids that letting them access to the internet is rather like letting them play in the street--sooner or later they're likely to get hit--so as a responsible mother I'm duty-bound to regulate things for their protection which has meant that the only computers in the house were our two Mom-and-Dad laptops which Andrew and I could move to the kitchen counter when the kids needed to do research online. They didn't like this approach but then they're not much of a voting block around here when it comes to formulating policy. Take it or leave it.

But then Spencer (age 14) got into web design. He began reading books on HTML and working on practice web pages (usually dedicated to the "Complete Awesomeness of the San Diego Chargers") and after eight or ten months he began to set some goals for himself which included saving up for a computer.

Now he didn't exactly get our approval on this project, he just started saving up his mowing money, and after a rather productive summer he had enough saved to purchase a Mac Mini--at least the CPU part--and Andrew and I found ourselves staring a very big issue in the face: Should we let him buy a computer?

My natural inclination was to say "Absolutely not!" but then we began to deeply discuss the ramifications.  Should we discourage our son from achieving this financial and educational goal by laying down the law? Should we stick by our original rules and maintain consistency? Should we take it on a trial basis? Oh the questions this thing raised, none of which I had an answer for in any degree of certainty.

Finally, we decided that he could buy his computer. Andrew hooked it up and got it souped up with Illustrator and Photoshop and a few other programs Spencer could benefit from then gave him the virtual keys to the car. And I've sat back and bit my knuckles till they've bled. 

I tell myself that if we can teach him to properly use technology then it's a much better solution than merely banishing the internet from his life completely (as if that's even possible) and I tell myself that if his enthusiasm and goals are any indication of the future then this could be a big step towards helping to prepare him with a marketable skill and a career but then I also tell myself about all the dangerous stuff available to kids online and how many people I know who are struggling with husbands or loved ones addicted to pornography and I wonder if I have joined the ranks of the parentally insane.

At any rate, what's done is done and here are a few of the guidelines we've gone over in this debate.

1. Agree to regulations together then stick by them no matter what.
Andrew and I sat down with Spencer before the money was ever spent and seriously talked about our concerns--why the internet was dangerous and why we were nervous (underlying this all with our love for him of course) to help him understand our point of view. The three of us talked about what some appropriate restrictions would be and then Spencer agreed to abide by them. I've heard of families where parents actually write up contracts for situations such as this and I don't think that's a bad idea at all.  Having a written contract on such an important subject might be especially helpful down the road when the restrictions you all agreed upon suddenly seem to be less convenient when the novelty has worn off and the rules begin to chafe.

2. Use those parental controls.
Macs are wonderful this way and not only can you set the amount of time for any user but you can set it to one of three levels of freedom--you can allow total access to the internet, you can filter out sites the computer deems to have adult content or you can set it to only allow access to websites you specifically approve.   You can even set the hours of use.

Discussing these parameters we decided that at this point we'd go with option #3 and only allow him access to sites we approve. Now this makes it difficult for him to do research online but then I figure it might be better anyway for him to school work with my laptop where I can supervise him anyway and save his computer for offline work and online tutorials (which really are wonderful, by the way). You know, sites that specifically help him to learn web design and programming.

3. Set specific time limits.
From anectodal evidence I've heard that the majority of problems that arise from going into dangerous sites occur in those late night hours.  Setting strong rules about the hours of use goes a long way to keeping kids from venturing into dangerous waters.  Apparently "early to bed and early to rise" doesn't just keep you healthy, wealthy and wise but also protects you from internet pornography and online predators too (at least, quite a bit). Think of it as a seat belt--it doesn't guarantee complete safety but it goes a long way toward the goal.

Also, set and control the amount of time spent using the computer.  We decided that two hours a day was plenty of time for Spencer to learn the things he's interested in. After that he needs to get out and shoot some hoops or ride his bike or call his friends. I don't want him obsessing his day away.

4. Keep the computer in a well-trafficked place.
Computers tucked away in corners or in dark, private bedrooms invite trouble.  The monitors should be easily visible to anyone wandering by and parents should be well acquainted with how to check internet history. If you see that the history has been erased that's a very bad sign.

Spencer's computer, while in his bedroom he shares with his brother, is on his desk and easily seen as I walk by in the hallway. And I walk by a lot, let me tell you.  In fact, he doesn't notice this, but when he's up there on the computer I usually keep his bedroom door wide open so I can see things easily, looking over his shoulder.

5. Watch out for games.
Besides the internet games can be an additional danger.  I'm not sure why but to some they seem to be as addicting as drugs or gambling and boys seem to be especially at risk.  Keep the games to a minimum and keep tabs on them--don't feel weird about saying no if a certain game makes you uncomfortable.  After all, you are the parent. You get paid to make those kinds of tough choices.

