Parents are spending thousands on the latest gadgets, coding bootcamps, and tech tutors for their toddlers to prepare them to compete in a digital world

  • Parents eager to raise their kids to compete in a competitive job market are investing heavily in digital learning and tech for their children — even toddlers.
  • Mathew Abraham, a preschool teacher from Plano, Texas, is introducing his students to the basics of coding.
  • Meanwhile, parents like Mona Stone, a surgeon and mother of two, are willing to spend over $2,000 a month just on gadgets and tech-related camps, classes, and experiences for their kids.
  • "In addition to their school studies, there is 'tech learning time,'" said Sarah Evans, owner of Sevans Strategy and Sevans Digital PR. "My eight-year-old loves tech as much as I do, so he has two priorities right now: learning to code, which he's been doing for over two years, and launching his YouTube channel."
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Digital learning and communication were already center stage for many kids before COVID-19. The US Department of Education noted that almost all states offer some form of online learning opportunity — which may include state, district, or charter-operated virtual education programs — to help kids build "21st century skills" and "increase student engagement and motivation." 

But in the face of a pandemic that requires social distancing, technology has become even more of a constant for the K-12 set, many of whom have needed to rely solely on devices to stay connected to extended family, friends, and teachers.

Many American parents, however, aren't feeling confident that their kids can keep up. As Joe Pinsker wrote for The Atlantic in 2019, "America's economic primacy has been contested by the dynamism of several countries, particularly European and Asian ones, which leaves American parents concerned that their kids won't succeed in a hypercompetitive, globalized economy." 

And when many industries rely on even entry-level employees having a solid understanding of technology, parents become concerned about their children's ability to compete with their more tech-savvy peers. The intensified focus on — and need for — technology skills in education and the workplace brings a renewed push to stay ahead of the curve. 

"Technology is everywhere. It feels like some new development happens every day," said Alina Adams, author of "Getting Into NYC Kindergarten" and "Getting Into NYC High School." "Parents who are already afraid of their children falling behind their peers in Europe and Asia are equally as terrified that they'll lose the 'technology wars.'"

The fear that their children will fall behind on technology often leads parents to splurge on tech-related purchases for even the youngest of kids — from coding lessons for toddlers to expensive computer camps and classes. 

Cindy Chanin, a Los Angeles-based national education expert and founder of Rainbow EDU Consulting & Tutoring, told Business Insider that she's come across many families who "are forcing their kids at a young age — at the same time their kids are learning their ABC's or how to read — to take coding classes and get up to speed with the latest tech gadgets in an effort to prepare their kids for what they, as parents, anticipate will be a tech-driven future."

Chanin said that she has performing arts students who "despise all things coding and technology," yet feel pressured by their deans and parents to take advanced placement computer science or coding to boost their GPA. 

"One of my students shared with me this morning that 'becoming fluent in code' seems more vital nowadays than learning how to speak Spanish, French, or Mandarin,'" Chanin added.

While Adams pointed out that New York City's established preschools continue with a traditional curriculum of play and letter, number, and shape recognition, new startup schools are promising "tech for tots." 

"To that end, there are toys to teach coding to one-year-olds," Adams said. "There are engineering, coding, and entrepreneurship classes and summer camps for three-year-olds. And when parents are touring kindergartens, they want to know, 'How do you teach technology?'" She added that a parent once asked her if she knew of a computer-programming tutor for an 18-month-old. 

Mathew Abraham, a preschool teacher from Plano, Texas, told Business Insider that he's been entrusted with introducing children to technology and the basics of coding, having expertise in many programming languages including PHP, Java, Python, and C.

"Teaching toddlers or preschoolers about technology is a really fun process for the child and the teacher that teaches them to solve problems (debug), think in a manner that is logically consistent (algorithmic thinking), and do things in the correct order (sequencing)," Abraham said. "You would be surprised to know that you don't even need a computer to learn most of these skills."  

At the preschool level, Abraham focuses on teaching children the foundational values and skills that they can build on when they start to code. 

"We have seen substantially better results this way compared to toddlers who are made to sit in front of a computer to learn Scratch," a free visual programming language developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where kids can learn to create interactive stories and games, he said.

Black Rocket offers a technology camp for kids eight years old and up, giving parents the choice among over 30 tech courses in coding, app design, video game creation, virtual reality, and more. 

Richard Ginn, CEO of Black Rocket, explained that in the COVID-19 world, giving kids access to these types of opportunities isn't even just about learning tech skills. 

