I introduced my 5-year-old and 2-year-old to startx and xmonad. They’re DELIGHTED!

June 20th, 2012

Two years ago, Jacob (then 3) and I built his first computer together. I installed Debian on it, but never put a GUI on the thing. It’s command-line, and has provided lots of enjoyment off and on over the last couple of years. I’ve written extensively about what our boys like to do, and the delight they have at learning things on the command line.

The looks of shock I get from people when I explain, as if it’s perfectly natural, that my child has been able to log in by himself to a Linux shell since age 3, are amusing and astounding. Especially considering that it is really not that hard. Instead of learning how to run an Xbox, he’s learned how to run bash. I like that.

Lately, Jacob (now 5) hasn’t been spending much time with it. He isn’t really at a stage where he wants to push his limits too far, I think, but yet also gets bored with the familiar. So I thought it was time to introduce a GUI in a limited fashion, perhaps to let him download photos and video from his Vtech toy camera (that takes real low-res photos and videos which can be downloaded over a USB1 link). He’s familiar with the concept, at least somewhat, having seen GUIs on Terah’s computer (Gnome 2) and mine (xfce4 + xmonad).

So last night, Oliver (age 2) and I went down to the basement on a mouse-finding expedition. Sure enough, I had an old PS/2 mouse down there that would work fine. The boys both helped string it through the desk up on our play room, and were tremendously excited to see the red light underneath it when the computer came on. Barely able to contain the excitement, really. A bit like I remember being when I got my first mouse (at a bit of an older age, I suppose.)

I helped him them in as root for the very first time. (Jacob typed “root”, and I typed the password, and provided the explanation for why we were telling the computer we were “root”.) Jacob and Oliver alternated typing bits of some apt-get command lines. Then while we waited for software to download, I had to answer repeated questions of “how soon will the mouse work?” and “what does ‘install’ mean?”

Finally it was there, and I told Jacob to type startx. I intentionally did not install a display manager; more on that later. He pressed Enter, the screen went blank for about 5 seconds, and then X appeared. “Excited” can’t begin to describe how they acted. They took turns playing with the mouse. They loved how the trash can icon (I started with XFCE) showed trash IN the trash can.

But they are just learning the mouse, and there’s a lot about a typical GUI that is unfriendly to someone that isn’t yet proficient with a mouse. The close buttons are disappointingly small, things can be too easily dragged on and off the panel and menus. When I sat down to think about it, the typical GUI design does not present a very good “it always works the same” interface that would be good for a child.

And then it occurred to me: the perfect GUI for a child would be simply xmonad (a tiling window manager that can be controlled almost entirely by keyboard and has no need for mouse movements in most cases.) No desktop environment, no file manager in the root window. Just a window manager in the classic X way. Of course!

So after the boys were in bed, I installed xmonad. I gave Jacob’s account a simple .xsession that starts a terminal and xmonad.

Today, Jacob informed me that he wanted his computer to look “just like yours.” Playing right into my hands, that was! But when he excitedly typed startx, he said it wasn’t just like mine. Uh oh. Turns out he wanted the same wallpaper as my computer uses. Whew. We found it, I figured out that xli(1) loads it in the root window, and so I added a third line to .xsession. More delight unlocked!

Jacob mastered the basics of xmonad really quickly. Alt-Shift-C to close a window. Alt-Shift-Q to quit back to the “big black screen”. Alt-Shift-Enter to get a terminal window.

We launched thunar (the XFCE file manager) and plugged in his camera. He had a good deal of fun looking at photos and videos from it. But then I dropped the true highlight of the day for him: I offered to install Tuxpaint for him. That’s probably his favorite program of all time.

He watched impatiently as apt-get counted down 1m30s for tuxpaint and its libraries. Then we launched it, and he wanted to skip supper so he could keep playing Tuxpaint on “my VERY OWN COMPUTER!”

I’d been debating how to introduce GUIs for a very long time. It has not escaped my attention that children that used Commodores or TRS-80s or DOS knew a lot more about how their computers worked, on average, than those of the same age that use Windows or MacOS. I didn’t want our boys to skip an entire phase of learning how their technology works. I am pleased with this solution; they still run commands to launch things, yet get to play with more than text-based programs.

At bedtime, Jacob asked me, very seriously:

“Dad, how do I start tuxpaint again?”

“First you log in and type startx. Then you can use the mouse.”

Jacob nods, a contemplative look on his face..

“Then,” I continue, “you type tuxpaint in the terminal, and it comes right up.”

Jacob nodded very seriously a second time, as if committing this very important information to long-term memory. Then gave a single excited clap, yelled “Great!”, and dashed off.