At any rate, we'll let you know if this proves to be a huge mistake or a wise choice. Check back in a year or so and we'll be able to figure out if we're crazy or not.


Alice Wills Gold said...

Awesome. If he gets good enough at web design, he can pick up some higher paying side jobs and then save for a car.

I can't wait for your car regulations because you are always so prepared and such a smart parent.

Gifted Kids said...

I've also struggled with this myself, because there is so much danger on the internet. However, what you said is true. It's better to teach our kids to use technology properly, than to keep them from it. Empowering kids with proper thinking is always better than keeping them away from decisions. Way to go, Mama!


Heart2Heart said...


Both of our kids use their computers since they are homeschooled and once the school work is done they can use them to browse the web, play games and keep in touch with friends and relatives who are far away.

We have both in a room that we are all in, so there isn't much time for private time for them. It works and they are becoming part of the real world.

Love and Hugs ~ Kat

Angie said...

I think you've found a good balance. I believe it is important for older teens to have more freedom on the computer to learn all the skills they'll need to keep up with technology. I also believe that they need to practice the art of safeguarding themselves on the internet. As long as parents are computer-savvy enough to set-up safegaurds, teach internet-safety skills, and check in often, they can teach their kids to safely use the computer on their own.
I can attest to the irreperable damage that pornography can have on someone you love, but simply banning the internet is the parental easy-way-out.

Res said...

Thanks for posting your brave decision - we faced a similar situation with our 13 year old daughter who saved up to buy her own imac a few months ago. It was a huge accomplishment for her and we did allow her to buy the laptop. Often she has it in the family room because she still wants to hang out with us (phew!)- but the rule is that when it is on in her room - doors are ALWAYS open! Let the trust continue!

Sabrina said...

I think you've made a good decision. I bet he feels great knowing that you trust him, also that you're looking out for him at the same time.

That is so great that he independently started on this, and is following through enough to buy his own computer. How can you not encourage that type of focus and commitment?

We have to give them some opportunities to grow and I think you've done just that!!

Suburban Correspondent said...

We'll be in the same position within a year, I'm sure. Our 13-year-old has been learning computer programming, etc. I'm curious as to why you don't keep the computer in a more public area of the house, though?

And could you please have your son send me what he considers the best sites for online computer language tutorials? We've found a few (particularly for Python); but I'm sure my son would appreciate having more to choose from. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

thank you for the time limits requirement.

As a teacher I see way too many high schoolers sleeping (or rather trying to) in class because they were up too late on the computer. (I think cell phones should be monitored the same way--but I bet that is another blog entry.)

Anonymous said...

I think you've hit a perfect balance. Seeing as my oldest is eight, we haven't had to deal with the internet...yet. She does play a game or two occasionally, or I will show her something online, but I know the time will quickly come when I'll need to hand over the keys.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think you have taken a very balanced and responsible approach - including the open communication part where all this was set out up front before buying the computer. You get a parental high-five from me, for what that's worth!

(And as the spouse of a middle-school teacher, let me second the opinion of Anon above who gave kudos for the time limit. Sleep gets very developmentally critical during those mid- to high-school years.)


Kelly @ Love Well said...

Crazy? I don't think so. Anyone who's read you for more than a few weeks knows you aren't crazy.

(Although you do live in Alaska.... Never mind.)

To me, it sounds like you are being thoughtful and wise. At some point, freedom has to be granted. You aren't giving him full reign. You are watching him and setting limits. I bet we check back with you in a year and hear that it's gone really well, better than you initially expected.

Headless Mom said...

Considering that they are teaching the kids, in school, how to do google searches, image searches, power point presentations, etc, I think you did fine, Mama! I've broken my own rule about tvs in rooms. Ssshhh, don't tell!

Anonymous said...

Here's the deal. If you have raised this young man to have good values, to know how to guard is own self and protect himself from the evil that lurks on the've done the right thing. If he's not a good kid and wants to go lurking where he shouldn't....he'll seek it out computer or no computer. I'm always amazed how people think children can't be self-directed once they are taught and they believe the right way. He will be fine if you've done your job correctly..and I'm betting you have. Relax, Mom. If a computer in his room is going to be a problem, you have a MUCH bigger problem than that.

Scribbit said...

Good question about why we let him keep it in his bedroom. First, we don't have any spot for it down in the dining room/family room but also the kids' bedrooms are a little strange in that they are two rooms joined by a sliding frosted door that can be opened up to make one great big room. It's turned out to be a second family room and the desk space up there is right there in the middle. If any of the kids are home they're guaranteed to be hanging out with the door open so it really is more like having it in a family room rather than in his private bedroom. He shares with his brother anyway so his room isn't ever private.

Anonymous said...

