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Walkthrough: Setting Up a Mac for the Minis in Your Life

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Does one set out to create a computer-literate family, or to cultivate a creative family familiar with the modern communication capabilities of today’s age? The distinction is subtle, but the benefits of the latter strongly outweigh the former, and thankfully is still quite easy to set up.

The first is to merely grant access to an overwhelming environment and expect time itself to wear down the mental faculties of the unsuspecting, in hopes of some sort of miraculous and divine intervention. In other words, rely on dumb luck by clicking on everything in sight until one achieves success.

The other path is a much narrower one where every user can quickly gain access to that which they desire most. With children, the key in either situation is to find a means to where the young user grows a sense of self-confidence, realizing that they are in control, and a sense of accomplishment that they know how to do it for themselves. This is where the iMac can learn from its little siblings: the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. With these devices, access to what one desires is about all one can do when picking up the device for the first time. The goal is to create a user interface that’s as easy to access as the one on the iPad.

Creating a safe environment for the younger Mac heads in your family while allowing them to explore and expand their minds is not only possible in Snow Leopard, but is pretty straight forward and simple to pull off. Once you know that it can be done, it’s simply a matter of doing it. This article will assume we are targeting the very young, pre-school-aged Minis. Knowledge of their ABCs is a bonus, but not absolutely required. The only time they will be required to interact with the keyboard for input will be their password. And since a separate account will be created and locked down, allowing a simple password will not compromise security to such a degree that one needs to worry too much. The focus will be on creating large, clearly identifiable icons that can be clicked on to allow access to some of the basics of the Mac.

Creating a New User Account

If you’re not familiar with creating Accounts on a Mac, you’ll need to open the System Preferences application from either the Apple Menu, the Dock, or in the Applications folder. Once in the System Preferences, click on the Accounts icon. In order to keep things simple and consistent, first take a look at the Login Options section of the Accounts window. There may be times when your Minis want to use the computer but it’s not on or is asleep. It’s important to try to keep the experience as consistent as possible each and every time they want to access the computer. So it would be best to turn off Automatic login, display a list of users on the login window, and to show the restart sleep and shutdown buttons.

At this point, go ahead and create a new user account. Create a standard account. Various preferences will need to be modified by logging onto the account before the parental controls will be enabled. So do not enable Parental Controls just yet. For consistency’s sake, the Account Name may be the same as the child’s email or other online account ID, like their MobileMe family account ID. Use their full name as the Full Name since this is something that they will be learning more and more as they enter pre-school and kindergarten.

Make the password some sequence of characters that the child will be able to remember. This will break with all security conventions as it will likely be a weak password. The account will be locked down, and access to the full file system will not be permitted. This is also the first opportunity to allow unfettered access to the Mac, and a strong password that the child does not know will limit their access to the Mac and require someone else to log on for them. If this is a dedicated machine for their use only, and is in a permanent secure location (not a MacBook/laptop), allowing for a simple and weak password may not be an issue. Using the password hint will help later on once the child learns to read, unless one chooses to make the hint the actual password.

Once the account is created, establishing an icon with the account will help make the account unique and identifiable. At first, they will recognize the icon, and soon identify with the fact that their full name is also being displayed. This icon will be displayed on the login prompt when they first access the Mac. The icon should be an image they can relate to, like their favorite toy, or a self-portrait. Just ensure that it’s unique from the other account icons, and is something that the individual will not have any problems remembering. Keep in mind that depending on the age of the user, reading may not be a skill yet mastered. And in some cases, the full alphabet may not be known (yes, Mac users can be that young and still get things done on the Mac).

Some of the initial security setup lies in how things are currently configured on the Mac you intend to allow the Minis to use. It is more than just a good idea to create a separate Administrator account on all Macs and not allow any other user accounts to administer any Mac — it’s essential. This is configured separately for each User account in the System Preferences’ Accounts window:

Leave this unchecked

You may also want to configure any other accounts to log off after so many minutes of inactivity, and be sure that all remote access to the machine is disabled.