Categories: Children & Computing, Family

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Comments Feed134 Comments

  1. Mr Jones

    This is awesome, really enjoyed reading this, thanks.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Thanks!

    Reply

  2. Corsac

    Then I’m sure they’ll be delighted by the Xfce mouse :)

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I’m not quite sure what you mean – is there a “mouse chases cursor” type of program for XFCE?

    Reply

    juanefren Reply:

    IIRC, cursor often converts into a mouse (I think that happens when “waiting”).

    Reply

    Joseph Reply:

    not XFCE specific, but there’s oneko which causes a little white cat to chase the cursor, which still works as normal

    Reply

    Aaron Miller Reply:

    I think he’s referring to the XFCE logo, which is a mouse.

    Reply

  3. Snark

    You should perhaps have a look at gcompris.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    That does look interesting. Thanks.

    Reply

    Sune Reply:

    Other interesting applications:
    – potato guy (ktuberling)
    – blinken

    and maybe they will soon enjoy things like
    – kanagram
    – khangman

    Reply

    canucjtux Reply:

    how about introducing the mto net hack, then later to alternate tilesets, then onto fancy isometrric view.

  4. Martijn

    My son is now 7 months old, and I’m already thinking about how to introduce this stuff to him when he’s old enough. Your stories are a great inspiration. Thank you.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I have a few principles:

    1) Open discovery. On their computer, they can do anything. (It is blocked from public Internet at the firewall.) I don’t give them the root password, so there’s really no harm they can cause.

    2) I don’t get bothered if they don’t use it a lot, or if they do. Kids seem to have a natural cycle of interest that waxes and wanes, and that’s OK.

    3) I try to make things that challenge them a bit be available, while also letting them have fun with things that are easier.

    Reply

    fatcatfan Reply:

    Regarding blocked internet access, are you specifically exempting web access to repositories for apt-get, have a local repository, or something else?

    Reply

    Pit Reply:

    My 9 months old daughter knew how to use two keys on keyboard (Space and Esc) to stop/play movies for kids. Now she is 2,5 years old and she is playing simple web browser flash games on Ubuntu.

    Reply

  5. Richard "RichiH" Hartmann

    gpm would have been a nice step in the middle. While mere copy & paste is of limited use when playing around, it would still have been a nice step in between.

    Reply

    lightonflux Reply:

    But then you should use ncurse based programmes. Like elinks (webbrowser), htop (fancy top). mutt (mail client), midnight commander (filemanager).

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ncurses

    Reply

  6. Nameless citizen

    Nice article! I was contemplating how to raise kids in this day and age without sacrificing all the computer knowledge that the previous generation inadvertently acquired. You seem to nail it with your kids :)

    Reply

  7. Alex

    I wish that I was taught command line before GUI as a child. Let them absorb the information while they’re young, and they’re doomed to use linux forever once they feel the comforting feeling of “I know what I’m doing, and if I mess up I know how to fix it”. It’s an empowering feeling to feel at a young age.

    Very inspiring, and you have a smart kid!

    Reply

  8. Jordi

    John, this was an awesome entry in the series!

    Reply

  9. Brett

    Sounds like he’d be very excited to play around with a Raspberry Pi. I know I am, I just started playing with it today and I’m 25.

    Reply

  10. Sam

    Are they familiar with any iPhone or iPad-like devices? If so, has that hindered them at all from using the command line?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    No, they have never really used them. They’ve used my Android phone very briefly (I have a game or two on it that is targeted at children), but that’s about it. They haven’t expressed a great desire to use our phones; I think they lump them in with the “boring phone” category and haven’t yet realized how much else an Android phone really does.

    That’s OK with me. I’d rather they learn about their technology first anyhow.

    They HAVE been exposed to GUIs for awhile. They love to watch youtube videos of trains and combines with me, and to occasionally play games from pbskids.org with Terah. That didn’t dampen their excitement for the command line in the least.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I should add that I think part of the key here is they have a sense of ownership in it. I doubt they would enjoy spending much time with the command line on my computer. But they gathered up the parts for this, helped plug in the cables, and it’s in their room. That makes a huge difference.

    Reply

  11. billythekid

    Brilliant story, I wish Jacob all the best in his continuing linux journey!

    Reply

  12. Christian G. Warden

    I’ve been teaching my two year-old daughter to use the trackpoint. If she’s going to be an xmonad user like dad, she won’t want to waste time with a mouse.

    Reply

  13. chmd

    I enjoyed reading this very much, and I admire what you do for your children!