Our church teaches that adults and kids should keep computers in the living area or kitchen, with filters for each computer, so we abide by that as a family. Adults and kids live by the same standard, so we hope our children will carry that tradition to college and their future families.

Annie said...

I agree, you handled that really well. We have kept the computer in the main living area and the kids aren't allowed on the internet when we aren't home. Not because we don't trust them, but for their own safety. So much gets by! We monitor their computer use and have explained why we do it...having the internet is a great tool and an awesome way of keeping in contact with friends and family, but it is also like inviting millions of strangers into our home.

Shannon said...

We had to deal with that about 4 years ago when the oldest started high school. The bulk of his assignments were to be completed by computer and often even submitted via computer rather than on paper. Granted he went to a fancy pants private school overseas but I think more and more schools are heading this way.

Thankfully my husband is a totally computer geek and could keep an eye on things. We had computer cut off time at 9. After that if he needed extra homework time he had to get Dad to give him access.

We also set it up so that we could see each and every site he visited. Somehow my husbands computer kept a log, and we had access to his FB account and received copies of his e-mails. Mostly we didn't read any of that word for word or check daily to see what sites he had been to, it was more random checks to make sure he wasn't into something bad.

We were up front with him about what we were doing and let him know why we were monitoring his computer activity. I won't say he always understood but I think he was glad there were parameters.

Krista said...

My boys are 3 1/2 and 7 months, but I am totally bookmarking this post for future reference! :)

owlfan said...

I never thought I would let my kids have a computer in their room, either, but we did. My older son is in high school now, in a math/science/technology magnet school with lots of computer use required and the living room really doesn't have room for another computer (and is not really conducive to studying at times).

So, he helped buy a computer and it is in his room. We told him we would be checking it randomly and have and he is being responsible about where he visits. There is no way I could set only certain sites, though, as for one assignment last week, he ended up visiting over a dozen different sites, looking for info on Great Salt Lake habitats - no one site had all the info he needed.

He doesn't always use his time the most wisely, but we are helping monitor it and making sure he goes to bed at a decent time (whether or not the homework is done!) I figure he will be off on his own at college in a few short years, and it is better to learn to manage his time and computer use with our help now, than on his own then.

Flea said...

We went back and forth over this for years before letting the kids have their own computer. Let me just say that after some brutal lessons, the computer is in a central location, visible for all.

One of our biggest lessons as parents was twofold: there are always ways around the safety programs, and kids can figure out ways around just about anything on a computer, no matter how trustworthy they are. Temptation is a strong thing.

Stephanie said...

I appreciate your sensible and thoughtful approach to parenting issues, Michelle!

Our children are still young and we haven't yet had to make decisions regarding computers in bedrooms, but your guidelines struck me as being wise. It sounds like you are trying to both PROTECT and PREPARE your kids...and that is a good combination.

mumple said...

I just really really really think it's a bad idea to have it in a non-community (read: totally in the middle of the house where everybody and his/her brother is going to be walking by) area. Sorry, but parental controls are all fine & dandy, but unless you're actually able to see what they're looking at, they're gonna find a way 'round 'em. And curiosity in a teenager will many times override whatever values and ideals you've taught them.

The Toad was 21 before he was allowed a computer in his room--and he gets weekly reminders that he's on our internet service. Like Flea, we've had brutal awareness training, and that was with the computer in the middle of the house, in full view.

Daisy said...

"...if we can teach him to properly use technology then it's a much better solution than merely banishing the internet from his life completely." Absolutely.

America Jane said...

I'm a "no TV/Computer in the bedroom" girl too, but I think you made a good compromise in this situation. The fact that he wants a computer for career purposes and was willing to save up for it shows he is a focused young man with a good head. It's not like he just wants to play games or lose himself on FB.

I was not aware of the different parental controls Mac offers - I'll remember that in the future if I'm ever faced with a similar situation. It sounds like you're doing a good job keeping your son safe while at the same time teaching him good principles to follow when he's an adult and on his own - in just a few short years. Good job, mom.

Molly (ex superwife) said...

Hi Michelle! I'm back to blogging! :)

I think you've found a good balance of maintaining your original stance on the subject and helping Spencer pursue his creative interests.

My family had a computer in the living room since I was 7 years old (I'm 28 now) and I can honestly say that my computer experience and background have had a hand in every job that I've had in my adult life. I'm very thankful that my parents gave me fairly open access to information and technology.

Admittedly, I spent some time looking at things I probably shouldn't have out of youthful curiosity. Did it damage me as a person? Nah. Did it undo all my parent's years of teaching me right from wrong. No way.

I think that even if Spencer stumbles on a few things that maybe he shouldn't, it's really not that much different than a boy running across his dad's playboy. I doubt it would be detrimental to his mental well being :)