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Ask HN: How to raise a hacker?
35 points by orless on Oct 25, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 37 comments
I have a 6yo son, who's really interested in engineering (details see below). I'd like to help him develop his interests and skills. Which resources - toys, projects, activities, websites, books etc. would you recommend?

His favorite toy is a German construction set "Fischertechnik" which he play's like a pro, inventing own designs and models. He's very good at handicraft. Is interested in computers (but we almost don't let him play computer games). Likes 3dprinting very much (I've built a Mendel Max a while ago). I can go on, but from all what I see, he's really technically interested.

"How to raise a hacker" is probably a bit too provocative. I have no intention to raise a technologcal wunderkind or force my kid into something he does not want. I'd just really love to help my son develop in the areas he's already interested in - or maybe open a few of the branches he might also find potentially interesting. For instance, programming or electronics. And that we have fun together doing that (you can call me "technically interested" too).

But I have a feeling I'm just not aware of the good options. How would I teach him coding? Introduce to electronics? Robotics?

What I'm looking is basically some general advice. I believe there are a lot of parents here who share their passion for technology with their kids. What would you recommend? What was inspiring for your kids? What was your "best toy ever"? Please share, I'd be very grateful for that.

In case it's relevant, we live in Frankfurt, Germany. Me and my wife, we both work in IT (I'm a dev/architect, she's a test manager).

The single greatest gift you can bestow upon your children is reasoned curiosity. And by reasoned I mean allowing all questions to surface, and to reason about how to understand or answer the question in a practical way.

But as Mz says you must let them do things. We did set a rule that our girls could not own a pocket knife until they were at least 10 years of age and had developed the fine motor skills needed to keep it under control. Once they owned a knife of their own we talked about the "blood ball" which was their name for the concept of not whittling or cutting where someone was within reach of your outstretched arm. That would keep you from stabbing somone next to you if your blade slipped. And we talked about direction (never cut toward your body) Since we camped a lot there were plenty of opportunities to whittle sticks into funny shapes, and knives are generally useful in a camp site.

We also had a tradition of always eating together (which can be hard in a startup where you have to explain that you're leaving at 5PM so that you can have dinner with your family and that you'll be online later) The dinner table rules were any question was allowed, we owned a used set of the World Book Encyclopedia to answer questions.

When driving on the road we encouraged questions about "What do you think that is?" and ways we might be able to guess the purpose of what ever it was we were looking at. Ways to validate our understanding or test our hypothesis.

It means answering "Why?" questions all the way down, without angst and frustration but with discovery and learning.

We took apart things, we fixed things, we built things, and we imagined things. It gives you the freedom to ask a question like "what if we pitched a baseball at the speed of light?" If you think that is a silly question for your kid to ask, then you don't have the right attitude about fostering curiosity.

Good answer! When I was 4 or 5, I used to ask so many questions my grandparents often wondered how my parents survived ;-) For me it was great, it fostered just that sense of curiosity that I have never lost since. It also taught me pretty soon that my parents do not know everything, which meant that I had to learn how to find things out for myself (especially in books).

Thank you. I absolutely don't think the question about baseball at the speed of light is silly.

I'd just really love to help my son develop in the areas he's already interested in

Grant him genuine agency and let him take the lead.

When my oldest was about 16 months old, he decided to put his own dishes away, just like mom. He was too short to reach the sink and began chunking his dishes into the sink like a basketball player, because that was his relationship to the sink, height wise. A lot of parents would have told him to stop and tried to then teach him to pick up after himself later. I felt that was the wrong approach. Instead, I locked up all glassware and all members of the house ate off plastic bowls and plates and drank from plastic cups until he was tall enough to put his dishes in the sink without chunking them.

I told this story once online to someone hoping to foster independence in their child. They thought it was a great idea and announced that they would start making their child put their dishes away post haste. Uh, no. You have completely missed my entire point.

Support his interests as best you can while helping him not hurt himself. It will go stressful but good places and you will have a really neat person on your hands every step of the way.

I do have a private parenting blog that is currently on hiatus. You could send me a gmail address with the subject line "Memoirs of a Mom" and I could add you, if you care to see what is there already.

> Grant him genuine agency and let him take the lead.

I don't want to lead him in a sense "do what I say and that'll be good for you", but I'd like to help him open new horizons. And I really feel that he need external input here. We're living in a small village (but close to a big city), we don't have a TV, there's not too much happening around here. Without external inspirations, I'm afraid, we'd land with a local football club and Angry Birds on the iPad.

