My parents were always good about providing for my brother, sister, and me. We had a roof over our heads, prepared meals, help with homework, and our specific interests were always fed — for my brother it was soccer and surfing and for my younger sister… well, I’m really not sure. For me, however, I’ll always remember the day my dad put me in the car and drove me to the computer store in Gulf Breeze, Florida, to pick up one of the very first Macintosh computers in 1984. He had seen my interest in programming and messing with the limited number of computers at school and must have seen the writing on the wall because that purchase would fuel my interest in computers and electronics for many years to come. It would even help influence my career somewhat, as I enjoyed Apple’s user manuals (yes, they came with those once) and other documentation. The computer wasn’t just for me, but it was a major purchase (at the time) that spurred an interest in how computers worked and gave me a comfort level with technology at a young age that many of my friends didn’t have. That Mac made ripples throughout my high school and college days and influenced my choice of career and hobbies, and continues to do so today.
And now I’m a parent. I’ve got two sons — one turning 5 in May and another turning 2 in June. Like many parents, I watch them and try to imagine what kinds of things will grab their attention. Like my parents, I have no desire to push my children into any particular area of study; yes, I want them to succeed in whatever career they might choose one day, but I want that choice to be their own. I’ll certainly share my hobbies and skills with them (my oldest son is getting pretty good with the drill press), but when I observe a particular interest in either boy, I’m hoping to do as my parents did and encourage it as best I can and give them the opportunities to explore and learn and even fail.
I can’t predict what either of my boys will find of interest as they grow up, but there are things I can do now… today… that may be somewhat beneficial to them in the next 5 to 10 years. I call it future-proofing, even if that future is maybe no more than a decade away. But 5 to 10 years for these little fellows is a long time, and things are certain to change in today’s high-speed world that none of us will see coming. And yes, there are some things that probably won’t change. Let’s take a look and discuss some of the things that we, as parents, might be able to do to get our children ready for the next 5, 10, even 20 years.
1. Create a Google user account for your child’s name if possible — Most of us didn’t even know what Google was in 1996, but here we are, 16 years later, and I think it’s safe to say that the company’s future appears strong. Just about everyone I know uses one or more of Google’s services, with email and the search engine being the two most obvious. Add in Calendar, Google Docs, and dozens more services and you’ll likely agree that even if these services evolve over time, they’ll all likely require some sort of user account. I’ve created user accounts for both my sons, with easy to remember (at least to me) names. When the time comes, each of them will have a Google user account, complete with Gmail and Calendar and other services ready to go.
2. Register a domain using your child’s full name — do this before someone else grabs it. Your child may never have need for johnsmith.com or janedoe.com, but being able to hold a domain name for around $5 to $10 per year is a small price to pay when your budding artist or famous musician reaches an age where his or her name is a hot search topic. And seriously, just having an email address of firstname.lastname@example.org will make all the other kids in the class rue the day their mommies and daddies ignored the advice of GeekDad.com. (“Rue the day? Who talks like that?”) Seriously, though — unless there’s a major change in the way the Internet works, the Domain Name System (DNS) is here to stay. If your child has a common name, you’re likely to find the domain already taken, but check it out anyway. It sure beats having to pay someone hundreds or thousands of dollars years from now when your child finds it available to purchase from a domain squatter.
3. Lock in your child’s Facebook and other social service accounts — MySpace is pretty much gone along with other social services that just couldn’t stick. And while there’s no guarantee that Facebook will be with us in 10 or 20 years, why risk it? Kids aren’t supposed to use Facebook until age 13 (but they’ll find ways around that), so remove the possibility of another child creating a fake account in your own child’s name by grabbing it now. As with Google, Facebook’s future still looks bright, so odds are that your child may reach the legal age to use the service before something else comes around that’s all the rage with the kids. And it really does make a great place to post pictures and videos of your child for other family members to view — just remember to lock down the security by only allowing Friends to view the account. And of course, this same advice applies to other popular services such as Twitter, Foursquare, etc. You may not use them (I consider deleting my FB account at least once a month), but that doesn’t mean your child won’t find them of interest. And even if you think they won’t be around in 10 or more years, they may evolve into something even better — grab the name and keep the password stored somewhere safe.
4. Start your child’s EV Car account — Not every kid gets or deserves a car at age 16, but my mom and dad really benefited from helping me buy my first (used) car — I had to take my brother and sister to school and I had to get a job (basically staying out of trouble), keep it gassed up, and keep my grades high. Cars haven’t gotten cheaper since then either. If you’re like me and pondering this future purchase, consider that making a deposit of just $2,000 the first year of your child’s life and adding in a follow-up deposit of $500 every year until age 16, at 4% annual growth you’ll end up with approximately $15,000.00. This should be more than enough to buy your child a slightly used all-electric vehicle with a maximum travel distance of 30 to 40 miles (older batteries), guaranteeing they only make it to school and back with no crossing of county lines.
