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Summary:

A few months back, my wife went on a girls’ weekend trip from East Coast to West, gone for a total of five days. I survived my first long stretch with our three year old daughter alone, but it wasn’t easy. At 43, I came to parenthood […]

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A few months back, my wife went on a girls’ weekend trip from East Coast to West, gone for a total of five days. I survived my first long stretch with our three year old daughter alone, but it wasn’t easy. At 43, I came to parenthood late in life, and I have to admit being a father is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. During my wife’s much-needed and deserved vacation, I perhaps relied a bit too heavily on the TV for entertainment and babysitting. But the TV gave me the few minutes throughout each day that I needed to get things done or just take a minute to myself.

When my wife returned, we settled back into our routine, consisting of 1-2 days per week when we eat dinner out as a family. These events can also be challenging, as our daughter is one of those kids who just cannot sit still for anything. She seems well connected to her surroundings and engages with us and others, but she is perpetual motion personified. So imagine my surprise when the littlest tornado actually sat in her chair for an entire meal!

My wife’s new secret weapon was a series of iPhone apps created especially for toddlers that one of her California girlfriends had recommended. The most popular with our daughter is Letter Tracer, which works as the name suggests. So my daughter was occupied by learning to write her letters. The device and screen provided the engagement that pen and paper hadn’t, and she delighted at being able to successfully trace all the letters of the alphabet, smiling and exclaiming “Look Daddy, I did it!” each time she completed a new tracing. My daughter was having a blast learning how to write her letters, and her parents were enjoying not just her growth but a nice restaurant experience as well.

As 2009 wound to a close, I engaged in my typical year-end organization efforts, scouring boxes and folders to discard what I didn’t need and properly file what I wanted to keep. When I found my original iPhone (16GB Edge; no 3, no G), my first thought was to sell it on eBay. I had great success selling an iPhone 3G on eBay, after all, getting $350 for one that had been exposed to moisture but was working perfectly. Then it hit me: why not load it up with iPhone apps for toddlers like Letter Tracer, put it in a heavy duty case with a screen protector, and make us into a three-iPhone family? Better, why not rip all the discs we use on a portable DVD player during long family trips, making it even easier to travel? My schedule didn’t allow me to finish configuring “her” iPhone before our trip to New Jersey for Christmas, but I was able to unveil it shortly after we returned, which turned out to be a good thing as I was home with our sick daughter the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

My three year old daughter now has her own iPhone, though without service so it is effectively an iPod touch. And how did I create a monster, you might ask? Easy. Her first words upon waking from sleep are “Where’s my iPhone?” Her reaction to her parents call to come to the dinner table, head upstairs for a bath or get ready for bed is to clutch her iPhone and cry. Even though I loaded her iPhone with some of her favorite apps from her mom’s phone (by re-downloading to our black Macbook, as I couldn’t get iTunes Home Sharing to work with my wife’s Macbook Air), she only really uses it to watch a small handful of videos that I ripped or downloaded. And she uses it constantly: sitting in a chair, laying on the floor, walking from room-to-room… head down, focused on the iPhone screen, it can be a challenge to get her to disengage with the device and engage with us.

So how can this be a good thing, or at least not bad? For one, I long ago read “Everything Bad is Good for You” by Steven Berlin Johnson, and take solace that her use of the iPhone at this early stage is at least teaching her some valuable skills, including human-computer interaction (for example, she is still mastering the art of touching a video then touching again on the appropriate icon to pause or play it). The videos I loaded are generally good quality educational content, so there are learning moments in them. And her ability to use the iPhone or not has quickly become the “carrot” and “stick” motivation we’ve long needed: she responds to our threats to take it away or promise to let her use it as with nothing that came before it.

As the novelty of watching videos begins to wear off, I expect our daughter to explore all of the possibilities that her iPhone offers. We’re already using the built-in clock to learn to tell time, Camera to take pictures, and Weather to see if it will snow today. I can imagine using apps like Best Camera to learn more about art and photography, or Vocabulearn Tagalog to learn her mom’s families native language (which I need to do before we go to the Philippines in a year or two). In the meantime, she’s already started to use some of the toddler apps I installed, like Kid Art, Voice Toddler Cards, and the Curious George Coloring Book.

The real challenge will be to help our daughter use her iPhone as an educational device, and avoid the trap of becoming too immersed to the detriment of social, motor, and other skills development. The real question is whether I’m a bad dad for giving a three year old an iPhone. What do you think?

UPDATE: The response generated by this post have been pretty emotional, ranging from “are you crazy?” to “way to go dude!” Most responses cautioned moderation, suggesting that as long as there was parental involvement and some limits to her using it, it likely wasn’t a bad thing.

