Don’t teach your kids to write code

Just because your kids like to play video games doesn’t mean they should learn to program. You drive all the time. Does this mean you should be a car mechanic? Probably not. Very few kids should learn to write code. 

Kids who play video games have the opportunity to learn a wide range of things—writing, politics, long-term planning. None of these areas are appealing to a person who has a brain for writing code. People who are great at writing code are short-term problem solvers. They like routine and order and structure. My son plays Style Savvy, which rewards people skills, not routine problem solving. My other son plays Tiny Zoo, which rewards a passion for animals and breeding them. My point is that just because a kid likes video games doesn’t mean he should write code.

I’m blown away by all the places that make writing code easy for kids. Who cares? Who wants their kid to grow up and write code? Ten years from now most of the jobs for writing code will be like most of the jobs at your auto mechanics. Specialized, low-paying, and boring.

This all reminds me of the scene in The Graduate, where someone gives the stunningly stupid advice: “Plastics.” The protagonist should go into plastics. The career that is hot now is never going to be hot when your kids have careers. That’s not how the job market unfolds. In the 70s it was real estate, in the 80s it was banking. In the 90s it was the Internet. Right now it’s writing code. There is probably zero unemployment for people who can write code today. But that’s not going to be true in ten years.

So stop thinking your kid needs to write code. Stop thinking, in fact, that you have any idea what job would be right for your kid in ten years. If you knew what would be happening in ten years, you’d be a billionaire. Because no one knows.

If you think writing code is so great, then you should learn to do it. Let your kids figure out what’s going to be next. Becuase they’re going to be way better at that than you are.

35 replies
  1. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    So tell us again why you insist your kids learn cello? Shouldn’t they just pick something they like and learn it on their own?

    One assumption you are making here is that writing code is an uncreative activity like repairing cars (although that’s probably a slur on mechanics.) If you thought of writing code like writing novels, you wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.

    But where do you think video games come from, if not programmers? Yes, you could come up with a concept and have someone else implement it, but that’s a big company style of work. If you are an independent, you are going to write it yourself. Dismissing the actual coding is like saying “I’m a composer — I don’t have to learn to play an instrument!”, or “I’m an author — I don’t do spelling, grammar and typing!”

    You are also assuming there’s no generality to writing code. As if it was a totally specialized activity with no connections to anything else. But the people who write code know how to break down problems into pieces. They know how to test theories when they look for errors. And they know all the general skills of how to get a project off the ground, starting from a blank sheet of paper.

    I think the kind of detail work involved in coding is the kind of work you hate, so you put down the whole field. Plus, I think you are being a bit of a snob. Not everyone is going to end up doing big picture thinking like you prefer to do.

    What will you do if the kids end up farmers and just want to talk about pigs?

    • Amanda
      Amanda says:

      I don’t think that’s what she’s saying – I understand P’s point is that what you might think is good to encourage kids to do as a viable stable career isn’t going to have the same status when they are old enough to do it.

      Its not being snobby about code, or anything else, its just a realistic pov

  2. CJ
    CJ says:

    I agree with you when you discuss kids playing screen games and how good this is for them.

    For me, this piece sounds like my grandmother that still needs giant buttoned landlined phones ignoring the future. Our kids learning code is just another wonderful tool in their belt and they have the capacity to learn it so let them. It is fun, it is gamification, it is exciting. Just as exciting as playing the “video” games and I would argue at least equally brain stimulating. Look, we know our kids are smarter than we are. Their IQs are in fact going up from our generation. And a lot higher than our parents. I love the work in gamificarion theory that explains, we old timers are sloooooowwwwwwww and we expect our children to be as slow and cannot grasp how fast and how much our kids not only thrive on, but snjoy some of the puzzling of design as well as the speed. Our childrens entire lives are technology influenced even if we live in the country, just as you have written about how your son can play mind craft with kids in other parts of the world. Shoot, I thought seeing “Video Killed the Radio Star” the day it debuted on MTV could never be beaten, tech speaking, LOL

    Our kids though, They are both capable and eager for advanced tech multi tasking. Even though I am an unschooler, and I read pulp books stiil to them….my kids know leaps and bounds more than I did at their age and can handle so much more at once. Also, it is really limiting to believe writing code or knowing how is just for a job someday. You are right, I have no idea what ten years from now looks like for them and we cannot even begin to guess some of the horizon careers, but if they learn code today, now way can that be a bad tool to have later. And, I think everyone should know how to fix their own car on a basic level…that’s not career, that’s a survival skill!!!!!!!