    One question comes to my mind immediately after reading this: How are you planning to deal with unsafe content on the internet? Considering the amount of computer knowledge your children are exposed to, I guess they are going to figure out pretty quickly (in a few years) what they can/cannot do on the internet with their computer. How do you plan to deal with this? DNS filtering? Proxy?

    Also, how do you plan to teach them how to deal with their data and make them aware of the potential dangers of putting their data online (facebook, google)?

    Cheers

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I really haven’t had the chance to think about the Internet much yet. I am sort of a “figure it out when the time comes” sort of person. Right now, the machine can get on the LAN but is completely blocked from the Internet by the firewall. (It can install Debian packages via my apt-cacher-ng proxy, but that’s all.)

    Reply

  14. Jimbooo!

    And in 25 years time, when he hits 30 doing a soul destroying IT job, he’ll curse your name and all you stand for.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    No, in 25 years’ time, he will be able to AVOID the soul-destroying IT job (if he sticks with IT, anyhow.)

    If you are really good, then you get to work the really good jobs.

    Reply

  15. Dan Fried

    You are the kind of father that I hope to be. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

  16. zygotic

    Please don’t think I’m trolling. We must remember that the world is different for our children. Mine expect on-demand. They are considered daft by their peers if they CANNOT operate an XBOX. Standing out from the crowd can be a potentially dangerous thing for a yung ‘un.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    If they can have the confidence to be different and happy with it — a hard thing as a child, I know from personal experience — all the better.

    They will probably never know as much about video games and pop TV as their peers.

    I am completely fine with that.

    Reply

  17. peter

    What is this sorcery? My 3.5 year old daughter can barely do alphabets, lets alone type commands in to a console!

    Great job!

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    All it takes is some pattern matching and a cheat sheet and they might be able to type some commands!

    Reply

  18. Mike

    Silicon Valley Elite Send Their Kids to School with No Screens

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html?pagewanted=all

    LOS ALTOS, Calif. — The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard.

    But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.

    Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy, where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix.

    Reply

  19. Maitrayee

    I wish my fiancee and I can do the same with our kids…!

    Reply

  20. blimp

    You know how devout Christians push their religion onto their kids?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    What makes you think that our boys don’t get a choice in what they do with technology? (Or religion, for that matter.)

    I thought I explicitly explained that it’s their choice what they do with it, and even IF they do anything with it.

    Reply

    Dude West Reply:

    Yeah, anything, so long as they’re using your religion to do it.

    Learning how things work for the sake of learning is great, but your kids would be better served by familiarizing themselves with the same tools they’ll be using when they go to school.

    Reply

    Dude West Reply:

    Forgot to say, it’s great that you’re getting involved with your kids in this fashion. A lot of parents don’t put in the effort.. Kudos to you.

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I couldn’t disagree more vehemently.

    Knowledge is a worthwhile end in itself. If they know how a computer works, they will be able to pick up Word or whatever without any trouble – and the other things they’ll need in life.

    School will teach them what they need for school. Let them explore otherwise.

    Who benefits if I just teach them what they’ll learn in school anyway? Maybe they’ll “get ahead” a bit, but that doesn’t really benefit anybody. Contrast this with the benefit they get from a lifetime of exploration, of problem solving, of tenacity, of being able to cope with failures and rise above them.

    I truly do not understand what you mean with your religion comments. As near as I can tell, some sort of trolling?

    Axim Reply:

    As far as I can tell, he has the impression that linux users are some sort of religious cult, and probably thinks he’s quite funny.

  21. Syntax_85

    This was an amazingly written and inspiring read. Bravo!

    Reply

  22. Russ Allbery

    oneko is likely to result in at least a day of enjoyment. It did for me even as an adult.

    There are a few other toys like that (xsnow, xroach), but they don’t seem to be packaged for Debian already.

    Reply

  23. Oscar Cardoso

    Wish I had someone to teach me how to use Linux when I was that age. All I had since ’95 was DOS and win95. It sounds awesome to hear that someone can teach linux to a child and the excitement that involves learning about a computer with such a powerful and diverse OS.

    Congrats!

    Reply

  24. Matt

    Hi John, great piece, I really enjoyed reading it. As someone with similar goals for my young son, I am interested in how you kept your 3 year old interested in the command line for so long. Did you use games, creating files, something else? If you could expand on this, I’d really appreciate it.

    Cheers!

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Quite a few things: ASCII art animation, audio things, interactivity. I wrote about most of them in earlier posts: see the index here: http://changelog.complete.org/archives/category/technology/children-computing

    Reply

    Matt Reply:

    Awesome, thanks so much! I think its really cool to start with the building blocks before diving into a GUI.

    Thanks for the response!

