Technology has been a pretty big part of my life for as long as I can remember. My mother was a speed typist and worked in data entry, and I loved to imitate her typing when she took me to work with her. (I wound up “inheriting” her typing skills with a 145wpm and 99% accuracy average. You’d be surprised how advantageous my typing skills turned out to be – being an excellent typist led me down the path to web development and into a career that rescued me from a place where I would have wilted on the vine and given up. )
When I was young, around 9 or so, my parents got a Texas Instruments computer that I immediately laid claim to. I started out by playing Pac Man and a car racing game called A-Maze-ing. Back then, games came on clunky cartridges that were a little bigger than cassette tapes. (“Cassette tape? What’s that?”) I loved playing those games, but I loved typing even more. I then got a subscription to a kids computer magazine that featured a different programming concept each month, so I began learning to program using BASIC. I would diligently type out lines and lines of code that took me about 45 minutes to write out to create “Mr Bojangles.” Mr Bojangles was a block-figure that changed color and would “dance.” I quickly learned how to manipulate and change the colors and movements, eventually moving on to other concepts. (I did a quick search online and turned up this and this. If it looks familiar to you, or you understand everything I’m talking about… congratulations! You’re an old Gen-Xer like me.)
Do you remember the first days of the internet and email? I do. My first email was through Juno, and I can tell you the very first time I encountered “the internet.” It’s an amusing story. I used to hang out with a bunch of guys who were a few years older than me. They were my introduction to the X-Files (we used to gather to watch it every Friday), to the board game Axis and Allies, and Call of Cthulhu. If you don’t know what CoC is, think Dungeons and Dragons, but nerdier. *smile* I’ll bet you’d have never guessed that I used to spend weekends playing dorky games and geeking out to X-Files with a bunch of guys. I did. I did, indeed. And I loved it. (We also used to drink and party a lot in between, so there’s that.) Anyway. My introduction to the internet was when one of the guys got internet (dial up!) and AOL. The first time I ever got online was to play Call of Cthulhu in a gaming chatroom on AOL.
Yup. Let that sink in for a moment.
I often look back at those times and wonder where I’d be had I taken proper programming classes. I imagine I’d be a highly paid programmer… but I’m totally fine with the fact that I’m not. (I’m sure I could take up and learn whatever I wanted right now – python, java, etc, and be proficient at it *like that*. I just don’t want to.) I mean, I did pretty well for myself as a web developer, but I had chronic back pain, pinched ulnar nerves that resulted in numbness traveling up the side of my pinky to my elbow and my eyes were perpetually dry. This was before I started doing yoga, which helped A LOT. But if you know anything about ADHD, you’ll know there’s this thing called “hyperfocus” and that’s what computers do to me. I used to be the girl in the corner of the office with the lights out, headphones on, face illuminated by the glow of a screen covered in code. Coding, writing/blogging, editing photos, writing tech manuals, developing websites – it puts me in what’s called a “flow state.”
But so does writing. And learning foreign languages.
So when my son was born, I declared NO SCREENS. He never watched tv, never touched my phone, never had an iPad. He didn’t see his first movie, at home or in theaters, until he was six or seven years old. Around that same time, I started allowing him to watch movies or cartoons on the weekend – the amount of time equal to one movie on Saturday and on Sunday. And I have to tell you – given how isolated he was from pop culture and tv shows, it is astounding how much he knew about pop culture and tv shows. The power of your peers, man.
In the last couple of years, a little more screen time crept in. We got an iPad for him to watch movies on the long flight to Grandmom’s, we started giving him limited time to play video games. (We have every console known to man thanks to my husband’s history working in video games.) Then he became obsessed with Minecraft…
Flash forward to now.
With what little screen time he’d been given in the past years, I saw the same aptitude and affinity for computers that I’ve had. We’ve tried sending him to various “camps” over the years, and he’s always hated them. Then we sent him to a Minecraft Modding camp last Summer and I have never seen a kid as excited as he was about this class. So we’ve continued to sending him to weekly coding classes, where I’ve been told his progress is far above average. His favorite thing to do during the day is get online and code. He told me he’s working on a movie right now (an animation in Scratch). He spends a lot of time creating worlds in Minecraft and has decided to make his own server. Before he makes the server, he’s creating a server manual and has asked Husband and I to help him moderate. (Through writing this manual, which he’s chosen to do voluntarily, he’s practicing writing skills, problem solving, planning, has shown an understanding of formal versus informal language, organization in writing, tech lingo, spelling, etc.)