  3. redrock
    redrock says:

    Not everyone has to learn how to code – enjoy the games and never think about what makes them run. Fine with me. But, coding or writing code (and doing it well) is difficult, and fun, and a huge puzzle to solve. It requires a mixture of detailed work and big picture thinking; it needs people and communication skills since any functioning video game nowadays is conceived and realized in a team. And considering that computers are not going away anytime soon, we will need more rather then fewer people who can work on coding. The person who writes code is not the nerd sitting in a dark cubicle in front of a faintly greenish glowing screen any more (if it ever was…). That is like thinking that all physicists are like the guys in Big Bang Theory.

  4. Amy P
    Amy P says:

    I completely disagree with you, other than this statement, “Stop thinking, in fact, that you have any idea what job would be right for your kid in ten years. If you knew what would be happening in ten years, you’d be a billionaire. Because no one knows.”

    I feel that basic coding skills should be taught in high school along with other all other basic skills. All kids should have to have a 101 introduction to programming. The world as it is today relies so heavily on technology that everyone should learn the basics of how it works and then be given the opportunity to either use it or do something else.

    Your kids are learning to do so many things. This is just one more skill that they should have an introduction to. Why limit them based on your beliefs.

    This is a case where your view that “Very few kids should learn to write code.” will limit your children and keep them in the world that you exist in rather than allowing them to expand into new ones won’t exist unless your children create them.

  5. EMJ
    EMJ says:

    I agree with the idea that training today’s kids for today’s job market doesn’t make a lot of sense. But the rest of this post is wrong. People who enjoy programming can enjoy all manner of other things, including politics, writing, and long-range planning. In fact I would argue that the career path of a programmer is extremely limited without some mastery of all three of those skills!

  6. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Was this post written just to get a reaction and more hits? Were you low on ideas? “don’t force your kid to learn code” I can see, but it’s not controversial like acting like technology is a passing fad done by small minded people. The earlier comment about comparing code to writing mechanics is a great analogy. Btw, many people are interested in car mechanics even though they are not in the profession. It’s practically mandatory among men who grew up in the midwest or south. Saying that only mechanics are mechanical is like saying only chefs should learn to cook. It sounds pompous and ignorant of the middle class.

    • Colin
      Colin says:

      “Was this post written just to get a reaction and more hits?”

      Bingo. I am amazed at Penelope’s continued lack of understanding of things technical. Be it programming, science, engineering, or even medicine. Just floors me every time she writes these because she just doesn’t get it. And my money is on that she never will.

      Learning to program so you can get a job is so antithetical to everything I see her write about why she homeschools. Clearly she intends her son to be a professional cellist, and a professional skateboarder. You only do things and learn things to get a job, right? No, of course not!

      And the programming vs. mechanics analogy is so incredibly flawed it’s not worth addressing.

      “People who are great at writing code are short-term problem solvers.”

      The kind of programmers who are shot-term problem solvers are your bottom-tier folk. If you get beyond something that takes more than a week, short-term problem solving will put you in a land of spaghetti code and bug-ridden software. Not understanding the big picture and planning long-term is entirely a rookie mistake.

      Again, Penelope shows she knows next to nothing about something technical and manages to do so by pigeonholing people into the Myers-Briggs types and extrapolating.

      • Aidan
        Aidan says:

        Given that Penelope was an html programmer I can only assume this post is an excellent example of trolling/google juice/link bait. Bravo!

        • Colin
          Colin says:

          “html programmer”

          You will find quite a bit of debate of whether or not this is an oxymoron, or at best just nonsense. Meaning, people debate if the proper verb of “programming” applies to HTML. Personally, writing HTML is more programming than marking up (e.g., bolding, underlining) a Word document, but it otherwise lacks every major practice you find in programming and so I would not classify it as programming. There’s no looping, no jumping, no functions, no variables, etc.: all of the meat that is the heart of programming. So having written HTML is not sufficient merit, IMO, to speak as Penelope has done on programming. Throw in PHP or ASP or Javascript or something else, and then you got yourself some programming.

          • Aidan
            Aidan says:

            In this context it doesn’t matter whether you (or I) consider HTML a programming language or not. My point is that Penelope has enough technology experience to know better which indicates that this post is nothing more than a means to an end – link bait/google juice.

