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Teach Your Children Well

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

True story:

On Monday this week, my 10-year-old got off the school bus and
said “wanna hear a joke?”

For those of you who are parents, you will surely know that the
humor of fifth graders is, at best, a little bit weird. My
daughter, who is normally pretty sharp, can descend into giggles
when she hears the word “fart.” So it was with some trepidation
that I said, “sure, I’d like to hear it.”

Here goes:

“Three people were flying in a plane. The first person was
George Bush. He threw a dollar out of the window and told the other
two people, ‘there, I’ve just helped one person.’

“The second person was Bill Gates. He threw $10 out the window
and said ‘I’ve helped ten people.’

“The third person was Barack Obama. He threw them both off the
plane and said, ‘there, I’ve just saved the world.'”

I laughed pretty good at that one and my daughter was pleased,
because she’s heard me mutter under my breath about at least two of
the people in that joke. (She actually said that when she heard the
joke at school, Hillary Clinton was the third character, but she
changed it because she likes Obama better.)

Of course, I don’t share this joke to endorse any particular
candidate, nor do I seriously advocate throwing anyone out of a
plane. Ever. (I suggested the next time she related the joke to put
parachutes on the characters.) But it occurred to me that even as I
was laughing at this joke, the impact we have on our children is
sometimes so profound that we might miss it when it happens.

It’s not just watching the parents and listening to what they
say. It’s picking up on our values, too.

My youngest uses my old LT laptop, the one I used to take on
trips before I got my new laptop this spring. But last night the
battery (which has been behaving badly for the last couple of
weeks) finally gave up the ghost and rendered the machine useless,
until I can get a new battery tonight after work. With a report to
work on, I let her use my laptop instead, since her document was on
a thumb drive.

She dove right into Linux (she’s been trending towards Windows
lately, citing the better game availability when she’s done with
homework. Sigh.) with her usual confidence, fired up
OpenOffice.org, and off she went. No troubles, until this morning
when she called from school.

See, here’s how I approach interoperability for them: assume
lowest common denominator. Which is why, on both my girls’
machines, regardless of platform, the default formats to save to
are the Office formats. Because I know if they are doing any kind
of homework, their teachers are only going to accept Office stuff.
Not so on my machines–it’s ODF all the way, by default. Instead of
doing Save As, she did just Save, and ended up taking an ODT
version of her report to school. Where they have never even seen
OpenOffice.org.

She figured out what happened, of course, and called me and told
me what needed to be done: I needed to come to school and convert
the file to .doc with my laptop. Which is what I would have done
and did.

I realize that this may sound like I’m bragging on my little
one, and perhaps I am a bit. But there is a larger point to all of
this. Our children learn so much from us: how to dress, how to
talk, how to move through society. It makes sense, therefore, that
they would learn how to approach technology. My daughter got
another lesson in dealing with proprietary applications today and
hitting the wall because of it.

Is she going to start a revolution at school and force the
deployment of OpenOffice.org? I doubt it. Will she be a Linux-using
computer user all of her life? I hope so, but you never know. What
she did learn, and what all of our children can learn, is that
knowledge needs to be sharable across all technologies. Walls and
barriers are usually arbitrary and often unnecessary. Openness is a
better way.

It’s a great lesson for computers… and for life.