    Reply

  25. Jason

    Why didn’t you let him run the install on this? teach him how to access that. the last few computers I have run I had my kids help with various bits, one of them my oldest daughter did almost by herself. The result: kids going to school and asking why the school uses MS products and then explaining to the teacher why Linux is better over all…

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Jacob sat on my lap while we installed Debian originally. http://changelog.complete.org/archives/1451-jacob-has-a-new-computer-and-a-favorite-shell

    He typed in part of one apt-get command for this, but as I didn’t know the exact package names off the top of my head, he lost interest (or I should say, lost interest in doing it himself) for this week’s stuff. That’s OK. He’ll probably get into it later.

    Reply

  26. Glenny

    You my friend are an awesome father!

    Reply

  27. Nils

    Wow I had completely forgotten the joy I felt discovering the first computers I learnt on until reading this article. It was definitely the little things that excited me (seeing trash in the trash can). Great article!

    Reply

  28. Dan

    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story. I really enjoyed reading it and had to smile a lot! I hope Jacob still has a lot of fun exploring linux space. To me it seems as if you’re doing a great – even very specific – job as father! Keep it up
    ! :-)

    Reply

  29. Tiberiu C. Turbureanu

    I assume you were refering to Bash, which is a GNU shell, not Linux shell. Nice story!

    Reply

  30. me

    Awesome! Very nice reading!

    Learning how to use the mouse is good for their coordination. Tuxpaint is a nice way to exercise this.

    But don’t forget to introduce them to xeyes! If they like, put a xeyes on their desktop.

    Also, if you have a new X server, connect another mouse, use the “xinput” command and put 2 pointers on the screen! Yes, it is possible! Use xinput –create-master and then xinput –reattach. I’ve seen many adults excited with 2 pointers, I can only imagine how children would react :)

    Reply

  31. Haartian

    Parenting? You sir, are doing it right.
    Thanks for writing this article. It was most inspiring.

    Reply

  32. human mathematics

    What dd you say to explain why you were logging in as root?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    That it lets us add new programs to the system. I’m not sure it really clicked, but it seemed to answer the question at least.

    Reply

  33. ben

    This is awesome. The next generation should grow up by learning the right things. What I dislike is seeing children playing with ipads and iphones because the concepts will be obsolete some day and don’t encourage for deep understanding. Keep it going!

    Reply

  34. Mike

    Great read, as a linux user, and future parent, I wish I could be the cool dad you come across as being. Children are the future for technology, great way to excite young minds

    Reply

  35. human mathematics

    Such a cute story.

    Reply

  36. Ohio Ham

    Viktor? Watch you jokes! There is drone control software for xmonad.

    Reply

  37. Daniel Purvis

    Love your story. I remember when I was younger learning to use DOS and eventually hacking into the old school computers with the sole purpose of installing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles PC game on everything. I wish I could still remember all that I’d learned!

    My friend Todd is also a videogame player with a new-born son and when I asked him how he’d let Finn (his son) play games, he said that he’d allow Finn to play games beginning on his old Commodore 64, progressing through consoles like the NES, SNES and Megadrive, then Nintendo 64 as he grows older, before being allowed to play Xbox 360s at home. Todd’s hope is that FInn will learn to appreciate the basic mechanics of videogames before he appreciates the visuals of them.

    I’ll make sure Todd reads this article, haha.

    Reply

  38. Lakshmipathi.G

    Thats really cool :) I hope they more fun with linux

    Reply

  39. nim

    well done, they will learn very fast now, and they will learn good things… Congratulations !

    I really hope I will be able to do the same, thanks for the idea :D

    Reply

  40. I introduced my 5-year-old and 2-year-old to startx and xmonad. They’re DELIGHTED! | The Changelog | raamstraat 1

    [...] I introduced my 5-year-old and 2-year-old to startx and xmonad. They’re DELIGHTED! | The Changelog. Posted in: [...]

  41. kite

    how do you plan to deal with (or not deal with) the possible cat and mouse games of things like porn?

    for most people competent enough to punch in some numbers in some boxes can proxy and tunnel through most firewalls.

    do you ever plan to allow them to have their “own” computer? or will you always at least share one with them or just always try to be around them when they use it (wich i think is the best and only way to effective filter what anyone does)?

    overall, what i think you are doing is great, but can cause real headaches depending on how they are when get older, and how restrictive you want to be.

    Reply

    jason Reply:

    I had access to computers, internet and porn from a very young age. I saw my first porn website around age 10. I recall images taking REALLY long to load with our 14.4k modem.

    My sisters and I were on late 80’s/early 90’s chat rooms pretending to be transsexuals while in grammar school. We in no way are sexual predators, and my palms are not covered in fur.