      • Lauren
        Lauren says:

        I completely concur on the inaccuracy of the statement that people who write great code are “short-term problem solvers”. People who are short-term problem solvers write crappy code that those of us who write great code then have to fix. Great code still works 30 years later.

  7. Jen
    Jen says:

    This reminds me of all the times I was told I should be a lawyer because I was good at winning logical arguments and public speaking. I know a lot more unemployed lawyers than unemployed programmers today–but no one ever told me to be a programmer growing up. The idea that you can predict the best career choices 15 years out is certainly flawed.

    Someone with an interest in games, programming, etc. would find value in learning code and how it works. There are a surprising number of overlaps with the math and logic skills you gain from music or learning a new language. But it would be good to think beyond the code. Focus on the process of evolving game concepts, planning launches, growing gaming communities, etc. Those skills will help you succeed in any business field that happens to be hot later on. And for creative people they could be the difference between the life of a starving artists or a successful (or at least financially stable) artist.

  8. BB
    BB says:

    “In the 70s it was real estate, in the 80s it was banking. In the 90s it was the Internet. Right now it’s writing code. There is probably zero unemployment for people who can write code today. But that’s not going to be true in ten years.”

    Geez, this is ignorant. There were plenty of programmers in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. And there are plenty of unemployed programmers today. The “specialized, low-paying and boring” jobs have all been outsourced. You must be creative and adaptable to survive in the field today.

  9. Peneloe Trunk
    Peneloe Trunk says:

    Then should we teach everyone cooking skills in high school too? Surely it qualifies in your mind as a basic skill. And most high schoolers can’t do it. And, bonus! It’s chemistry!

    The problem with cooking is the same as with coding. Most students aren’t interested. And they don’t need to be interested in that to be successful adults.


    • CJ
      CJ says:

      That is just simply not true. Taking care of yourself is PRIMARY. Cooking for yourself is a basic NEEEEEEEED. to use your language, “so what? They are bored by/with what they need?” Penelope, kids don’t often KNOW what they need. Hell, most adults are confused about needs versus wants. But successful people KNOW how to care fr themselves, or are able to afford care taking.

      You/we/me/us, have to be interested in self preservation….cooking and feeding oneself is a basic survival need. Sure, most children don’t fully grasp that they need to care for themselves and we guide them to learn how to self care. Your comment that they are not interested brings me again to my main trouble with your continual “how boring” commentary. I thought many things that I am passionate about today to be boooooooorish when I was a kid (full eye rolling and limp body position implied). Not everything is a waste of time if it isn’t a specialty tomorrow.

      YES!!! 1000 times YES, all high school aged/pre-adults should be taught to cook. NO question.

      ***Maybe, my comedy isn’t translating here so let me add a joke asterisk: washing your children’s race tracked undies is boring and I have no interest in it…but I still need to know how to do it, right? My “mommy career” is often boring and very un interesting to others, but it is still my career folks. Nutbutter jelly sammies, fishing things out of toilets with takeout chopsticks, and cooking lessons….yep, that’s m’boring life ;-) ***

    • Dawn
      Dawn says:

      I don’t know what your definition of successful adult is I guess. My definition includes knowing basic skills like cooking so that they have a greater degree of independence and have more flexible choices in life. Someone who can’t cook faces an automatic reliance on more expensive options once they leave their parents home.

      I also think this idea of interest is bass-ackwards. There have been many times when I’ve pushed my kids to learn something they have no interest in only for them to discover an interest once they have a certain degree of skill. Interest doesn’t always appear in some magical, fully-formed way. Sometimes it requires a little work.

      • EMJ
        EMJ says:

        Yes, this! Skill is what brings deep interest. You’ve put your finger on why I disagree with Penelope’s perspective on education. Thank you!

  10. todd
    todd says:

    I agree, Penelope. You should definitely not try to teach your kids how to code. You would clearly be terrible at it as you seem to have a very shallow and inaccurate view of what is involved. Fortunately for you and your kids, they won’t need you to learn how to do it if they are interested. Self-teaching on the internet is quite easy and accessible, probably more so than for any other domain.

  11. Bird
    Bird says:

    I am teaching my homeschoolers (ages 7 through 11) to cook. They get to choose what they want to make (I can veto.) It seems to be good for them but my motivation is less altruistic; I’m really tired of making lunch.

    Tomorrow a friend will be dropping us off in a random location and they’ll have to find their way home. (Mostly they love this.) Replaceable with GPS? Yes. And no.