NOTE: Do not enable parental controls until after the user account has been accessed and configured properly. This is very important and will prevent one from having to re-establish the parental controls over and over again for each tweak of the user preferences. This is because one of the applications that the user will not be permitted to use will be System Preferences. These controls can be used to allow quite a bit of freedom for the Mini user without having to enforce constant adult supervision. This freedom to explore on their own creates a sense of freedom and self-confidence that just simply cannot be achieved with constant adult supervision. So rather than direct adult supervision, the Mac allows one to configure and control — to a staggering degree — indirect adult supervision.

Configuring the Account With the Mini User in Mind

System Preferences

Now that a user account is created, go ahead and log in to the account. Remember, the less there is to click on, the less that can go wrong. The goal is to eliminate as many unnecessary options as possible, provide a consistent experience with each successive login, and maximize the font and visuals. For the most part, this will lead to disabling most of the advance features, and controlling the behavior of the mouse, keyboard and screen as much as possible. Go back into System Preferences and proceed to configure the user account.

Appearance – Disable the number of recent items by setting Applications, Documents and Servers to ‘none’.

Spotlight – Uncheck all searchable items, and disable the shortcut keys. This is a user-specific setting and will only limit the search capabilities of the specific user for which this preference was configured. It may also be a good idea to establish which areas of the Mac should not be searchable under any circumstances.

Desktop and Screen Saver – Do not randomize anything; keep the desktop image clean and clear of clutter by selecting a solid color. The desktop will be where all shortcuts will be created to launch the applications and web pages. As an added bonus, think about purchasing a custom screensaver like SereneScreen’s Marine Aquarium for Snow Leopard.

Dock – This may not make much sense at first, but minimize the Dock to its smallest size, and hide the Dock. The goal here is to keep the individual away from the Dock entirely. All access to applications and websites will be made accessible via shortcuts on the Desktop. It’s also important to manually remove all icons from the Dock. The only two remaining icons on the Dock that will not allow themselves to be removed are the Finder, and the Trash. Think iPad.

Exposé and Spaces – Disable all hot corners in Exposé and disable Spaces entirely. Kids tend to overcompensate their mouse movements and this could be a confusing topic to broach when they constantly hit the hot corners of the screen. Since there is very little functionality that they will need to utilize, it’s best to simply disable all opportunities to access other features and applications via hot corners.

Task Bar Icons – Keeping consistent with the theme of minimizing the number of opportunities for a stray mouse to click on something, hiding as many of the tray icons as possible is a good idea as well. This includes but is not limited to the Displays, Airport (Network), Battery (Energy Saver), Clock (Date and Time), Bluetooth and Time Machine. If you have not been able to locate all of the preferences that add items to the Task Bar, simply hold down the command key and drag the items off the task bar one by one, just as you remove items from the Dock.



Now click on the desktop; the Finder menu should appear on the menu bar. Under the Finder menu, select Preferences. Under General, do not show any items like hard drives and peripherals on the desktop. All access to each application and website will be individually and directly controlled via a shortcut from the desktop. New Finder windows should open to the Desktop as well. Basically direct all attention to the Desktop as much as possible. For the sidebar, uncheck everything so that the sidebar is completely bare. When performing a search, search the current folder only, which again, will hopefully only ever be the Desktop.

Toolbar – Open the Finder and from the View menu, choose to customize the Toolbar. Remove all tools from the toolbar and leave it as bare as possible.

View Options – Right-click (option+click) on the Desktop and select Show View Options from the menu that pops up. If the dialogue that displays does not say Desktop at the top, click on the desktop. Once you’re sure that you’re modifying the View Options for the desktop, maximize the icon size, grid spacing and text size. Keep the label position at the bottom and continue to show both the item info and preview. The interesting part will be sorting the icons by their respective labels. This will give more control over the positioning of the labels, and create a color-coordinated option for organizing utility applications from educational and fun applications.



Within Safari, some of the basic configurations to establish include either setting up a blank home page, or a familiar home page, perhaps one that was created just for them with large image icons of their favorite websites. Additionally be sure to turn off all of the tool and status bars. This will initially create an experience that each website is a separate ‘thing’ accessible from a desktop icon. This is perfectly acceptable at first and can be a modified behavior once the Mini user learns that all of the ‘sites’ they’re accessing are not on the computer, not in the house, and in some cases not even in the country. Be sure to edit the bookmarks and remove all pre-populated bookmarks as well.