    If you take it away, they’ll make a point to find it. If you let them look, they’ll get over it quickly. Now it seems most fellow parents ask mine what they did right.

    Reply

    André Mendes Reply:

    That’s true, it also happened to me and I have no sexual problems because of it. I saw porn at age of 11 and with an ADSL connection (I’m 20).
    And honestly, I don’t think John should build plans or be worried about it.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I’m a “figure it out as it comes along” sort of person. For now, it is simply inaccessible. Their computer is firewalled off, and they don’t have the root password, and something more drastic (reinstalling the OS, say) is beyond their capability.

    It’s hard enough to predict what technology will be like 2 years down the road, let alone children!

    Reply

  42. Claudia Doppioslash

    This makes me feel nostalgic of my early childhood spent on a Commodore PC-10 :)
    I was 2.5 years old when I first started, I couldn’t even read, but I could type the commands letter by letter.
    I spent hours typing random letters in the text editor, to hear it complain about screen full.
    And I loved the touch typing teaching program.
    It was all in english too :D (I’m italian)
    My mother taught me a bit of BASIC, but I didn’t go back to programming for more than a decade.
    You won’t regret it, I think the gift of starting your lifelong journey in computing with a command line is huge. 
    They wouldn’t get exposed to it in school until way too late.
    Whatever career path they choose at first, they might find that computing is, after all, best suited to them and end up going back to it as I did :)
    I really regret not taking programming up earlier and so skipping all the 8/16 bit CPUs era. 
    So you might want to teach them programming on the cli, too.
    If a kid is interested he can learn anything, there’s no such thing as too young to learn.

    Reply

  43. Tom

    Being a Xmonad user, I really enjoyed this post :)
    I’m surprised about the very last part though, typing tuxpaint in terminal.

    I would have expected a Alt-p to launch dmenu, start typing tuxpaint as it is autocompleted magically :)

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Yes, well we’ll get there eventually…. Right now, I want them to learn the command line before we introduce too many shortcuts ;-)

    Reply

  44. Paul

    Lovely :) I laughed and ‘ACK’ed more than a few times reading this article! I myself started on TOS and had to use Windows after that until I stumbled upon Linux. The years of using Windows and not knowing about any alternatives were wasted time in terms of obtaining computer knowledge and I’d wish I stayed with the Atari back then.

    Reply

  45. http changelog complete org archives 7562 i introduced… « Kathys LinkBook

    [...] http://changelog.complete.org/archives/7562-i-introduced-my-5-year-old-and-2-year-old-to-startx-and-… [...]

  46. Vikram Kamath

    You should’ve installed awesome. They would’ve had much more fun :)

    Reply

  47. Dave H

    Alex’s comment on “I know what I’m doing, and if I mess up I know how to fix it” being empowering reminded me strongly of the Free Range Kids – http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/ – perhaps this is the geek version :)

    Reply

  48. Rudolf Olah

    Have you thought about trying out the Sugar UI that the One Laptop Per Child project created? http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Sugar

    It has some big friendly icons that might be better for daily use by children. I would say use it side by side with xmonad heh.

    Reply

  49. Shean

    You sir, are officially a hero in my eyes.

    Reply

  50. Andrew

    When your guys get a bit older, you may want to introduce them to Telehack. It’s a simulated network toy with some real historical content. Andy Baio did an interview with the creator: http://waxy.org/2011/06/playable_archaeology_an_interview_with_the_telehacks_anonymous_creator/

    Reply

  51. John

    My kids just use Windows 7 like normal people.

    Reply

    Grv Reply:

    No offence, but they’ll be normal and not extraordinary..

    Reply

    lulz Reply:

    you must be very proud…

    Reply

    N3RD Reply:

    i would be proud…

    Reply

  52. Bill Kendrick

    Too awesome. :) I’ve been letting my 5yo play on my original Atari 1200XL computer. We did some BASIC one evening. So far I think he’s more interested in using the control-characters to make big ATASCII letters on the screen. Chip off the ol’ block!

    Glad you guys are enjoying Tux Paint! :)

    Reply

  53. Maximus_m3

    This article was fantastic!!! I grew up on DOS and have been a Windows guy my whole life, but have learned linux over the last 8 years. My children(11,6,4) are already well versed in Windows. I’m thinking it may just be time to dig out an old unit and teach the kids some good ole CLI. I find professionally, that IT admins who grew up or learned some cmdline first, are far better at the job than the crop of window server admins who never have heard of DOS. That is the real value in teaching kids CLI. Well if they choose to work in IT that is. In IT, admins who can ride the fence of linux and windows will find more and better paying job opportunities. Teaching kids some form of linux is a no brainer, it ought to be taught in schools to all kids!!!