I mentioned that she awoke from sleep asking “can I have my iPhone?” In the almost 3 weeks that have passed, the iPhone has followed a now established trajectory for many toys, games, and clothes. There is an initial period of intense interest, which soon wanes. The iPhone is now simply one of many toys at her disposal. In fact, she prefers her Barbie cupcake baking kit now, and her interest and infatuation for it seems to be lasting longer than it did with the iPhone. She can also read a couple of books on her own, though mostly through memorization. It is quite obvious that she prefers playtime and interaction with Mom and Dad, and we’re happy to give it.

Still, there are times when she wants to use the iPhone, and other times when we’re all too happy to rely on it. I really was worried shortly after giving it to her that I had made a major mistake. I’m less worried about that now, and more worried about just being a good dad.

Image courtesy of Flickr user jessica.garro

  1. Just a comment… most deactivated cell phones will still dial 911. They will look for the phone if they get called frequently.

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    1. Jeff, you’re right. Forgot to mention that at first I put the iPhone in Airplane mode, but then just decided to take the SIM card out. Thanks!

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    2. A GSM phone without a SIM card will still call emergency numbers. It will activate the radio and call instantly.

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    3. No, but your mother created an idiot.

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    4. Yeah, Jeff – thats a great point. And i heard you can get cell accounts for children where they can only communicate with a few numbers. But I wanted to say that you might enjoy the book The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. Its about 3 different girls in different family situations raised by a interactive book.

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    5. I gave my son (now 22 months) my iPhone to play with about 4 months ago. It took him about a week or 2 to ‘get it’ but now he is just as fast on it as i am. He knows that applications are his, how to access videos, pictures… if i ask him for the video of the cow.. bam.. video of a cow… he even had favorite sound bytes from my Army Of Darnkess soundboard app…

      The only problem is getting it away from him.

      BUT – it works like a charm when he is misbehaving or unruly…

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    6. Huh?

      Who buys a 3 year old a $100+ phone…am I missing something??!!

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    7. @ A.

      He didn’t buy one, he found his old junker in a closet:
      “When I found my original iPhone (16GB Edge; no 3, no G), my first thought was to sell it … Then it hit me: why not load it up with iPhone apps for toddlers…?”

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    8. I think this is one giant, slightly heart-wrenching, advertisement. It’s clever. Really clever. But still an advert.

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    9. I gave my 8 year old an old Mac 17 years ago. He got into it with a hammer and screwdriver. At 25 he now builds computers and works as on engineer at IBM in NC. I think, therefore, that this is a nascent trend and a good one at that.

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    10. I do not think this is a good idea at all. The child does not need any cell phone at such a young age. The children of today are already lost enough with computers phones and other devises that I think it will be a bad choice in the long run. We all need to take our children outside more often and get them about from electronics. I see to many children parented by the TV and games and they are not enjoying the world as they should.

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  2. Considering you can control the content, I think I would rather have given my child an iPhone with the types of apps and video’s you stated vs watching TV. Even if the TV program is rated “G” the commercials are sometimes 10x worse and TV for the most part is trash. I would much rather give my kids an iPhone/iPod Touch with content I have reviewed and cut the ability to connect to the internet. No service, no wifi I think your pretty safe for the most part.

    While lego’s and building blocks were our toys 30 or 40 years ago, nothing wrong introducing a little tech, as long as you take the time to monitor the conent. (which sounds like your doing)

    I personally see nothing wrong with this and in fact would have been a good thing if it was around when my kids were that age. I have several nephews ranging in age from 4 to 8 and I let them mess around on my iPhone and have a page specifically for them. Education games or whatever appropriate for their age. Talk about favorite uncle lol. It can be a magical experience for them, and imo no harm done if your watching what content they have access too.

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    1. I’m thrilled that she still loves legos, coloring and role playing with mom and dad!

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    2. As a Dad with 5 kids aged 3 to 13, I can agree that its the commercials that are often much worse than any show. Dog the Bounty Hunter is aired with “nudity” warnings (!) though there never is (its related to his wife’s chest), but the commercials have often put tons of bad ideas into my children’s heads. We’ve reduced television viewing to marginal. Meanwhile the networks wonder why their markets are shrinking while they forget a portion of the population wants kid friend programming (including commercials).

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  3. Bad father? No. You guys essentially created an all-in-one learning device/toy with what you already had. But like any toy, moderation needs to be practiced. For example, she could be allowed to play with it in the car or for one hour each day. After all, she still needs to pick up a pen and pencil to learn to write letters, an iPhone can’t replace that type of learning.

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  4. Same here. Just dusted off my iPod Touch (1st Gen) for my 2 year old, since he was clinging to our iPhones. Sometimes I feel guilty for introducing him so early to the technology, but on the other hand, he is really surprising us with new skills (e.g. pinpointing apps he likes, starting and stopping videos on his own) almost every time he uses it. Everything is age appropriate on the fun. Only wish you could hide some of the default apple apps (e.g. Youtube and Settings) to childproof the device even more.

