Baby's First iPad

The first thing my son says when I come into his room in the morning is "iPad." He's not quite 2 years old. He can talk in some basic sentences, and will repeat just about anything you say. He can't dress himself yet, except for his shoes, a pair of Crocs, which are easiest for toddlers to put on themselves. He's a wiz with the iPad. At first, I was impressed when he could simply unlock the screen. Now he can navigate to his favorite apps, open the photo album, and even manage some pinch-to-zoom gestures when he wants to see faces up close. He can't yet peddle a tricycle, but he can already catapult an angry bird, though he hasn't yet killed any pigs. Any day now, those pigs will pay.[Photo credit: Steve Paine]

At first, I was disheartened when iPad was the first word out of his mouth in the morning. I would have rather he said "Daddy," or "Good Morning," or something else more personal and friendly. But that's not how toddlers work. He doesn't need to say Daddy at that moment, because I'm already there, he already has me. He says iPad because that's what he wants. Also, because he knows I'll give it to him.

With my wife, he says "ba-ba," which is still his word for bottle. He can say "bottle," he just prefers ba-ba. If he's too young for an iPad, he's also getting too old to drink milk from a baby's bottle. It could be much worse. When my mother is visiting and she's the one to see him first thing in the morning, he says "cookie." He knows what to ask for, and what we'll each give him. I would much rather he say "iPad" than "cookie."

But there is a debate raging about whether the iPad, or any advanced technological gadget, is a good idea for children, especially children as young as my son. There are really two debates going on here. The first is whether we should give into the excessive demands of our children. If your child wants an iPad because he's seen the commercials, or because her friend has one, is it okay for you to buy one for him or her? Should you buy your kid an iPad so that he doesn't monopolize yours? I know families in each of these predicaments.

It's a tough question. On the one hand, you don't want to indulge your child. On the other hand, you don't want to deprive them either. Indulgence can lead to a spoiled kid who doesn't appreciate the things he's been giving. Deprival can lead to a kid who feels like they never got the things they wanted, and they might end up indulging themselves later when they finally take control of their own spending.

If there's one thing I hate, it's parental debates that seem like the writer is giving you the one thing you must do, with no alternatives. I'm not really offering advice here, and I'm certainly not telling anyone what to do. This is just my thinking on these issues, based more on my years of experience following the way technology has become a part of our lives, and less on my months of experience raising my child.

It's very possible my son will have his own iPad someday soon. When the next generation iPad comes out, I will probably buy one. It's not because I'm an early adopter, I'm actively trying to shake that habit. It's because I cover technology for a living, so I like to have the most iconic products on hand for comparison and testing. At least that's what I tell myself.

In any case, if I get the new iPad, the old one has to go somewhere. It could go to my wife, but she and I share much better than our 2 year old. He'll probably get the old one, and we'll take turns with the new one. I know, I'm missing a major teachable moment there, but you have to pick your battles.

So, is it right to give a toddler such an extravagant gift? Beyond the issue of cost, is it right to indulge his whim? I don't think there's a right or wrong answer to that question. I think it's all about how you handle the situation.

It doesn't matter what you give a child, so long as they learn to appreciate it. They should value the things they have. They should care for their possessions. There is nothing intrinsic about the iPad that makes it a good or bad present. It's how the gift is received, and how he thinks about it that truly matters. If my son learned that he wanted an iPad from seeing someone else play with one, I don't think it's wrong to give him one, so long as he learns to enjoy it appropriately and take care of it properly.

If he doesn't? I take it away. It's all about logical consequences. If I don't take care of my car, it breaks down. If I don't take care of my computer, it stops working. If my son doesn't take care of his iPad, I'm not going wait until it's broken and useless before I take it away. But the lesson will be the same. If you don't take care of it, you won't have it very long.

I would also try my hardest to keep him from choosing the iPad over people. That's a lesson to be learned with anything you give a child. Action figures, dress-up dolls, model train sets, any of these can distract a child so much that they ignore the people around them. The iPad will be for times when he doesn't have an opportunity to interact with others.

The car will be difficult. Kids can be a real pain while you're driving, especially long distances. I know I can slip my son the iPad and he'll be enthralled for a two hour car ride, no problem. But there is something to be said for boredom. Boredom makes you creative. It makes you find things to do. Would anyone play license plate bingo, or sing car songs, if not for the extreme boredom of a road trip? Of course not. So, occasionally we'll keep the iPad from him for a few hours. We'll sing, we'll talk. We'll try our best to have a good time. Then, we'll take a break and turn on the radio, so I can listen to NPR while he plays Angry Birds.

The second argument has to do with the effect that digital toys have on a child's development. I've read plenty of advice on how long to wait before letting a child watch television. My wife and I settled on 2 years before he can sit and watch kid's TV. We've been pretty good about sticking to that goal. When the TV is on while he's in the room, I try to keep it to something educational with lots of words. I watch Jeopardy, and save CSI for when he goes to bed. He loves dancing to the Jeopardy theme music.

My father recently bought a MacBook Pro, the smallest model. He's a neophyte when it comes to computers, though he's a smart and capable guy in every other facet of his life. I recommended an iPad to him, but I was probably wrong in that recommendation. He owns an iMac at home. As my mother pointed out, buying an iPad would mean learning an entirely new system, a new interface paradigm. It may seem like a simple interface to those of us who have been using this tech since it's inception, but when he sees the iPad, it does not seem approachable to him. It seems foreign and a bit confusing. He's spent years learning how to use his iMac (and he still manages to erase his from time to time). At least the MacBook gives him something he can use from day one with no learning curve.

When my father came to visit, he sat my son on his lap while my boy played with the iPad. My son showed him all the tricks. He found his favorite sing-a-long apps for Grandpa to share, and he showed my father pictures from his last visit. When he got bored with an app, he showed Grandpa how to hit the home button, or how to turn up the volume so you can hear the music better. These things might sound obvious to you, but I promise my father would have asked for help on any one of these tasks if I left him alone with that device.

I don't think that an iPad can educate a child, obviously, but there is value in learning the design language behind the device. It's a simple, common language, of app icons and homescreens. It's showing up on devices like smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras, and it might be the direction where computers are headed. Like I said, I don't think the iPad should replace time with real, live people, but I also think it's important to learn that design language early, to build the familiarity while he's young.

So, when is the best time to buy your child an iPad? Whenever you are ready. Whenever you feel like laying down the law, and dealing with the kicking and screaming when it's time to take the iPad away. Whenever you think your child can take care of such an expensive and relatively delicate device. When you won't mind the word "iPad" being the first thing you hear in the morning. But wait until you are prepared, because if your child is like mine, he was born ready.