    Reply

  54. Darren M

    This is very much how I grew up. Great write up.

    Reply

  55. Peter R

    When my son was about two he climbed up on my computer and he punched in some keys on got on MS Windows and brought up a command box I have never seen before, read about or still have not accessed again. Today at 15 I got him a laptop that had Win 7 on it. In 24 hours he had switched it to Linux Mint on his own. Guess those toddler years count most ;-)

    Reply

  56. Leon

    I am curious when you plan on introducing them to something like Python or Haskell.

    I mean, I’m curious exactly what they do with Bash, but I would think that C64/Apple II basic was a nicer introduction to algorithmic type things. Still, your thesis may well prove to be correct.

    Reply

  57. dumol

    This sounds like a story from the ’80s… An Android tablet should be much more interesting for kids nowadays.

    Reply

    Per Andersson Reply:

    Definitely not so.

    As John states, this way gives a sense of ownership which beats nice user interfaces any day.

    You are probably projecting what YOU think is more interesting. AFAIK and have seen, kids do not have a particular fancy for nice graphics, they even pick up sticks from the ground and have a field day.

    How do you explore a so called “smartphone” or a tablet if you are 3-5 years old? Those devices reduce you into a consumer, they do not invite to exploration. Especially if you are not tech savvy.

    For the record I tried tuxpaint with my 8 month old child, definitely not ready for it. Nor ready for the command line, we are in literal bash (everything with your hands) mode. :-)

    Reply

  58. Nexus

    boom, nailed it. ;)

    Reply

  59. Matt Campbell

    I think that teaching your kids the command-line interface is good; that’s likely to foster more creativity and independence than simply teaching them to point and click. But I think you might want to switch to an X display manager soon. Having them use startx every time might send the message, “Your computer is a stubborn, intractable thing that won’t do what you really want unless you continually repeat some arcane steps.” Better to show them that a computer serves its human user, not the other way around. Set them up with a display manager that will give them xmonad as soon as they log in. Who knows, maybe this will be all the more effective in demonstrating the malleability of computers now that they’ve been starting X manually for a little while.

    One question: Which X terminal are they using? The one from Xfce, or something simpler like rxvt?

    Also, you should check out the MARY speech synthesizer (http://mary.dfki.de/). It requires Java, so it’s more memory-hungry than eSpeak. But the cmu-bdl-hsmm voice is very nice, and it’s free software. The default client is a GUI app, but it’ll be easy for you to whip up a command-line client once you learn the HTTP interface (you’ll be running a server on the local machine). Too bad MARY isn’t in Debian.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    They’re using the XFCE terminal emulator right now, but I may switch them to xterm since it doesn’t have a menubar with pesky persistent settings. (Less to accidentally mess up).

    They have no problem with running startx. It is a command like any other to them.

    Reply

  60. lightonflux

    But then you should use ncurse based programmes. Like elinks (webbrowser), htop (fancy top). mutt (mail client), midnight commander (filemanager).

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ncurses

    Reply

  61. Barney

    You my friend are an awesome commenter!

    Reply

  62. watch out

    Watch your slurs and generalisations. I was a Mac user from 86, when I was 7, had only used computers which booted to basic, and here i am a linux nerd, because I was curious.

    It’s more important to instil the curiosity into learners than indoctrinating them in some mad keyboard only world, in which the rest of the real world don’t live.

    Feel free to make your kids different (remember kids can be cruel and always look to the different), but make them different by building on the norms. Let them use windows/mac/linuxgui, and let them experiment with everything else, its a complete non-sequitur that a GUI user cannot be as educated as a terminal user.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I don’t know what you’re referring to with “slurs and generalizations”. I think you are reading a lot more into what was said than there is. You may have missed the part where we hooked up a mouse (thus it’s not a “mad keyboard-only world”).

    While I made no such claim, nevertheless it seems that in general, people familiar with the command line — any command line — have a better understanding of computing than those that don’t. Causation – maybe not. Perhaps correlation. I don’t intend to withhold GUIs or Windows or whatever from them. Just introduce them to a broader world.

    Reply

    wrong assumption Reply:

    “People familiar with the command line — any command line — have a better understanding of computing than those that don’t.”

    That’s because someone who is familiar with command line has obviously studied computing enough to learn the importance and usage of command line and how it was used to build what we have today. It’s comparable to this scenario:

    I want to teach my kids to cook but I don’t want them to use the oven because knowing how fire works and how to make fire was how we learnt how to cook in the first place. So you’ll spend hours and hours explaining how fire works and discussing what are the most efficient ways to make fire while everyone else is learning the best and most efficient ways of actually making the cake. In the end your kids will know how to make a fire but the quality of their cake will be lower because they spent too much time on figuring out how fire works instead of figuring out how to make a tasty cake.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    The problem with that analogy is that modern GUIs intentionally hide and even limit access to how things really work.