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    1. Peter Kennedy Monday, January 18, 2010

      Look under Settings-General-Restrictions. This allows you to remove some of the default apps: YouTube, App Store, etc.

      Of course, Settings cannot be removed. Ditto with the innocuous ones: Stocks, iCal, Contacts, Weather, etc.

      I believe if you jailbreak it, you should be able to remove some of the default apps.

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    2. Peter, great tips! I overlooked the Restrictions setting.

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    3. Just jailbreak the device with blackra1n and install poof on it from cydia. That will allow you to get rid of any icon that you want to restrict *including* settings. The only problem is that if you hide the icon for poof, you won’t be able to bring any icons that you remove back.

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  5. Brock Gunter-Smith Monday, January 18, 2010

    I have a first gen iPhone and second gen ipod Touch that I have handed over to my 3 and 6 year old children. No Wifi, no SIM card, just an AMAZING device to entertain and EDUCATE on the go. They love all the different spelling and math games that time them and score them.

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  6. Please get her to become an IT manager. The current crop of managers seem to have grown up with Microsoft Windows on all their devices and therefore can’t deal with anything that doesn’t have Microsoft written all over it. Hopefully the future group of corporate IT managers won’t have that same attitude. Your daughter is very fortunate to be able to play with such an expensive device. I can only imagine how much she’ll love the Apple tablet when you buy one for her next birthday.

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    1. My favorite thing about your comment is how you managed to skillfully weave your seething hatred of Microsoft into a blog about a kid playing with a iPhone.

      FUN CHALLENGE: See if you can respond to 5 blogs over the next few days without expressing your irrational hatred.

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    2. I agree with MadGerbil. Shut the hell up.

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  7. This is an absolutely marvelous article. Apple is really missing the boat not having several versions of iPhone and iPod touches on the market. Here’s my list:

    1. A kiddie version of the touch ruggedized just as you described with a battery big enough for long trips.

    2. Sport versions of the iPhone and touch ruggedized and waterproofed with GPS for the touch version. Having the touch version makes sense because people won’t want to use this heavy & bulky model for day to day and managing multiple cellular accounts can be a hassle.

    3. A travel version of the touch with GPS and a SD slot for travel guides. Using the touch with WiFi gets around all the complications of cellular service in other countries. Skype and the like would allow calls back home.

    4. A productivity version of the touch as an on-the-go office with a good camera and perhaps GPS. Not everyone wants the complications of combining phone with what is for them a micro-laptop. Joined into one doubles the chance you’ll be stuck with nothing to do because of a dead battery.

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  8. I don’t think we fully understand what we’re doing to our kids. Yes dealing with kids is hard. I know because I was 12 when my two sisters were born and I raised them as my parents worked nights.

    But I never stuck them in front of a computer or even a TV without being supervised. The joy of music, activities like watering plants, drying dishes and watching me cook were much more valuable.

    TV time with family is a group entertainment effort. The entire family gets together to watch something. It’s not entertainment, it’s bonding.

    Teenagers all over America suffer from isolation issues, early on depression, issues coping with anxiety and some are on drugs due to this mostly because they watched a ton of TV as a kid or had an iPod at 12 or 13 which isolated and screwed up their sensory perception.

    So now we’re teaching kids to stare into a tiny screen at 3 years old? Teaching them to stop observing and narrowing their vision to a tunnel which in turn will affect them for the rest of their lives.

    Laptops shouldn’t be owned by kids until they’re in high school. Cell phones in 8th grade and devices like iPhone, Kindle or otherwise shouldn’t be on the shopping list until they turn 18. Kids have a hard enough time with pop culture, self-image, creating long lasting friendships and dealing with the constant issues projected by MTV and Top 40 music that the technology will only make it harder for them when they try to function out in the real world.

    I thoroughly disagree with the entire article and encourage you to write a follow up when your child is 25 because I’m curious how this kind of exposure will alter their life.

    And trust me, I know that no one should tell you how to raise your child but you put it out there and asked the question if you’ve raised a monster and I say no, humans are resilient but technology is having a negative impact on their life.

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    1. No Kindle until they are 18? What are you going to insist on next… no reading books until they are 21?

      It is a new age. The kids that aren’t introduced to new technology now are the ones that will not be able to evolve 10-20 years from now when they are looking for their first job.

      I learned to program on a Commodore 64 when I was 6 years old back in the 80s. I now make $135k working for a software company with no college education AND own my own successful 3 person software business on the side that brings in about $650k annually, all because I was able to prove myself when I was entry level right out of high school (starting at $60k which is no small sum). Before I was introduced to computers and allowed by my father to expand my horizons into things that were considered taboo by most average people, I wanted to be a magician. See any correlation there?

