Doting grandma syndrome

Everyone who has regular conversations about technology must have heard this little gem come up. "My child knows more about computers than I do."It’s often said and some go further, "my four-year-old knows more about computing than I do and...

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Everyone who has regular conversations about technology must have heard this little gem come up. "My child knows more about computers than I do."

It’s often said and some go further, "my four-year-old knows more about computing than I do and I’m no fool".

In my profession I hear such pronouncements very often, so often in fact that they cause me to think negative thoughts about the person who is saying them. However, on reflection there must be something behind the sentiment, maybe even something important.

To ‘unpick’ the assertions we need Socrates, or rather the Socratic method. This is a good thing because Socrates was the first really annoying bloggist, or as it was then, agorist.

Rule out for the sake of argument that the speakers are in some way mentally deficient or deliberately misrepresenting a situation. In other words, we are dealing with people of normal intelligence who genuinely believe the statements to be the case.

Who are these people? I have collected enough anecdotal evidence over the years to come to the following generalisations:

They are all parents referring to their children not other people’s children.

This means that we cannot rule out narcissism of the kind that creates a (temporary) genius out of every offspring. For this investigation we shall admit the influence of parenthood, but deny that it can be the full story.

There appears no gender bias or professional bias.

Interestingly, this fact specifically excludes computing pros whom I have never heard ascribe any superiority to children.

It’s not an age thing.

By this I mean obviously parents are older than the children about whom these things are being said, but they are not old by my yardstick. If we assume the children to be aged between 4 and 14, and the parents to have started reproduction at 30, then their age range will be between 34 and 44. 

It’s not a pre-computer thing.

Windows 3.1 came out in 1992, which is 20 years ago, when the above parents were aged between 14 and 24. This puts them very firmly in the modern computing era since which almost nothing fundamental has changed significantly.

How would Socrates deal with this problem? Ah I know... he’d trash the interlocutor.

On the surface the phenomenon looks like ‘Doting Grandma’ syndrome; where everything the ‘young’uns' do is an object of equal admiration and bafflement, but surely these folk are too young to have sclerotic brains?

I think that a clue lies in the education of the parents. They don’t just belong to the computer user generation, they were the first National Curriculum generation. More significantly I believe, they are the first SATs generation.

For those not in the know, the SATs ushered in the present era of ultra-prescriptive education. Children are taught to pass exams, but that’s all. Drill and test. Twenty years of rising test marks provide the best evidence of this.

ICT education for example has been criticised more consistently, more vehemently and more widely than anything than I can remember. What for? For mindless prescription, of course.

On the other hand, exploratory learning and deep engagement, the vital key to mastering computer type skills and it is alive and well in young children. This is a cause for celebration, but it is steadily eroded by their schooling, being lost quickly towards the end of primary education gone by the time a student is qualified. If an adult needs a new skill, as we all know, they must be trained. How else could does anyone learn?

So here is my assertion.

Children, especially younger than 10 years old still have the intellectual apparatus and qualities to quickly master technologies. This ability is steadily eroded through years of drill and test education.

Their parents have, through their own education, become prematurely brain-aged. Their brains reflect their programmed disposition. New and different, self-taught: all this kind of stuff is anathema. They are my doting ‘Grandma’ referred to above.

This explains a lot. To such a parent the child would indeed seem wondrously adept, not because of narcissism, not because of parental stupidity and not because of what they know, but because of how they learn.

The scary bit is that in a few short years that child will have forgotten how it was for them once and will be saying similar things about their own children.

It follows that reforming computer education, which apparently we all agree is dire, means reforming education itself. Prescriptive test-based education is not compatible with good computing or anything much of worth, but is excellent at producing office-bound procedure droids who marvel at their kids but don’t see how sad their own loss is.

Pass the hemlock.