    To take your analogy farther, it’s like telling someone the only way to make a cake is to use a pre-made mix. They’ll get a cake, but many delicious options will be hidden from them.

  63. Kids who run Linux Shells - Nerdcore

    [...] I introduced my 5-year-old and 2-year-old to startx and xmonad. They’re DELIGHTED! (via MeFi) [...]

  64. dercorn

    I am delighted to read about your kids’ experiences and how playfully they progress into what scares off most Windows users so easily. I admire your skill of not pushing them towards anything, yet letting them progress in their proficiency with the basics of computing instead of choking their sense of curiosity with the kind of stimulus overkill that gaming consoles and “modern” GUIs present. Carry on and write about it. Please.

    Reply

  65. Who needs a gui? | manabulabs

    [...] friend matt sent me this Article about a guy who is introducing his kids to computers for the first time.  Quick summary is that he [...]

  66. Scott

    If you’re looking for more text based games, try nInvaders, it’s a console based space invaders.

    Reply

  67. Digit

    lovely. so inspiring. :)

    Reply

  68. Leseempfehlungen | stk

    [...] Vater zeigt seinen Kindern X11 — schon etwas aelter: Dieser Vater hat fuer seinen damals dreijaehrigen Sohn eine Linux-Maschine nur mit Kommandozeile eingerichtet. Nun bekommen er und sein zweijaehriger kleiner Bruder zum ersten Mal xmonad gezeigt. Dieser Eintrag wurde veröffentlicht in Allgemein. Bookmark the Permanent-Link. Kommentieren oder ein Trackback hinterlassen: Trackback-URL. « “Nach diesem Urteil sollten wir uns über die NSU nicht mehr wundern” Kleine Kamera, grosse Bilder » [...]

  69. vext01

    Brilliant! I remember a similar excitement programming my zx spectrum as a child.

    You may like this physics game:
    http://numptyphysics.garage.maemo.org/

    Thanks for the article.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Very interesting – thanks for the link, I’m taking a look.

    Reply

  70. David

    One of your prior articles got me to introduce Debian to my son. Got him an old Apple PPC clamshell to load it on. gave hime a login and let him go. wurm and snake are his favorites (per your other post, I installed bsd-games), but he likes “dad not found” “mom not found” etc too. He can name most of the keys as he hits them, even semi-colon and equal sign. Pretty good for 3yrs 2 mths imo.

    Thank you for doing this, it was inspirational to me.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    That’s cute and great! My son has loved producing various error messages too.

    Reply

  71. John Goerzen

    A clarification for someone wondering – I never said he’s never seen a GUI. (In fact, I mention that he’s seen them before.) He had simply never had a GUI on *HIS* computer.

    Reply

  72. DL

    You should install the ‘sl’ command if you haven’t already, a kid would love that I reckon. Basically an ASCII train comes across the terminal if you mistype ‘ls’ as ‘sl’.

    Reply

  73. Random guy

    Hey there. I just stumbled upon this completely randomly, whilst looking for some xmonad resources, and I just wanted to pop in and tell you that this was awesome. I think I will raise my kids like that myself.

    This is asked out of complete, genuine curiosity, so I hope you don’t take offense: is there no part of you that feels like you are perhaps forcing some interests upon the kids, though? I mean, I can see both sides of the argument here. On one side.. they’re 2 and 5. How do they know what they think is interesting?

    Maybe they’ll just grow out of it if they really don’t like it.

    Anyhow, thanks for the read!

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    No problem!

    It’s a chicken and egg problem, isn’t it? They will discover what’s interesting as they go along. It might be computers, it might not. I’ve provided them an option. I don’t see xmonad as being particularly different from Windows in that regard. Everybody with kids that use computers makes some choices for them about operating system and software, and it’s that way here too. I’m not sure that’s precisely what you asked, but I hope it helps.

    They certainly have many non-computer interests as well, though.

    Reply

    John Arnold Reply:

    I’m a little mixed about what you’re doing with your kids here. On the one hand I have the same command line background as you and I would like my kids to have the same joy of learning about computers as I had. I’m hoping I can do something like that with my Raspberry Pi. But on the other hand I don’t think young people will think of a computer as being a box with a keyboard, mouse and screen like you and I do. I think tablet computing is the future of computing for the masses. I’m not saying traditional computers are going away. They’ll just be for those that need something beefier. For the vast majority a tablet will be all they need and more.

