(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

Very often a computer, unlike purely passive appliances like TVs and DVD players, is not a luxury today. Without owning a computer or being actually competent in Information and Communication Technology, in many countries it’s already much harder, if even possible, to graduate, find a good job and above all keep it.

Everybody can play at will with his or her own money. No family, however, should be forced to dismiss a working computer and shell out more money just because a new home-banking website or some new software (new as in “can handle Etruscan fonts”, not as in “it does something else I need”) necessary for homework requires twice as much hardware and electric power. Equally important is to protect the digital future of your children.

Let children be hackers and protect the environment

Don’t be fooled by the critical distinction between mere technofashion and conscientious use of technology. Sending SMS messages all day, chatting online or being able to set the correct time on a VCR has little or no added value at all, if that’s all the technology a child or teenager are doing. Learning as soon as possible to look (and tinker) under the hood is one of the best technical and civic education lessons one could learn.

Being able to build things yourself has always been very popular among kids. Learning soon enough that one can (and should) be able to fix broken engines, that is to actively solve problems by him or herself rather than complain or sheepishly open his or her wallet is also essential to one’s success in adult life, in every field.

Let’s then just change the engine to look at, i.e. let’s encourage our children to open computers and their software, rather than the hood of a car. It’s much cheaper, much more important, much more powerful and much more environmentally sustainable. On top of that, it’s even much cooler, today.

Many children and teenagers probably still violate the law every day. The same kids everybody is so proud of: Eagle Scouts, school team pillars, Parish choir leaders and so on. Illegally installing music, video, games and software is one of the most useless, that is stupid, crimes ever. It is wrong, and potentially dangerous, to educate your children to violate laws just because you or they think they are stupid; at least in all cases where there is really no threat to survival (that is you are not left without food, medicines, shelter or basic schooling) and, above all, viable and perfectly legal alternatives do exist.

Copyright abuses must be fought, but in the right way. Illegal copying gives corporations the best excuses they could ever dream of to block children from becoming artists or authors tomorrow, without signing some contract that enslaves them to somebody else’s stock options. Let’s explain to children that it’s much smarter and more fun to follow other paths. Please leave the corporations without the pretext to make many uses of technology illegal or practically unfeasible, uses which are essential to get a good education or job or to exercise basic civil rights.

Last but not least: let’s urge children and teenagers to convert their audio and video files as soon as possible to free multimedia formats. After getting rid of all the illegal material from the computer, of course.

Let children create

Music and art in general are essential. If you worry about how much money your children would spend on music, or they nag you about it, do the right thing: buy them a nice guitar, one of those old fashioned things that happily play without electricity, even in the middle of the woods, and take them there, to play and have a good time.

There is no question that children and teenagers alike should be encouraged to be active, to express themselves, to engage in constructive discussion and to share their feelings with others. A proper use of Free Software at the right age is a very economical, cool and powerful way to achieve these goals: even a two or three year old computer can be an excellent tool to compose music on, draw stunning 2 and 3-D graphics, write poetry, fiction, and much more. They also get top notch computer training through a process which also teaches the value of cooperation and how to work in team efficiently.

In short, let’s teach kids to respect the work of others even when it’s digital, but also to try to create themselves. Of course, being creative with computers should still come after old-fashioned education and interaction with one’s neighbors and classmates. There is little point in being pals with lads living ten thousand miles away if a child still doesn’t know the name of the next door neighbors, and couldn’t care less if they live or die.

(this chapter continues here)