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Ask Max: Best Age To Get A Child A Computer?

Asked on 10/01/2008:

My nephew, Ryan, will be four at the end of January. His parents have had Vaios and have always stated that Macs are too complicated and expensive. However, I am working on them, as I have passed them my 60GB iPod, and they have been hinting at me for my 1G iPhone.

My question is, would it be totally stupid for me to get my nephew a used Mac for his birthday? He is very much a boy, and I am prepared for the fact that it will likely break, sooner or later. However, I want him to be far more computer literate than either of his parents, and I do not want him to learn poor PC habits with a Microsoft box. The other issue is that that are in North Florida (Georgia) and I am in the Northeast, so I would not have regular influence.

Do you think it would totally be a waste of my money and a $5-600 computer (iBook?) if I were to get one for him?He has expressed and interest and always wants me to take him to the Apple store to play with the games on the iMacs set up for kids.

I am being totally unrealistic here, aren't I? I should just put that $5-600 to a new MacBook Pro, shouldn't I?Do you have a recommendation for what age, in your technical opinion, is a good age to get a child a computer?


This is a wonderful question, one I wish more people would ask. I have found that many parents put little thought into their children's computer usage. Often the result of this structureless approach is one of two extremes. Some parents choose to keep their kids completely away from computers altogether. Which causes the child to be unskilled with, what has become, a basic tool of our American lives. When the child is final introduced to computing they make judgment mistakes that their more computer savvy peers have already learned to avoid. For instance giving out personal information to stranger online.

The other extreme is the parents that choose to give full access to a computer to a child with absolutely no oversight or support. The best-case scenario for this child is if they destroy the computer before getting into massive amounts of trouble online.

The reason that Parents have these problems is due to the absence of computers from their own childhood. For better or worse we parents tend to draw from our own childhood to guide us in our parenting. Most parents today did not have computers until much later in life and possibly have yet to develop a functional understanding of computers. This is not an option for children living in the industrialized world. So parents need help with the digital side of raising their children. If you are willing to be that person for your nephew's sake then I would say you are not stupid at all for wanting to get him a computer.

Getting a computer is only the first step. You need to be willing to be the administrator of the computer, or teach the parents. I would recommend sending a computer with Leopard on it so that you can screen share over iChat and make changes from across state lines. Also I would have you make one Administrator account that you use for his parents and your remote administration. Your nephew will have his own user account that you will put the Apple built-in parental controls on. Start with very few privileges. As the child to demonstrate proficiency with the Mac, you can slowly start to open the privileges up on his user account.

It would be best if you could configure the computer completely before sending down south. Test it out logged in as your nephew and make sure that it looks simple and secure. Remember to set the auto login account as his account and make sure his parents do not give him the Administrator user account password.

When it comes to finding a proper computer for him I would discourage you from choosing a laptop. Cheap Mac laptops are great for older children that are allowed to have computers in their rooms. This is because you have to confiscate the computer from time-to-time and this is easy with a laptop. My teenage daughter has a G4 iBook and I have to take it away when she breaks the rules. Younger children need computers with replaceable mice and keyboards. They will get trashed and smaller hands need smaller mice and keys. There are many small input devices available that work well for young children. Any computer given to a young child needs to be kept in a public space, so there can always be adult supervision. An iMac or Mac Mini would be a good choice. A used G5 iMac is close to your price range and the G4 iMac 1GHz would also work for you on the lower end of your budget.

There is much more to think about in regards to rules and instruction for your nephew but this should get you started.

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