  12. Mark Kenski
    Mark Kenski says:

    Writing is an activity that extends from scribbling a grocery reminder, all the way to the works of Shakespeare. Coding is an activity, a type of writing, that covers a similar range.

    According to Wolfram Aplpha, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has 1019 sentences.

    A sentence is roughly equivalent to a “statement” of code–a complete thought if you will. By comparison, a relatively simple iPhone app I am working on right now currently has 3073 statements.

    In a play, if a single line is slightly off, there might be a momentary sense in the audience that something is amiss. In an application, a single error in a single line of code makes the difference between an app that runs and one that crashes or does not even start. So, there is a different level of technical rigor. Not everyone is comfortable, or even capable, of working very long at that level of rigor.

    Some are though, and thanks to them, we live in a culture where a person can transparently and unwittingly rely on millions of hours of labor by many thousands of people to reach millions of minds with their writing…and casually disparage that achievement.

    WordPress, for example, is the result of 43 person-years of coordinated effort. It is the product of 45 contributors and represents 168,610 lines of code. Not only are programs such as this collaborative in their code development, they are also a product of millions of users providing feedback. There is simply no creative product in the experience of humanity that approaches the scope of a major software package such as this.

    An argument can be made that software is the highest form of human creative achievement, period.

    I agree with you that parents should not push their children to learn any particular skillset if they have no interest. If the topic is vital to them, the child *will* come around to having an interest in it.

    And I agree wholeheartedly that we cannot clearly foresee the demands of a market a decade in the future, so we should be very reluctant to promote studies purely because of their perceived economic value.

    But if the child has an interest in programming, or writing of any kind, it should not be disparaged. It should be enthusiastically supported.

    The day when people capable of expressing the depth and subtlety of a Shakespeare play, or sonnet for that matter, are a dime a dozen is still as far off as it was 400 years ago. The day when people capable of writing great code are not crucial to the advancement of humanity are at least as far off.

  13. Jen Smeriglio
    Jen Smeriglio says:

    This is a very one-sided view and it isn’t fair. You say that things like reading and politics can’t interest someone who has a mind to write code?

    Well lookie here baby, cause I’m a political science major who reads like it is her job and I code.

    I don’t think anyone truly assumes if your kid likes video games they must learn to code. Also, trying to teach your kid to code is like having them try a sport. If they like it then they will stick with it. If they don’t then you don’t force them into it you let them find something else to do.

    I honestly hate that there are people in this world this one-sided and you’ve just proven my disgust.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      you mean brains are not neatly packaged and stacked little parcels? I also know many supersocial mathematician… or introverted, singular writers. There is no recipe as to how human abilities are combined – fortunately!

  14. victoria
    victoria says:

    I definitely found this post amusing and timely because just the other day we were having a conversation with the Spawn in the car about programming, etc., and my husband (who is a software engineer) remarked that the reason he learned to program is because he loved playing video games and eventually started manipulating the programs so that he could cheat.

  15. BQ
    BQ says:

    I get your point. Are there any type of kids that *are* suited for learning to code? how could we distinguish them?

  16. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    After reading the above comments, I think it would be overkill if I also voiced my distaste for the possibly unimplied implications the post raised.

    I think what Penelope meant was that she is sick of educational theorists and professionals jumping to programming as the next mecca of educational learning tool. This is the same argument against why we force all kids to learn higher level math, or teach by subject rather than allowing kids to discover core subject material (math, social studies, reading and writing) through their interests.

    I too am learning programming. I am a little put off by the gross inaccuracy of some of your statements, P, but I definitely get the idea that programming is not for everyone–but it is for some people.

  17. p
    p says:

    I am startled and amused by the number of irate coders here. I had no idea they were such a vicious faction.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      no, it is the dismissal of any activity which is science or engineering or math as not worth striving for which angers commenters.

  18. j
    j says:

    I would also throw in that coding is extremely abstract and very difficult. It’s also unforgiving- if you’re 99% right, it still won’t compile (and that’s just to get it working, without worrying about optimization or anything). I’m not a programmer (though I’ve programmed a bit), but the programmers I know are impressive thinkers on every level. Years of intense mental workout has probably contributed to this.
    Also when I’ve worked on vehicles, it’s been more like following a recipe in a cookbook (although maybe that says more about my limited vehicle repair experience).
    Is your curiosity completely limited to the social realm of people? I hope my children have some interest in the physical world even if they don’t make a career of it.