Safari Preferences

Setting Up Parental Controls

Parental Controls Everything is now configured just right and the account is ready for parental lockdown. Kid-proofing a Mac With Parental Controls is now possible. Log out of the account that was created for the Mini user, and log into an administrator account. While it’s not absolutely necessary to log in to an administrator account, this will eliminate the prompts to authorize each action that’s taken. Disabling and Enabling Parental controls will prove to be a real pain as well. Especially when you have an extensive list of email and chat accounts, as well as a good list of websites that you want to grant access. Not to mention, establishing a complex set of times and hours that the little one can use the Mac. The preferred route is to create a user account, strip it down to the bare minimum required to make things go, and then to enable parental controls to lock down everything else.

The first choice is to use the simple Finder, or to only allow access to selected applications. While the simple Finder is nice, and is what all of the configuring and messing around attempted to achieve to a lesser degree in the above recommendations, in the end, the ability to limit what applications the user has access to outweighed the simplification of the Finder. The recommendation is to utilize the “Only allow selected applications” feature of Parental Controls. From here, one can select exactly what applications the user can launch. At first, un-select all applications and log on to the user account and see what can be accomplished. Disabling the ability to administer printers, change passwords, burn CD/DVDs and even modify the Doc is also recommended.


Empowering the Mini Mac users in one’s life is simple and straightforward once one gets the hang of creating a user account, customizing System Preferences and setting up parental controls. The rewards of having a Mini user realize that they’re in control and are able to make the Mac do what they want it to are huge. Playing with Photo Booth and communicating with the grandparents via video over long distances is worth all of the set-up. It will not be too long before the Mini user is confident in their own skill set enough to go and check on their own to see if Grandma or Grandpa are online.

17 Responses to “Walkthrough: Setting Up a Mac for the Minis in Your Life”

  1. How did you get the picture icons for the website bookmarks? I tried the method you mentioned in the comments, but can’t get it to work. Is there another way?
    Also, thanks for this article. Very helpful, I just finished setting up my kids mac and it made it a lot easier for me.

  2. spgmazin

    In my personal opinion, this is too complicated. (fyi, this is the perspective of a 16 year old whose parents didn’t do the whole parental controls thing)

    Parental control and kiddy menus isn’t a good idea. What it effectively does is limit the amount of interaction and usefulness they (the minis) can retrieve from their system. When I first started meddling with computers (with the help of my uncle) I was around 5. My first game was Doom and the PC was running Windows 98. When I turned 7, I obtained unrestricted access to the internet. Now I’m 16, and an iPhone/iPT app dev, and fix computers in my spare time for money. I consider myself to have a good social life (that is, I’m not some recluse sitting in a basement (even if I was, there are no basements in Florida)) as well as a good student academically.

    Kids aren’t as stupid as you might imagine they are and can tell between the bad and good things on the internet. Did I discover porn at an early age? Yes. Did I care, and did it affect me? No, other than I knew there was porn on the internet before everyone else (face it, they’ll find out sooner or later).

    (Though, my scenario is probably only a viable option for the more liberal parents.)

    So, bottom line I guess is. imo, to give them a real mac/computer and take the extra time to teach them, rather than to have some other program do it in autopilot.

  3. I hoped to get a glance at the apps you prefer, and at the how and when of the interaction with your child. Alas no, another article that earns you geek points from non-technical parents, and parenting points among childless geeks. Technicalities, pointless IMO.

    Like: “but minimize the Dock to its smallest size, and hide the Dock. The goal here is to keep the individual away from the Dock entirely”

    well, you already said “This may not make much sense at first”. Spot on. Why hide the dock? It provides nice feedback if something is clicked, or, when magnification is on, when the mouse moves over it. Don’t hide it. Explain what happens when the mouse touches it. Explain what happens when you click. Explain what it means when an app jumps up and down because it’s so eager to get your attention.

    All this is about interaction with your kid, not really about technology. If you want them stowed away, but had them rather not slouch in front of the telly, well, that’s the way to go. If you want them to learn something, interact. Explain. Be patient. Watch. Learn a bit yourself.

