"Have You Done Your 20 Minutes of Reading...er...Coding today?"

When I first became a parent, I was filled with the excitement of being able to teach my kid everything that I knew. I'd teach him how to be creative, responsible, curious, empathetic (at least as far as I understood them), but I'd also teach him fun things like the first 314 digits of pi, juggling, basketball, and coding.

Yes, coding. As a software engineer, I never worked a day in my life. I *love* to code. It's fun. I'd do it even if I weren't paid to do it. And actually, now that I'm a teacher full-time, I can make good on that claim. Although the majority of my day is now spent teaching, I still squeeze in time to code, and it is largely for the fun of it.

To my coding friends: Do you remember the thrill that came from the first time you got your computer to do something you programmed it to do, even if it was simple? I personally remember getting my first Pascal book in high school, and I literally could not put it down. One particular memory I still have from my 14-year-old self is sitting in the back seat in the McDonald's drive thru, nose stuck in my Pascal book while my sisters talked about Jonathan Taylor Thomas or some such*.

I wanted my kid to have the same thrilling experience, the same overwhelming passion. I wanted to see the deep focus come over them that comes over me when I have a terribly abstract and difficult problem to reason around and the subsequent exultation when they finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and realize that they did it.**

For me, teaching my kids coding was always a want. I heard about Scratch, and I downloaded it. I learned about Greenfoot and downloaded it. I tried them both on my kids with a mild amount of success. I spent an afternoon with my 8 and 10 year old boys and built an animation where three stick people would run up a ladder, slide down a slide, and fly into the wall, including sound effects that would only attract 8 and 10 year old boys. Another afternoon, we built an LDS missionary app where the missionary had to walk around and visit all the houses before the "bees" caught him. On another day, we built a simple frogger game. Another, we built a "Family Home Evening Spinner". We had fun.

Now, though, I believe I'm transitioning. "I want" is slowly turning into "I should" or "they need".

Reading Coding is Fundamental

I think about coding like I think about reading and writing. Research, studies, and our own intuitions seem to confirm that reading aloud to our children every day enstills within them a skill that will assist them in solving big problems, getting a larger world view, and generally being productive in society. Clearly, not being able to read and write is an enormous disadvantage in this day and age.

In parts of the world where literacy is low, those who are literate are invaluable to their community, often serving in positions of leadership and working at the forefront of the community's biggest problems.

Sound like what coders are doing today? One need only look as far as heavily code-literate institutions like Google to see some of the impressive problems that are now being solved today that were once considered intractable or at least only part of the distant horizon.

As Gabe Newell from Valve put it: "The programmers of tomorrow are the wizards of the future. You're going to look like you have magic powers compared to everybody else."

I'll take that a step further, though. I don't only want my kids to have those "magic powers" in order to make big, positive differences in the world. They are going to need them.

Douglas Rushkoff explained that "When we acquired language, we didn't just learn how to listen, but also how to speak. When we acquired text, we didn't learn just how to read, but how to write. Now that we have computers, we are learning to use them but not how to *program* them."

Largely, the world seems satisfied to allow themselves to become increasingly dependent on "geeks" for increasingly fundamental aspects of their day to day lives. Many not only consider the inner workings of computers and the Internet "unknowable" but even "worthless to know".

However, I believe that such an imbalance between the knows and the know-nots, while convenient in the short term, will put those who don't know how to code at as much of a debilitating disadvantage in the future as not knowing how to read does today. Those who could write centuries ago formed the world in the image they saw as multitudes of non-readers consumed their perception of reality, often independent of its accuracy or precision.

For me, teaching my kids coding was always a want. Now, though, "I want" is turning into "I should" or "they need".

Our children are the consumers of the digital revolution that many of them cannot currently participate it at a production level. Their perceptions even now are being molded by the coders behind Facebook, Google, Instagram, and Twitter. If our youth do not know how to code themselves, they are destined to be relegated to the class of citizens who consume points of view formulated not necessarily by those who are right but by those who are simply more skilled at the lingua franca.

As Patrick Byrne from Overstock once quipped: "Mark Twain once said don't pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. I say never pick a fight with someone who buys bandwidth by the gigabyte." Kids needed to learn to write. Kids now need to learn to code, too, if they are going to have a say in the makeup of our future world.

"Have Your Done Your 20 Minutes of Coding Today?"

For some of my kids, they love reading so much that they don't need to be reminded. One of my kids reads at the dinner table, in closets, and with a flashlight late into the night. Another reads because it is on her "job chart" and she wants to put down the check mark. A couple of them need to be reminded over and over again if I want to have any kind of output from them.

Regardless, they all know that Mom and Dad expect them to read 20 minutes a day. We read them bedtime stories, we read the Bible and Book of Mormon every night together as a family. They know that Mom and Dad love to read and like to carve out time for our own personal reading during our day.

Kids need daily time coding as well, and it needs to be on the job chart. Or, if that seems too daunting, families can try the rule that we enforce in our house:
When on the computer, be a producer, not a consumer.
My kids are allowed to build stuff in Minecraft, draw pictures in paint, make sound effects and animations in Scratch, learn something new by researching online or anything that basically is not straight up media consumption. We have "Cummings Cash", and I tie that Cummings Cash to certain bounties that are related to them building, creating, and making stuff on or off the computer.

It's time for the Cummings's to level up, though. With our oldest two children (8 and 10), I want them to get familiar with coding more than just as a pastime. So, for one week, I decided to try something new.

The regimen was simple: Work on codeacademy, a codemonkey level, or something coding-related for 20 minutes a day together for one week. I considered the pairing up part to be super-important as my older son is more responsible, but my younger son has more of the "knack". Hopefully together they'd stay on task.

In addition, it's also been on my mind to see whether or not a non-coder parent can help a non-coder kid become more familiar with coding. I imagine that mother or father 300 years ago who had never learned how to write, but now perceived the need for her children to learn to write. What would she do in such a situation to help her children make progress?

So, while not the greatest comparision, I decided that as an additional experiment, I'd ask my wife--a non-coder--to sit in with the boys for those 20 minutes a day. She would follow along with the exercises and help the boys out if they got stuck. We called it the "Code With Your Child" initiative.

To my delight, my wife accepted the challenge! This week, she is working through the exercises with the boys; sometimes she sits and watches, but mostly the boys work on the tasks independently and she verifies after they are done. It's going well! My boys are learning coding from a non-coder! I will post a detailed update when our experiment finishes next week.

In the mean time...

Why don't you give it a shot yourself? IMHO, everyone should know at least a little bit about coding. And maybe pull your kid in with you while you do it.

*Actually, I'm sure my sisters were more sophisticated than that. Kimmie would accept nothing less then Jason Priestly or that one guy from New Kids On The Block.

**My wife tells me that she knows it was a really hard problem when I yell out a "Whoop!" when it finally works.


"I love to teach, as a painter loves to paint, as a singer loves to sing, as a musician loves to play" - William Lyon Phelps