    • victoria
      victoria says:

      This is a really interesting point, and I would 100% agree with it. Most of the people I’ve known who were techie types at startups had much broader educational backgrounds than just code (especially ten years or so ago, a lot of them had studied something completely different — structural biology, religion, history, you name it — and ended up coding because it was a hobby and they were very good at it), and the people I know who are working in the field tend to read more widely and more thought-provoking stuff than most, and tend to have really demanding hobbies — classical music at a really high level, homebrewers and charcuterie, couture sewing, mountaineering, among some of the folks we know — to boot.

  19. Cristen H
    Cristen H says:

    I understand the pushback PT is getting for this post; I am not a coder, though i am an ISTJ, and I certainly do not fit any standard pigeonholing or easy classification. We are all individual and complex. As an unschooling mom, I actually really appreciated the message i think was the subject of the post, that enjoying video games may be valuable on many fronts, and that it directly lead to coding is not Necessary to the games’ adding value, or a kid’s development. In the unschooling blogosphere, a great many parents only post about their successes, and you’ll read a lot of, “yes, my kids play video games all day, but they are programming them too, so it’s time we’ll spent”. Which leads a newbie parenting me to think, how am
    I gonna get my 5 year old interested in coding? This post speaks directly to that anxiety that I must do something! Now! Lest my kid turn 25 and be on a couch in my basement still playing games. If my kid shows great interest in programming (who knows, I may have a shortie ISTJ) I’ll certainly encourage them. Still, its great to have a voice reminding me that trusting our kids’ innate curiosity can lead them to paths deeper and wider than we may have tried to plan for them.

  20. mrs.muneton
    mrs.muneton says:

    I’m a web developer who paid for a coaching session with Penelope when I first found her blog and had a big crush on her. She read the very strengths that I’ve leveraged to improve my technical skills (team building, people interactions) as cues that I should switch to a more people oriented job. These skills, I have helped me to learn so much from all of the extremely talented people I’ve worked with, many of whom have been building the internet since I was born.

    I’ve thought a lot about what makes me different from ‘typical’ phpdevs since then. Of course, I’m a woman so by default all the soft skills are switched on. But more than anything, I think its that the internet and I have grown up together.

    I’m at the very beginning of the Millennial generation. There is room for all types of thinkers at the table when we’re working to keep the surging progress of the information age from overwhelming us. Programming is problem solving, and problem solving is challenging. I agree with other commenters that Penelope doesn’t really understand the distinction between code monkey and programmer. I agree with her too. We shouldn’t be teaching anyone to just ‘code’, we’ve already built tools that do that. But we do need as many critical thinking programmers as we can educate.

    Personally, I have decided to not send my two kids to school. I was a Suzuki kid and have started my 4 year old with Suzuki violin. I really hope that they want to learn what it is I do all day when I sit here at the keyboard. If it doesn’t come easy to them, I’ll tell them the same thing I say about violin. ‘Learning to do hard things is hard’. Now I’ve been playing the violin for 25 years and it comes much easier. But neither coding nor fiddling is easy to master, and I’m still working on both.

    If you’re a homeschooling parent, my advice to you is to empower your girls and boys for the future by learning something about the mysterious ways the internet (or desktop app, or mobile app) works.

  21. Nina
    Nina says:

    I would honestly say give them the opportunity to learn code just so they can use and customize their computers/programs better with what ever job they get. I really didn’t see a push to MAKE kids learn code, they just should have the opportunity so they can create things.

  22. Dad
    Dad says:

    First, I am not a programmer by trade. Second, the alphabet we rely on to communicate with via text is a code, a program, if you will. Writing code is a skill, a tool. EVERY child can benefit from learning the basics of programming, even if they don’t make it a lifelong pursuit. The idea this article seems to subscribe to is something akin to saying that a child will not benefit from learning a foreign language and, therefore, should not engage in a language course. If nothing else, children who learn at least the basics of programming are more likely to better understand and appreciate a portion of the digital age better than their peers. It’s like saying that children won’t benefit in some way from learning how to use computers. Computers are tools, a means to an end. The vast majority of people reading this are doing so as a result of CODE. Seriously, I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone should shove code down a student’s throat; but, to insist that the ability to write code is not valuable, even at a fundamentally basic level, is an idea not well thought through. How will a student know whether they are well suited to programming if they are not exposed to it?

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