    Take a look at Scribbles a very nice “scribbling app”, best done together with a 3-year-old and a tablet. ALready using layers like the grown-ups.

    As for the “supervision” regarging content: the web site blocking with Parental Controls is security theatre at it’ best. Appeasing the uninitiated. Face it, the internet is more colorful than NYC, be prepared to answer of the type you would expect your kid to ask when you just came home from a walk across Times square. You can’t shield them, to many channels for that already. Make them streetwise, make them webwise. Read your firewall logs and talk about stuff they saw. Forget about the illusion that a control panel is sufficient “parental control” for your kid.

  4. maybe someone can help me out here, I’m trying to do this for my daughter. Everything is fine except that I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get my web page shortcuts to have a picture. It has the generic http icon. I know how to change icons using the “get info” and copy and paste methods, but when I do that, the pictures are no longer clickable. My daughter would have to click the words instead of the picture. And that kind of defeats the purpose of even having the giant icons in the first place. How can I save a website with the pictures like in the picture in this article? Thanks.

    • For all of the desktop images, I used control-command-shift-4 to select an area of the screen and copy it into my clipboard. Then control-click (right-click) on the shortcut on the desktop to display the menu where I then select “get info”. In the top left of the resulting info screen is the default image. I select that image by clicking on it (make sure you visibly see a blue halo around the image after clicking it), then command-b to paste the contents of the clipboard onto the image. Close the info screen and the desktop shortcut should be updated.

  5. I did look at several of the applications mentioned, and do appreciate their abilities. Kidsmenu and AtEast looks similar to the Simple Finder implementation within Parental Controls. What I liked about the Parental Controls in Snow Leopard is that it limits the uses access privileges to only allow the execution of pre-approved applications that I have selected. There is no opportunity for any application not on the list to even execute. On a personal note, I also really like the carousel application launcher that is in use at the Apple Store at the kids table. Using the configuration methods described above, and configuring Parental controls, I find I can achieve a god mix of what these applications offer with the iMac right out of the box.

    From a browser replacement or the use of a service that has approved sites which is managed by someone else, I may be forced to go that route when my minis get a little older and they start to search the internet for answers to questions. Currently I only allow access to very specific web sites, and have created desktop bookmarks to only those sites. Searching the internet is an activity we do together. I do allow free reign within a give site, and my daughter has been able to fully explore several sites on her own. She has become very familiar with these sites. I may give KIDOZ a try as she gets older and starts to discover new sites on her own.

    But again, each set of applications is the only half of the equation. One side is limiting access to certain applications and controlling the look and feel of the application launcher, the other-side is limiting access to certain internet sites. There is also the matter of managing an approved e-mail and chat list, which is possible with Parental Controls. For me personally, the outlined preferences configuration combined with the use of Parental Controls achieves all aspects without having to download and configure any outside applications.

    And I could not agree more when it comes to young adults. The configuration above made the iMac accessible to a three year old before she was fully able to read. In fact, I bought my daughter her first iMac at the age of three, just for her. The article assumed that we are targeting the very young, pre-school-aged Minis, not teenagers.

    “One more thing…”, take a look at the software offered by Software MacKiev, especially their implementation of KidPix.

  6. B Hanson

    “With children, the key in either situation is to find a means to where the young user grows a sense of self-confidence, realizing that they are in control, and a sense of accomplishment that they know how to do it for themselves.”

    Actually by “limiting” a young person to a preset list of apps or functions you are “dumbing down” that person. Some 15 year olds become brilliant programmers because they went in deeper. You are wrong IMHO Apple is wrong too to think us adults want a preset experience. I know its the future because that’s where the money is but I don’t have to like it. (a Mac user since 1998).

    • Umm.. My daughter (who is 4) uses my computer for little games and such. Something tells me the “minis” this article is referring to will be unaffected by this “dumbing down” theory you have. At an age over 10 I would think the only control you would need is the parental controls.

  7. Try a program called Kidsmenu…it is designed to allowed the “minis” in your life a safe & simple launcher program, that can be used under MacOS X 10.3-10.6. Very similar to Apple’s now discontinued AtEase program