My husband recently bought a computer for our 18-month old daughter. I think he’s nuts, but he says that it’s never too early to get kids computer literate. I’m concerned that pushing computer literacy at this age will put too much pressure on our child, making her feel like she has to be an over achiever. Is he right or should we wait?

You and your husband have stumbled into one of the 21st century’s parenting hot spots. A lot of parents have some legitimate questions about the sensibility and worthwhileness (and even the danger) of starting kids on computers and/or computerized toys at such an early age. Unfortunately, making the right decision-assuming there is such a thing-is nearly impossible, given the heated debate among academics, software designers, and advocacy groups.

On one side, there are the psychologists and other experts who agree with your husband and who say that it’s almost never too early to get children comfortable with using technology. They feel that the world is becoming more and more wired every day and that kids who don’t have superior computer skills will be at a disadvantage as they grow up. On the other side, people with equally impressive resumes say exactly the opposite, that introducing children to technology too early can be dangerous. They feel that children who spend time with computers don’t learn basic social skills, and that young kids need to be interacting with their parents, not a computer.

So will exposing your child to computers make her antisocial or make her spend all her time in front of the screen instead of doing other things? Unlikely. Initially, the novelty of the computer may suck her away from other activities, but that’s not all that different from what happens with any new toy. Your child needs a wide variety of things to play with and learn from. So as long as you don’t try to make the computer replace all your child’s other toys, it will be just another toy on her shelf.

After thoroughly investigating the pros and cons, I came to the conclusion that introducing kids to technology is worth a try, but only if you stick to the following guidelines:

  • Your child must be ready. She should have a firm grasp of cause-and-effect relationships (I push the Enter key and something happens on the screen).
  • She must be interested. One way to increase the chances she’ll be interested is to let her watch you work on your computer; another is to let her bang around on an old keyboard (if you don’t have one, you can probably buy a used one at a flea market for about five dollars).
  • Never use the computer as an electronic babysitter. You must be willing to be there, with your child sitting on your lap, every time she plays on the computer. When she’s a little older she can graduate to sitting next to you.
  • Keep in interactive. Talk about what you’re seeing on the screen, why your child is making the choices she is, and so on, just as you would if you were reading a story or playing a game.
  • Have fun. At this age, the goal of exposing your tot to technology isn’t to teach her anything and it’s not to boost her IQ or get her into an Ivy League school before she’s out of diapers. It should really be just another way the two of you can play together. As with any other activity, pay attention to your child’s cues. If she’s bored or isn’t interested, shut down the computer and go for a walk of pick up a book.
  • Don’t put a computer in your child’s room.
  • Make sure you select good software. (fee based) and (free) both do reviews and make recommendations of software and hardware for kids.
  • Limit screen time. Computer games should be part of a well-balanced diet of fun activities. Chances are your child won’t be interested in playing on the computer for more than five minutes at a stretch. But if she’s easily mesmerized, cut her off at 10-15 minutes per day.