June 17, 2007

A Modern Father Knows the Code

The kids are not afraid to ask questions, but the adults feel an absolute need to provide answers… Rather than say, “I don’t know; let’s find out,” parents feel like they have to make something up to seem smart. We really need to embrace not knowing it all.

Kathleen McLean, former Director, Exploratorium

Father Knows Best?, Washington Post

HTML code

I’m not afraid to say “I don’t know” when my daughters ask the tough questions. Despite the typical timing of these important queries (like when my eldest asked “What’s a virgin?” as I was merging onto a busy L.A. freeway), I go for the truth. After all, isn’t “telling it like it is” one of the legacies we baby boomers have embraced?

My 10½ year old has just completed the fifth grade, and with it that special unit on human sexuality. But those aren’t where the hard questions come from in our family. If only. Last month she came home and proudly showed me a Web page she and her friends had made on their own. Not only had she coded the page but she had embedded a Flash game into it as well. The floodgates had opened.

Surveying her work, I noticed some major problems in her code. In addition, she had hotlinked to someone else’s Flash game. Hotlinking is a big no-no in the ethics of the Web and it was clear she had reached a critical stage in her development (you might remember I’ve had a couple interactions with people who have hotlinked to my images). It was time to step in to make sure she got a proper upbringing.

Kids today are learning PowerPoint in the fourth grade and are expected to use the Web to research their school projects by the fifth. Yes, folks-without-children, it’s quite a different world. My eldest had been asking for her own Web site for a year. But I’ve hesitated, waiting for her to grow into the responsibilities that come with being a good netizen. She had just been rewarded for her maturity with her own email address (to correspond with approved friends only). But was I ready to move her into a higher geek realm? As usual my control over the situation was totally dictated by her meteoric quest for knowledge.

We are a modern family. Instead of backseat queries on sex, I am getting spur-of-the-moment questions about code. “What’s the difference between HTML and XHTML?” she’d suddenly ask just as I was moving out of the way of a wild driver. As usual, one question led to another. Cascading style sheets have nothing on cascading questions.

“What’s DHTML?” she asked. “That stands for dynamic html, honey. And it allows you to do lots of cool things with a Web page.” “How do you do that?” “Well, you use javascript with your html.” “What’s javascript?”

You get the picture. And we hadn’t even gone over META tags and DOCTYPE yet.

It was hard to keep up with her. As a former Web design teacher, I realized a newbie can become easily overwhelmed. But I was the one who was edging towards that abyss.

The other night at dinner, questions about my family’s day were replaced by a conversation about code. Even my non-geeky wife and younger daughter got involved. My eldest began:

“Ok, dad, I think I’ve got the image tag straight: ‘Less-than sign i-m-g space s-c-r equal sign quote the image name quote greater-than sign.’”

“Honey, if you are doing XHTML you have to have a space and then a forward slash, then the greater-than sign at the end of the tag. And it’s s-r-c, not s-c-r. It stands for source.”

“That’s what I meant. Ok, how do you make an image go from your computer to the Web page?”

“First, you upload it to a server.”

“What’s a server?”

“It’s just a computer that houses all your files. But’s it’s main function is to serve your files to the net. You upload files to your ISP’s, I mean your Internet Provider’s server using an FTP program.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Well, it’s just a computer, but one that specializes in housing Web pages. All servers are computers; but not all computers are servers. For example, my computer is not a server.”

“Why not?”

You can see where this was going. My wife tried to explain even though she knows nothing about computers. And then my youngest (who, I must admit, I thought was more interested in jewelry accessories than the intricacies of Web development) chimed in with her definition.

I asked my oldest if she and her friends were all interested in learning HTML. I’ve seen how cooperative groups of kids learn from each other, like when they get together to swap Gameboy shortcuts and Easter eggs. “No,” she answered, “now it’s just me. I’m taking the W3 Schools tutorial online!” Yikes, who told her about the that? (Google of course. She gets more information from that search engine than she does from me.)

We are indeed a modern family. Clearly, my casual and impromptu instruction had to be replaced with a more formal process. She graduated from elementary school this week. And I got her a book on html and css to celebrate this milestone. You should have seen the look on her face when she unwrapped the present.

At 10½ I was playing with toy trucks and my world stopped at the fence around my backyard. Next week we will start my daughter’s formal XHTML education at the top with DOCTYPE and META tags. I certainly don’t know it all. But I know this: soon I won’t know half as much as my daughters.

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My wife uses my web site for her art pages and she was always asking me to tweak the HTML. So a couple of Christmases ago I got her Head First HTML and CSS as a present and offered to give her weekly lessons. It lasted for about a month, she was much more interested in the art than in the HTML.

BTW, I heartily recommend the Head First series of books. I have used them in my classes and the students love them.

Posted by: ralph on June 17, 2007 12:48 PM

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