      Sometimes, you think you are helping your kids when you are in fact limiting them. If you want to be a good parent, just keep them away from those with bad parents, nurture their brain, and don’t be the one that they blame for repressing them for so many years.

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      1. I completely and fully agree. Thank you for putting this guy in his place.

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    2. I couldn’t agree with you more. We are creating a society where interaction among humans is minimal. We might be becoming better engineers, technologist, but we will always crave a network of family and friends. But, with such upbringing, we will never learn on what it takes to maintain a relationship. Technology does not teach us abstract human qualities like love, sacrifice which are essential for meaningful relationships. Only constant human contact can bring out these qualities in a person.

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    3. Despite having given this to her, I’m making a conscious effort to engage my daughter, both in using the iPhone’s apps as learning tools and in limiting her access to it. We still run and play, read books, and create art together, among other things.

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    4. Yes. There are long-term cognitive impacts to learning to “interact” with technology–even just screens–at an early age. They are, on the whole, not good impacts.

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    5. I agree with Adam– and here is another issue–I know some people who work at Boys and Girls clubs, and they will be pretty quick to tell you that young kids leave cell phones everywhere. Many of these expensive “toys” go unclaimed, resulting in headaches for staff and parents. It’s okay to give kids tech when they are responsible enough to understand taking care of things, and also, parents should supervise what kids watch.
      Don’t expect someone else to teach your kids responsibility.

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    6. Mario Saccoccio Thursday, January 21, 2010

      “TV time with family is a group entertainment effort”

      Agreed. When my kids were younger, they each wanted a TV and phone in their room, just like “all their friends had!” Nice try, but TV should be a supervised social time where family members can sit together and share TV time, even learn to negotiate with their other siblings around the TV schedule. All my kids received a lap top when they were seniors in collage.
      As to cell phones, My 22 month old has a locked older phone that does not work, yet it lights up and “beeps.” He loves to imitate us on the phone and learns basic skills. When he is driving, he will have a real phone.
      I am not trying to tell anyone how to raise their children. These are just a few ideas that I have used to usher mine into the world of technology.

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  9. No, I don’t think your a bad dad for giving your daughter an iPhone. However, you have a problem. She seems to both have an emotional connection to it and doesn’t have limits on when she can use it.

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    1. Luckily, we are quickly starting to work that out via active management.

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    2. I agree here . I like how you have used it as a learning tool;however, you need to set the controlling limits and teach the value of its benefits. I mean people cry enough when they don’t have or lose their cell/iphone/laptops. It’s great to have the programs installed but don’t get too carried away.

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  10. Our toddler, 3.5 now, has been playing with our various iPhones (we have 4 floating about the house) for the last 18 months. She’s been adept with a MacBook for a similar amount of time. She actually taught my wife to use Expose.

    She will happily load up iTunes turn on music or a video, and then open iPhoto to look at pictures. She can’t handle a mouse on the desktop PC, but the trackpad is just fine for her, and has been for a long time. She controls the volume when asked, picks her programs, etc. The only thing she has to ask for is the websites she likes, although since Safari 4 introduced the home-screen thing, even that isn’t needed.

    She actually prefers the educational games, and happily spends ages going through flashcards learning words, letters, numbers, etc. She enjoys taking pictures too – I’ve found numerous pictures of feet, etc on my phone after she uses it.

    She actually likes teaching herself using it – I think it’s the best toy she’s ever had. Nothing beats it for expandability. We buy her a new app every couple of weeks and she loves it.

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    1. I’d say children love almost everything. Should this be then the reason for doing and giving them this and that?
      To be honest, I am a child of my age, I wasn’t born 40 years ago yet I managed to survive until today without having an iphone even now when I’m in my last years of high school and working. My friend got one and though him I realised luckily that I don’t need it just because others have it. It’s not that I’m envious. I was. And then the self-educational process started in my head, a process which is perhaps less recognizable from outside compared to motor scills, yet this “process” made me understand what advanced technology means. Iphones and similiar which let you think you are deeply in need of a “my town” application or the last time table of the bus to your neighbourhood. Or a game or two or the weather forecast for next months possibly… Advanced technology gives me the illusion of freedom and creates dependance. I, personally, do not want to be dependant. I want to use my mind which creates the best apps possible due to memory skills, cognitive skills, ability to learn languages, appreciate nature, appreciate feelings and thoughts…This I think as a barely grown-up. Would I think the same as a child exposed to the iphone? I don’t say your child does not get the appropriate guideance. It#s just this iphone now dominates its life. Instead of something human.
      The question which should be raised now is then: is there a need for a human being to rely on mindful technology such as iphone?
      Or rather:
      Can’t a child of today, despite the scientific progress, be spared and grow up without? Do you really think the child won’t grow up properly if there’s no iphone to teach her/him how to live?….

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    2. Imagine how much your daughter would love it if you or your wife used flashcards WITH her….

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