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How to Motivate Kids to Code

  • Moscow, Russia
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I got an email a few days ago. “I’m not a programmer. I’m a mom of two kids: 9 and 14. They both seem to be interested in computers, but they mostly play games. What would you recommend I do to help them make a career in tech?” I’m not an expert in parenting, but I’m getting similar requests rather often. It’s great to see that some people realize the difference between playing GTA and Java coding. It’s very sad to see that they don’t know how to motivate their kids. I don’t know either, but I can try to make a guess.

Hackers (1995) by Iain Softley
Hackers (1995) by Iain Softley

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me studying for the sake of “learning new things” is not fun at all. I don’t enjoy the process of becoming smarter. I enjoy building things. If I need to learn something new in order to make new things happen, I will do it and I will enjoy learning, because it leads to practical results: new things.

For example, Kotlin has been on the market for a few years already. It’s a new programming language. I do realize that it may eventually replace Java and so I need to learn it. But I can’t imagine myself reading documentation and studying it for days. It’s super boring. Because it leads nowhere. Well, it leads to me knowing how to code in Kotlin, but what’s the point if I can code in Java already? In order to learn Kotlin I need a new project, which I will then write in Kotlin. I will learn the language while using it.

My point is that in order to motivate myself to learn Kotlin you need to give me a goal, which I will achieve after I’ve learned Kotlin while using this new knowledge to get there. Maybe, and most probably, your kids may need something similar: a tangible motivator. Something they will see in front of them, which will make them happy when they get there, after they learn those boring Java and Kotlin languages. What could such a prize look like for a nine-year-old?

Well, how about one of these (maybe not all of them apply to all ages, but you get the idea):

  • Can you make an iPhone mobile game and publish it on the Apple Store?
  • Can you create a blog for me?
  • Can you make an online shop to sell my homemade cookies?
  • Can you make an app to help me track my gym exercise results?
  • Can you win $1,000 in the next hackathon?
  • Can you get an Oracle Java certificate?
  • Can you find a security breach in your school’s website?
  • Can you make a robot which cleans the floor?

Actually, that’s exactly how I learned everything I know about computers. I started programming when I was around 10 years old. I’ve always had a task in front of me and it was always something interesting to do for myself and the people around me. In other words, I’ve always had my eyes on the prize. The majority of my projects are not alive anymore, especially the ones I created when I was a kid and a student (and I feel so sad about that). However, the outcome is obvious: I’m in the tech industry now and I can code in Java.

So don’t expect your kids to enjoy studying. Expect them to be interested in building things and making money profit. Your job, as their parents, is to help them identify the right goals—this is where kids usually fail because they don’t have enough experience to judge what’s more achievable and which are the largest risks. I remember trying to create a robot which was supposed to speak like a human. I was 13 years old. Obviously, I needed help at that time: someone had to tell me that this goal was not really achievable and doing something simpler and more practical would be a better application of my efforts.

Don’t micromanage your kids by telling them what to learn, how many hours a day to study, which schools to attend, and which books to read. Instead, do what good managers do with their employees: set objectives and make sure everybody knows what the rewards and punishment are.

Something similar is what your kids need from you. Measure their progress and help them find adequately complex and interesting goals. On top of that, make sure they understand what the benefits will be when the goals are achieved and … well, you have to find a way to punish them for failures. Don’t punish them for being stupid or lazy. The only thing that deserves punishment is breaking the promise to achieve the results.

A promise made to themselves, of course.

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