Nice story about plastic cups. :)

And I really feel that he need external input here.

Yes, he does need external input. Just make sure it does not cancel out his own inputs.

He is the center of his life. He has knowledge he cannot convey to you. That knowledge influences his decisions. Just because he cannot articulate it does not mean it is unimportant.

So, let's take a simple example: He dislikes a particular shirt. Perhaps it is his only wool shirt and perhaps he has a mild, unrecognized wool allergy. He can tell you he doesn't like the shirt and doesn't want to wear it. He cannot tell you why in a way that is defensible if you require him to justify his choice.

Expose him to good things and lots of options. But try to let him pick and choose. Try to resist the temptation to decide what he should or should not like.

I used to think video games were drivel, brain rot, no good would come of it. My mother kept sending them, my sons kept playing them. My sons now want to make video games and I have been won over. That occurred because I left some space for them to make decisions about their own lives and some room for the possibility that I did not know everything and was not always right.

The innate intelligence of small children gets overlooked, ignored and dismissed simply because they aren't as educated and articulate as the adults, so they cannot defend their preferences. Assume his preferences exist for a reason. Don't automatically dismiss them just because you are better than he is at articulating why you think something is or is not a good choice.

I hope that makes more sense. Happy parenting and best of luck.

That was very clever, I wouldn't thought of that probably. Good parenting :)


You simply help him widen his horizons in areas that interest him, engineering in this particular case. Provide him with support and logistics.

Get him smart toys as he's growing, like the thing you mentioned, like Lego, like Makeblock (http://www.makeblock.cc/), toys that encourage creativity.

I'm sure you can find great resources for kids to learn how to code, that's where you come in. He expresses the wish to learn how to code, you find out what's best out there to do it in his age.

Thank you.

My problem is that I don't know a lot of "smart" things. A normal offline toy shop does not have much to offer. And you have to know what to look for online.

Makeblock looks interesting.

When I was a kid I had a number of Lego Technic sets - they are great! Might not be proper "engineering" but still allows you to touch and build a simplified version of many real-world things, for example a car's drive shaft.


If he's already pretty skilled, he'll definitely be able to handle even the sets that are marked 10 years old +. I recall I had one of these when I was 6, it was a slight challenge but that was the fun part : ).

Yes, he handles 9+ pretty well. He's now playing a lot with Fischertechnik (http://www.fischertechnik.de/home/produkte.aspx), it's a German analog of Lego Technic (or vice versa, whatever), but as far as I can tell it's somewhat closer to reality. I'll take a closer look at Lego Technic though, thank you.

Those old Meccano sets were awesome too, you can still find them on Ebay.

When he's older, radio controlled airplanes, cars, helicopters, boats.

You could probably have a general DIY attitude and build some toys for him with him.

This looks cool too:


Oh, yes, Meccano is a good hint. Requires different mechanical/fine motoric skills compared to Lego Technik/Fischertechnik.

As for Infento - looks very neat, a bit too "prepared" for my taste. We do such things from wood and stuff you can buy from the local hardware store. Here's an example of something we've built in a day:


Get in touch with a local Hackerspace. There are lots of them in Germany, usually related to the Chaos Computer Club. They'll happily provide you with pointers and directions about what to get and where to look for it.

Oh, Hackerspace is a good hint. We'll definitely come by. And they're basically around the corner (allright, a few kilometers).


What would you recommend? Without hesitation, two things i believe are crucial:

1) Let them find a introductionary reader (the most basic of study books) or kids-encyclopedia on the subjects they find interesting.

2) At first, limit access to resources, but not knowledge. Spoiled equals no curiosity and creativity. Time to experiment.

My experience as a kid;

Best toy ever: LEGO Technic.

How would I teach him coding? First i realized computers just do what humans tell them to. Then i did "Echo Hello World", and promptly found a introduction reader about QuickBasic on MSDOS with my mothers name on it. I absorbed it entirely and backwards, picked up on Visual Basic, and thanks to dialup internet soon PHP.

Introduce to electronics? I started disassembling electronics shortly after i got my hands on a "How Stuff Works" CD-ROM.

Robotics? For me it was LEGO Technic and hacking, but nowadays i'd just give them a LEGO NXT kit. (See the LEGO FIRST events, they're awesome even for the youngest of kids)

Very good, thank you. Why limit access to resources?