5. Create your child’s own Permanent Record starting today — cloud services are popular today, but one shouldn’t trust them completely by storing family videos and photos only in one location. Consider purchasing a mini SSD (solid state drive) that can be stored in a safe deposit box. Once a quarter or once a year, upload all your family photos and videos to it and then put it back in the box for safe keeping. One day your grown child (and possibly his/her spouse ) will appreciate the historical record you’ve maintained. For bonus points, consider buying a personal scanner such as a Doxie Go or ScanSnap and throw in some high resolution scans of their artwork, report cards, and other memorabilia. Lately I’ve been scanning some of my 4.5 year old’s letter and word writing sheets; it’s chicken scratch, but it’s my kid’s chicken scratch and totally worth the few seconds it takes to scan in.
6. Give serious consideration to a pre-paid college fund — we all have high hopes that our children will head off to college after high school graduation, but unfortunately your child’s senior year is the worst time to start thinking about how you’re going to pay for it. Many parents these days are choosing pre-paid college funds (also called 529 plans) that provide annual returns and are often transferable within a family. There are funds that are state specific as well as funds that do not lock you into a particular state or school.
7. Shred or burn all credit applications for your child — for some reason, credit card companies have started targeting children at a younger age. This may be simply be a computer error, but why risk it? Identify theft is a real problem these days, so don’t let your child’s future credit score take an early hit by allowing someone to create a false credit account in your child’s name. Protect your child’s Social Security number at all costs (store that card in the safe deposit box) and only give it out when absolutely necessary. I refused to provide it to my child’s physician, explaining that his SS# was off limits and they could find another way to enter his information into their system. I’ve heard of some parents actually getting a credit card in a young child’s name only so they could monitor the credit score and be alerted to any funny business. (The other option is to open the applications, call the credit card companies, and request that they remove a minor from their mass mailings.)
8. Use older gadgets as stop gaps — while both of my sons are quite comfortable playing with my iPad, I still keep a close eye on them (kids and iPad). That said, there’ll come a day when I’m not so concerned about the iPad’s well-being — at that point, I’ll pass it down the line to whomever can best put it to more use. Old gadgets (laptops, tablets, phones, etc.) are a great way to teach responsibility as well as get a child comfortable with technology. A retired smart phone may not be used to make calls, but it’ll still support gaming apps, calendar, and other features that can benefit an older elementary or middle aged school child. This handing down of older technology is especially helpful for parents who want to try to avoid getting their children the latest/greatest gadget at a young age. The age at which you get your child a mobile phone is your call, not mine, but you can often buy a year or two of less whining by upgrading your own equipment and passing down the previous version.
9. Use special events to give maximum experiences — Not necessarily a high-tech suggestion here, but events such as Maker Faire, FIRST Lego League, VEX Challenge, and more are great places to take younger kids to give them a glimpse of what’s in their near future. Sporting events, art displays (in the park or indoors), and concerts all offer children a special glimpse at possibilities that you, as the parent, may not be considering but your child might! I especially like hands-on activities such as the special building projects for kids (both free) offered at Home Depot and Lowes. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place that offers a children’s museum, take advantage of it often. Museums are where you’ll see your kids eyes light up. And don’t forget one of the most important buildings in your child’s life — the public library. Take your child, get that library card, and let them explore the stacks and find those books that make them smile. If you pay careful attention, you’re likely to start seeing glimpses of what subjects make your child sit up, listen, and observe. If feeding your child’s curiosity isn’t future proofing, I really don’t know what is…
10. Take it to Google (or Bing… or Yahoo… or…) — the Internet is certainly a place you wouldn’t let your young child explore alone. We want to be protective, but we also need to recognize that children are curious by nature and, as Dr. Ian Malcolm might say… they will “find a way.” When your children have questions or want to know more about something, the Internet is always there. YouTube, Khan Academy, Wikipedia… the list goes on and on. A sure fire way to future-proof your child is to help them develop the skills to learn as well as the skills to search. Showing them how a Google search works, helping them sift through Wikipedia’s knowledge base, and making certain that YouTube provides child-friendly search results — these are all ways that you help show your child how to find a paper explaining why the grass is green, view a video showing them how Lego blocks are made, and hunt down the audio clip of the world’s first phone call. Future-proofing your child inevitably involves showing them the modern tools they’ll need to know how to use in order to understand, find, create, and use the tools of the future.
I know that many of the above suggestions aren’t going to be favorable to all parents. I have friends with kids who swear they’ll never let their children get on Facebook, for example. Another family I know won’t allow Internet access except under close scrutiny. Every family is different, and we all are trying to do our best to raise our kids the best way we can. Every parent has his or her own sets of rules for how they will raise their children. With regards to the above list, you’re free to take it or leave it. And the above list is by no means complete, so I welcome your comments — do you have any advice for parents wanting to future-proof their children?
Homepage photo: tienvijftien/Flickr
[This article was originally published on GeekDad in March of 2012.]