"It is about empowering children to be creative and giving them an opportunity to socialize in a safe — fun — learning environment," Ginn said.  

Supplementing school learning with gadgets, gizmos, and classes

Mona Stone is a surgeon and mother of two children. Worried that her kids might fall behind, she's signed them up for a homeschooling program online. This currently involves rotating through several curricula to keep it interesting for her three-year-old. 

"They ship us the material every two weeks," Stone said. "It's very convenient." 

The main three online programs that Stone is relying on include the Time4Learning Preschool Curriculum that offers activities such as puzzles, memory matching games, and pattern games, ABC Mouse Academy, which Stone described as "very educational for ages two through seven," and Moving Beyond the Page, which offers homeschooling programs for kids ages four to 14.

She shared that Time4Learning and ABC Mouse provide her three-year-old with "plenty of teaching points in regards to technology" that include understanding the internet, using the mouse, understanding basic tech-related terms. 

The family is also considering hiring an at-home school teacher. Stone said that she's willing to spend $2,500 to $3,000 per month on technology and tech-related camps, classes, and experiences for her kids. 

Similarly, Olivia Angelescu has been homeschooling her two kids, ages four and nine, for the past two years. Over the past 12 months, she said they've spent $1,500 on tech learning opportunities for the kids.

"We are very aware that being comfortable with technology is crucial for the success of our kids as adults, no matter what career they will choose, and are trying to find the best ways to encourage them to learn to use technology without spending all their time doing so," Angelescu said. 

Angelescu's nine-year-old hasn't seemed to show an interest in technology, but instead prefers piano, art, history, reading, and acting — so Angelescu is looking for other ways to incorporate tech into her learnings so that it "doesn't really feel like tech training." 

"I purchased an iPad only for her, and I have downloaded apps and games that incorporate her favorite topics," she said, adding that the price of all the apps is around $200 per year. Angelescu also purchased her daughter a Kindle and orders a new Kindle book every month for her.

Additionally, she's trying to find online courses on the topics that her daughter's passionate about so that she can leverage technology every time she has a class. This year, she estimated that the family has spent $300 on various online courses.

Jennifer Walden, director of operations for WikiLawn Lawn Care, explained that her kids, both under age 10, use their parents' tablets and phones as well as the family computer. 

"One of them has shown an interest in art, so once she's older we'll probably invest in a drawing tablet for her so she can teach herself digital art," Walden said. "We plan to keep up with technology, though they likely won't get bleeding-edge tech since we're rarely early adopters. Whatever they show interest in, we'll find ways to support."

As someone who works in the tech space, Sarah Evans, owner of Sevans Strategy and Sevans Digital PR, said that learning the language of tech has been extremely important in raising her children. 

"In addition to their school studies, there is 'tech learning time,'" Evans said. "My eight-year-old loves tech as much as I do, so he has two priorities right now: learning to code, which he's been doing for over two years, and launching his YouTube channel." 

Evans told her son that he needs to learn one new skill per day to be able to keep YouTube on his agenda. This includes editing, production, marketing, and other important business concepts. 

"He doesn't realize I'm giving him a skill set within technology, and it's been a win/win for both of us," Evans said.

Evans also has a daily "earn tech time" BINGO chart for her kids, and producing a YouTube video, coding, and keyboarding are all "earnable" squares.

The need for internal motivation in tech learning

Adams expressed that it's not really the parents' investment in their kids learning technology that will result in producing the world's next STEM geniuses, but how the kids themselves feel about tech.

"The irony is that kids who are not interested in tech will fidget through a coding class, then go do something else," Adams said. "And the kids whose brains light up at the possibility can and will go much further than any class would expect them to." 

Because of this, Adams believes that parents can shell out for fancy computers, cameras, and coding camps — but if a child isn't interested in these things, they'll just end up gathering dust the moment the child is set free. 

"Technology, like music, dance, art, sports, and other extracurricular activities, only has a value when the impetus comes from the child," Adams said. "Sure, they'll do what they're taught in class. They might even practice dutifully if they're the non-rebellious type or are offered a valuable enough reward. But true success in these fields only comes from passion. If your kid isn't practicing when they're not forced to, odds are against them getting very far."

But if, on the other hand, your kids show internal motivation — like Gregory Wickham, who wrote an article when he was in sixth grade about why children should teach their parents to code and a column as a high schooler about how education is better with more technology and less adults — then it's a different story. 

"Then you know this is something they love and will continue with, making it worth the long-term financial investment," Adams said.

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