My father gave me a hammer and a stump with nails started in it at 2. I would play outside and investigate the world as I grew up. I had a chemistry set, the radio shack electronics starter books, and a workshop where I could assemble model rockets. While my father only had a high school degree, he was very mechanically inclined. His parents had a garage growing up, and he was changing oil in cars at age 9. When ever we did projects around the house, he had me involved helping. I guess being involved and getting a chance to explore the world helped me the most.

That's more or less what we do. :) Ok, that was not hammer and nails but an electric drill/scredriver and screws but you got the point. Thank you for sharing.

I think other commenters emphasizing agency are spot-on. A kid needs to have enough leeway to get interested in whatever random things they feel like getting interested in. With computers around, he'll probably random-walk his way into engineering anyway.

I think it's good not to obsess about limits around computing time, even if the kid just plays games. As you most definitely know from your own experience, programming and electronics - or any other creative disciplines - are not things you do 3 times a week for 1 hour after you've done your homework. They require long and uninterrupted blocks of time. Setting a hard and short time limit for computer use pretty much ensures a kid will only play games, chat and browse cat pictures, because those are only fun things you can fit in tight schedule.

Games ain't bad - there are fun ones, there are ones with stories comparable to the most important works of literature and cinema, and if the kid starts to think about making his own (as I did when I was around 9) or (more popular today) making mods to the ones he like, it can lead straight to amateur gamedev and getting really good at programming very quickly.

Also, if he likes space, show him Kerbal Space Program at some point. It has an uncanny ability of getting people into aerospace and making 12yo better at physics than high school teachers.

You live in Germany, there's a strong hacker culture there. When he's little older, take him to a local hackerspace! People there are usually very friendly and can show some pretty cool DIY tech that could spark kid's interest in electronics and programming.

> I think it's good not to obsess about limits around computing time, even if the kid just plays games. As you most definitely know from your own experience, programming and electronics - or any other creative disciplines - are not things you do 3 times a week for 1 hour after you've done your homework.

True, but consider the kid is only 6. At that age there is still a strong health/developmental reason not to allow a lot of screen time.

Show practical thing people can do themselves. Changing a tire, fixing a bicycle, etc. This (together with watching Macgyver :-)). Sure it's easy and sometimes cheap to let someone else do it. But I think teaching kids how regular tools work, is an important first step. (My down owned a saxophone shop and used to let my brother dismantle and re-assemble old saxophones, that was a great engineering lesson for him).

That's a good advice.

I think your son does not need your help with developing his technical skills, he will do that by himself. What you should be careful is to make sure that he does not neglect other aspects of growing up, like not picking up social skills, not doing enough physical activities.

So, this might seem weird, but I think you better not encourage him too much about the things he already like, and should encourage him to do stuff he might be neglecting..

I understand your point, but wouldn't worry much about it. He's actually very well balanced, has a very good overall development.

I think at 6 you needn't/shouldn't go that specific yet. If he shows interest in IT/technology, great! Help him along if he needs help, introduce him to something new once in a while, but don't focus only on that one area.

My advice would be to encourage his reading (if he has already learnt that). Reading is one of the best ways to expand your horizon and learn new things - much better IMO than games or toys (though they of course have their place too). I'm guessing you have a public library nearby, or his school will definitely have one. Go there with him, buy him books for Christmas; in short, introduce him to the world of the written word. And then: let him explore!

Hopefully you might be able to find local resources similar to Leonardo's Basement


the Bakken Museum


or the Works Museum


Or if there aren't such available in Frankfurt, get some other parents together and start something!

I don't have children yet, but if I do, I plan on asking them "how do you think that works" often to get their curiosity gears turning. Do any parents have experience with this approach?

A good question to ask, sure. :) My problem is that I have only a very basic idea about how most things which surround us work.

Have you watched Mr Robot? This is what happens what you raise hackers. As someone mentioned in the comments, as a Human - albeit a curious human, not a hacker.

Raise a human, not a hacker.

You either completely missed or completely ignored my point.


This is alright, but honestly it needs to be catered. Just giving them vanilla Minecraft would work for a start, but moving into the world of modifications would be something the parent should cater to the child. There are a lot of amazing mods, that would help them learn all about the world. There are also a lot of ... I won't say useless.. But more "for fun", such as gun mods and others related..

Overall, Minecraft would also let you play with them, and create a nice family environment. :)

I don't think one should obsess too much over the "pure fun" ones. Growing up is just like basic research - you have to let yourself waste time on random stuff with no apparent practical use.

Was also think about Minecraft. He knows about it from some of his friends and used to play "Toca Builders" - a kind of Minecraft for juniors.

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