    So it’s great that your kids are learning the fundamentals, and I hope to teach my kids some of that too. But just as I know about punched cards but never use that knowledge I feel our kids will probably know about command lines but never ever use them.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    One person on Lifehacker responded to this article this way: “The point is that in order to be a master of technology, and not a slave to it, you must know how and why it works. And the best way to understand computers is to run them starting with the console.”

    My first computer was a TRS-80 CoCo II running BASIC. I haven’t touched BASIC in many, many, many years. The *tool* became obsolete but the *knowledge* and problem-solving skills didn’t. I learned about the fundamental logical nature of computers, about loops and commands, about moving data from disk to RAM and such.

    Kids love to explore. They don’t start out with preconceived notions of what’s good or bad. Linux isn’t the only thing, and computers aren’t the only thing. The boys have plenty of other activities and will encounter other operating systems. But somebody that only ever uses a tablet will have no idea how to write software to run on that tablet!

  74. I introduced my 5-year-old and 2-year-old to startx and xmonad. They’re DELIGHTED! | The Changelog | wielke

    [...] I introduced my 5-year-old and 2-year-old to startx and xmonad. They’re DELIGHTED! | The Changelog. Dit bericht werd geplaatst in Nieuws door Wielke . Bookmark de permalink [...]

  75. Jack

    I enjoyed reading every bit of this, simply amazing.

    Reply

  76. Delicious Bookmarks for December 11th from 14:41 to 21:54 « Lâmôlabs

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  77. Looking back on 2012

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  80. Alex

    The first thing I had (born in ’78) was an Atari VCS. I’ll always be grateful for my dad. Now IT is my life, make a lot of money, and enjoy it as much as ever. I’m keeping one from when the time comes; later I’ll get a Mac II which had an awesome mouse tutorial and lots of educative games were available (more than any other plattform). Obviously the net is out of the question maybe until he’s 9 or so… I hope. I’ll have to assess if I’m not crippling him as time comes. Meanwhile will do the same; start as I did so he’s able to get it as I did.. Hope so.. Very inspiring article!!

    Reply

  81. Greg

    well done!
    regarding the vtech toy camera, we had also considered it, but then decided to give our 5-year old daughter a GE DV1 camera which is easy to use, makes HD video, decent 5 MP photos (but no flash and no macro), is shockproof and water-resistant, and reasonably priced at 85$. The only disadvantage: she won’t let me borrow it unless she gets chocolates ;)

    Reply

  82. Saurabh

    You are really a very successful father.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Thank you everyone for the kind words!

    Reply

  83. Wyatt

    I found this on lifehacker and I was just so happy all the way through, while also filled with immense jealousy. I am 17 now and just got into programming. I had used the terminal on my mac (messed around opening programs, deleting files, and making my mac say things to me. Also to hack into macs FOR GOOD REASONS – says every criminal ever) a few years ago. But i felt confused at the meaning and syntax of it all. This is all me explaining why you, sir, are an awesome father.
    So anyways, I was wondering what you chose for them, and why.
    DFTBA

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Hi Wyatt,

    First, thank you for the kind words. I appreciate it!

    Don’t think that 17 is too late to start programming. There’s still a lot of years left and a lot of time to pursue your dream, whatever it may be. I might suggest you take a look at diveintopython.net. It’s a way to help you get started hands-on.

    I’ve actually written a number of posts about what they’re doing; you can see them at: http://changelog.complete.org/archives/category/technology/children-computing

    Good luck!

    Reply

    Wyatt Reply:

    Yeah thanks! I actually just started an Intro to Programming class and I think that was one of the resources we are going to use!
    And good luck with the kids! I have heard the teenage years can be difficult ;)

    Reply

  84. John Goerzen

    Grin… you might be on an excellent position to giveME some advice to remember there… any tips?

    Reply

    Wyatt Reply:

    Instill in them the importance of honesty while you still can, never overlook the option of bribes, and remember that we can be very irrational creatures that sometimes need updates and recalibration. But I am sure your two boys will be perfect children. I NEVER have problems with my brother. *sarcasmsarcsmsarcasm*

    Reply

  85. Thomas Løcke

    Thumbs up to you! This was a very nice read – it was just what I needed to brighten up this cold and dark winter morning.

    Linux, CLI and xmonad for your two young sons = awesome. You sound like a pretty darn cool father. :)

    Reply

  86. Teaching Computing to Your Children

    [...] aside, it’s a neat post. The original was from way back in June and can be found here. The re-post to Lifehacker was from just last week. Share this: Pin ItDigg Posted in Fatherhood [...]

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