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You are here: Home 1997 Vol. 29 No. 3, July 1997 Columns Computers and Kids: Kids Are Not "Adults-In-Waiting"
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Computers and Kids: Kids Are Not "Adults-In-Waiting"

Allison Druin

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"When you get to be an adult, we'll talk about it more..." were the words of my grandmother. For as long as I can remember, she never seemed to answer my questions. I would ask about why boys and girls were different; why girls had to wear dresses and uncomfortable shoes; why I couldn't chew gum in front of her friends; why she never dated after my grandfather died. And to each and every question that she would start to explain, she always finished her thoughts with, "When you get to be an adult, we'll talk about it more..."

Thanks to my grandmother, for years I thought that kids really couldn't understand important things. If you waited long enough though, you would eventually get to be some magical age and be called an adult. Only then could you be good enough to talk about those things with Grandma Mae. Until then though, you were just a kid waiting to be an adult.

This way of seeing kids was something I carried with me as I grew into an adult. I probably would not have even thought about it until I decided to have kids of my own, but that was not to be. Twelve years ago, at the age of 21, I became a designer of new technologies for children. After working on various projects, I decided it was time to go get that Ph.D. I'd always talked about getting. I wanted to learn more about the people I was making computers for, rather than the bits and bytes of it all. So I began graduate school in January of 1995, at the University of New Mexico. I was immersed in books, discussions, and fellow-grad students. What I did not expect, however, was to be immersed in real-live kids. As a part of my graduate program, I ran a technology after-school program for elementary school children in the Albuquerque Public Schools. Thanks to this program I watched, listened, and became a part of what kids did. Thanks to this experience, my work changed and I changed. It seemed all I had to do was listen to kids, and they would tell me what I wanted to know. I digested what they had to say and responded in the form of new technologies and publications about kids and computers (Druin, 1996a, p. 17-22; Druin 1996b, p. 422-423; Druin and Solomon, 1996).

Those kids taught me more than just what to do with technology. They also taught me that I had prejudices; ones towards kids that are extraordinarily pervasive among adults. I, like my grandmother, thought that kids were adults-in-waiting. And until the magical time that they became adults, they couldn't have meaningful discussions. They couldn't understand important things. They didn't have important things to say. Kids were just not as good as adults.

I have now come to see that my prejudices about kids have taken on many forms. To begin with, there has been conceit (Hall, 1996, p. 155-156). This is a form of prejudice where one group or person is thought to be better than another. This is a form where people can trivialize the importance of the other group's actions or behaviors, because these people are not seen as being as good. This was the case with me. I clearly grew up believing adults were better than children. I translated this conceit form of prejudice to how I made computers for kids. Since I believed kids needed to be told what to do by adults, I started out by making computer applications that gave kids limited control of their electronic world. Some would call this drill and practice or interactive textbook (Solomon, 1986, p. 12; Druin and Solomon, 1996, xi-xx), but whatever the name, I made things for kids with set or given paths to learning. If kids followed those paths, they were given a reward. If they didn't, they were told to try again.

What I didn't know then was that this form of prejudice functioned as a way to express the values I had grown up with. As Hall (1996) described, my prejudice functioned in a value-expressive form (Hall, 1996, p. 155-156). My prejudice had been passed down from my grandmother to me, and from me to all those children that used the computer applications I had made for them. I came to realize however, that those types of computer applications were not what kids wanted. Therefore, I slowly changed. My applications eventually gave more control to kids. They gave kids a way to customize and change their electronic worlds. This should not be confused with my becoming less prejudiced of kids. At the time, I still believed as my grandmother did, that kids needed adults to tell them what to do, because they weren't as capable. Despite this prejudice, I clearly realized what I had been creating wasn't what they wanted. So I changed, but just a bit.

It was then that I believe my prejudice took on more of a symbolic form bordering on tokenism (Hall, 1996, p. 155-156). What I mean by this, is that I believed adults as the status quo should be kept in control. By giving children the illusion of control (allowing kids to change minor things in their world) it couldn't hurt the status quo. That token gesture didn't admit that children were any more equal to adults, but it did say that I was trying to listen to what they were telling me about my computer applications. I believe that this prejudice functioned as knowledge (Hall, 1996, p. 155-156). As Hall (1996) described it, my prejudice was a convenient way to organize how I made sense of the world (Hall, 1996, p. 155-156).

Today however, thanks to my hundreds of hours with kids of every shape, size, and age, I believe my prejudice has changed form again. I now sincerely believe that children have something important to say. They are not adults waiting to happen, but people with their own beliefs and behaviors. I believe they need to be respected, because they can teach adults a lot about their world. They can show adults what they want and need. They don't want to be talked down to. They just want to be recognized and appreciated for who they are.

Thanks to this understanding, a few years ago I started the program at the CHI conferences called CHIkids (Druin 1996b, p. 422-423). It asks kids to be conference attendees while their parents are off being conference attendees. This year's program was attended by 60 kids, some of whom were reporters for the CHI conference Newsletter and Web Site. Other kids were software testers and told researchers what they thought about their experimental technologies. And still others formed multimedia companies and created software of their own. In the next issue of the SIGCHI Bulletin I'll discuss more about this year's CHIkids program. But suffice to say, kids have taught me a lot. My guess is, I still have a ways to go when it comes to my prejudices about kids. I think I may have conquered my prejudices when it comes to my work, but I am not so certain that my prejudices won't carry over to my home life. When I have kids, will I turn into my grandmother despite all that I know from my work? At this point, all that I can safely say is that my prejudices about kids may be at arms-length (Hall, 1996, p. 155-156). Until I'm sure that in all situations I can see children as my equal, I may have to live with my prejudices. Until then, I guess I'll keep making things for kids.

Allison Druin
chi-bulletin-kids@acm.org
http://www.cs.unm.edu/~allisond/

Allison Druin is the founder of the CHIkids Program. She is co-author of the recent John Wiley book, Designing Multimedia Environments for Children and a researcher at the University of New Mexico.

References

Druin, A. (1996a). A Place Called Childhood. Interactions, 3, 17-22.

Druin, A. (1996b). CHIkids: A Common Ground Between Adults and Kids. CHI 96 Conference Proceedings. Vancouver, Canada: ACM SIGCHI Publications.

Druin, A. & Solomon C. (1996). Designing Multimedia Environments for Children. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Hall, B. J. (1996). Prejudice. In B. J. Hall (ed.) Intercultural Communications (P.155-156). Albuquerque: Education Publications.

Solomon, C. (1986). Computer Environments for Children. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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