Then there’s homeschooling – he takes several online classes through different online schools and he absolutely loves them. He’s taken a class on Greek Mythology, a “Character Creation Lab” class, and just started a biology class where he gets to grow bacteria and use his microscope. He is especially excited about that last one. We have a subscription to “Curiosity Stream”, an app/channel (iPhone, FireTV) that curates documentaries on every topic under the sun. He often chooses shows on outer space and weather, but has occasionally chosen series on historical topics and geography.
Some days I cringe, when I realize how much time he spends staring at screens, but overall… fuck it. I had to let go. Computers work for him. He’s gifted and he learns differently.
*I have more posts dedicated to that, but for those of you rolling your eyes: “Gifted” is a real thing, with measurable, physical differences in brain scans. We didn’t choose the word. “Gifted” indicates particular intellectual abilities but also comes with a vast array of social, emotional, and learning issues. For example, did you know that a large number of gifted kids are “2e”? That stands for “twice exceptional” which is a nice way of saying gifted + autism, gifted + ADHD, gifted + dyslexia, or gifted + something else. Gifted kids are SMART, but they are not overachievers. They struggle. They have the intellect of someone years and years older, but not the experience or ability to manage knowing what they know. Gifted kids are usually the ones falling behind and struggling, because traditional learning doesn’t work for them. “Socializing” with same-age kids in the same classroom doesn’t work for them. They’re usually a little “weird” (and I say that in the nicest way possible because I fucking love weird. I *was* weird.) I was a high school dropout and though I’ve learned to manage it outwardly, I feel awkward as fuck around people until I get to know them.
I just had a diagnostic interview with the psych who did the Kid’s gifted assessment to see if we should test him for dyscalulia and ADHD. He’s agreed with me that yes, it sounds very much like dyscalculia is on the table. Dyscalculia is a lesser-known math “disability”. The Kid transposes numbers, has difficulty assimilating basic math facts, has trouble with digital clocks and telling time (analog clocks, no problem), has trouble managing time, and has kind of a bad sense of direction (all features of dyscalculia). Now, he could probably do higher math, no problem, as higher math is more visual spatial, but the math fundamentals? Those are a problem. As for the ADHD, I suspect it’s the same “hyperfocus” version as I have. We’re testing just to be armed with the information, but it’s not something that really needs to be managed. Being homeschoolers, it actually kind of works – he will sit and code or read or do science experiments for HOURS without looking up. There is absolutely no opportunity to get into the “flow state” in a brick and mortar school but at home he can immerse and learn to his heart’s content.
But these are all reasons I had to decide to be ok with the screens. Computers work for him, as they do many hardcore visual spatial kids. If he does, indeed, have dyscalculia, computers and games are the way to help him with the basic math facts. All of his coding and writing server manuals brings in so many skills: problem solving, dealing with frustration, writing, planning, critical thinking, and yes… numbers. Never mind the fact that programming and coding are marketable skills. He’s got two “real life” best friends, but he also really loves interacting with other kids online in his Minecraft worlds. It turns out that this is a safe space to navigate social situations – he’s smoothly dealt with bullying, he stands up for other kids, he knows when to ask moderators to step in. I’ve watched this socially awkward kid, who would come home from brick and mortar school depressed and deflated, absolutely thrive and shine and be more “himself” than he’s ever been since moving to homeschool and allowing him to play games on online servers. We monitor it, of course, but I don’t feel a need to check in as often as I did when he started. We’ve had plenty of opportunity to talk about what’s appropriate and what isn’t, that you don’t share personal information online, that you come to us if you encounter someone that’s freaking you out, etc.
Besides, there’s still a balance. He rides his bike often, does archery lessons, is obsessed with going to Parkour each week… (for a kid like him, he’s unusually coordinated, physically) but being given the time to figure out who he is and just be himself at home, and online, has given him the confidence to go out and enjoy these activities with other kids, which he didn’t before. I really wish I had had these options when I was his age. Then again, it’s so much worse these days (schools, bullying, other kids) than it was when I was his age. So I’m just glad these options are available now.