Author: dan

How (and why) to freeze your kid’s credit

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Ummm… my kids don’t have any credit. What are you talking about?

Freezing your kid’s credit is much more important than most parents realize. Here in the U.S. a person’s credit score is the major factor in many financial dealings. Your credit score determines if you can buy a home, get a credit card or a car loan, and in some cases can even be a factor in getting a job. Normally, we develop a credit score by paying bills and taking on loans as we enter adulthood. There are lots of good arguments for and against the current credit system, but it is what we have and so it is important to understand how the system works and how to protect yourself.

OK, but what does that have to do with my kids?

Stolen identity information is used to apply for loans/credit cards. Stolen information may also be used to defraud an employer. Sometimes to avoid immigration and work permit regulations. Sometimes for other more nefarious reasons. In the past, no credit history was a liability when applying for new credit. More recently most creditors have few if any concerns if someone lacks a credit history. So an identity with no credit history, and one that is likely not going to be checked on for many years, is a perfect target for identity thieves. In fact, Social Security numbers from infants are some of the most valuable stolen identity information sold on the dark web.

Criminals combine stolen Social Security numbers with other stolen information. A stollen Social Security number is combined with a stolen name and address to create a realistic but fake identities. These identities are then used to apply for credit. The criminal may apply for credit cards, take out loans, and even apply for government benefits. A credit check run on the fake identity will show that the “person” has no bad credit history.

When the real owner of the Social Security number starts to apply for credit they discover a long history of bad debt. This can be difficult and costly to clean up. It can take years to recover your good credit and even then the bad records can come back to haunt you again and again.

Some victims of identity theft have petitioned for a new Social Security number. But even in the worst instances of identity fraud, the Social Security Administration is very resistant to issuing a new Social Security number.

That all sounds horrible. Will freezing my kid’s credit really protect them?

Mostly. Freezing your child’s credit will prevent anyone from opening new lines of credit. It will also make the frozen identity less attractive to criminals. For adults who may be actively using your credit to apply for loans freezing your credit can be an inconvenience. But for kids it should be a non-issue. So there is very little downside.

Alright. I’m convinced. But what about my credit?

Freezing your own credit is a good idea as well. Any minor inconvenience from freezing your credit pales in comparison to the effort required to recover from identity theft.

Freezing your credit will not affect your ability to use your current credit cards or access funds on existing lines of credit. If you have an existing mortgage or car loan the existing loan will not be affected. If you want to take out a new loan, refinance an existing loan, get a new credit card, or request an increase in a current line of credit you will have to unfreeze your credit first. unfreezing your credit usually requires just a quick call to the credit bureau. In some cases you can freeze/unfreeze your credit online from your cell phone.

If you are house hunting or looking for a new car you can unfreeze your credit while you are shopping and then turn the freeze back on. Having your credit exposed for a short time will still make it much less likely you are victimized than if your credit is open for long periods of time when you are not necessarily paying close attention to it. Many cases of identity theft go undetected for months or years.

How to freeze your credit

The major credit reporting agencies have made it very easy to freeze your credit. It is best to freeze your credit at all three of the major credit bureaus. All three offer an online option, but generally it is easier to do this over the phone. So set aside an hour and have at it!

Protecting your home network

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October, as I’m sure most of you know, is Cybersecurity Awareness Month. Unquestionably the most important month of the year…. Wait, you didn’t know it was Cybersecurity Awareness Month? You didn’t even know there was a such a thing as Cybersecurity Awareness Month? You are wondering why we don’t have a clever acronym for Cybersecurity Awareness Month so I could stop typing Cybersecurity Awareness month over and over again in order to make this joke work? I’m curious about that last one too.

Cybersecurity Awareness Month was launched by the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in October 2004 as a broad effort to help all Americans stay safer and more secure online. One of the themes this year is “Make Your Home a Haven for Online Safety” which I acknowledge is pretty cheesy. However it is a very real and very important goal. Your home network not only protects your personal assets and information. It’s also a major avenue of attack against corporate or government systems. Many, if not most people today work from home or access resources on our employers’ networks from our home computers. If an attacker can infect your home computer they can use that to capture your work credentials or even attack your employer’s systems. Compromised home computers can also be used to build “botnets”. Collections of thousands of computers controlled by a single person or group that can be used to crash websites or harvest bitcoins without the computer owner’s knowledge. So protecting your home network is important not just to you but to all of us.

The single most important thing you can do is to make sure every device you own has the latest updates installed. Recent studies have found that more than 80{12810d732553a0644ecc90a0e23d1efc26a399b3533b5403ed90d6fcf4bb1dcd} of the attacks used by bad actors are effectively defeated by running the latest version of the attacked software. This should include your computer(s) as well as cell phones, tablets, and smart watches. In most cases, these devices will prompt you to install updates as they become available. Make sure you know what the update notifications look like and install any updates as soon as possible. For many devices, you can turn on automatic updates and you should do this whenever possible. Even with automatic updates turned on, make a recurring reminder in your favorite calendar or reminder app to check at least once a month to make sure all updates are installed and that automatic updates are turned on.

Windows 10 automatically downloads and installs updates to make sure your device is secure and up to date and Apple computers will get critical security updates automatically. In both cases you should still be checking at least monthly for other updates by looking in the applicable App Store. Remember that in addition to updating your Operating System you also need to update any applications you have installed. Applications installed from one of the major app stores will handle this automatically so whenever possible, you should get your applications from the store rather than downloading them directly from a vendor site. This is also a good way to make sure you are getting the “real” program you wanted and not an infected version that can infect your computer.

Apple App Store update screen
Microsoft App Store Update Screen

Instructions on how to enable automatic updates for your mobile devices can be found here:

Apple iOS:


The second most important thing for you to update (and it is a close second) is your modem or router. This is your first line of defense against an attacker and is also your most vulnerable point. If an attacker can compromise your router, they can see everything on your network making it easy to gather passwords and other sensitive information. The exact process for updating your router will vary depending on the make and model you have. This article on WikiHow has a good set of general instructions with pictures that can help you figure out the right process for your specific system.

You should also be updating any other “smart” devices in your home. This can include smart TVs, gaming consoles, lightbulbs, thermostats, baby monitors, security cameras, refrigerators, those cool video doorbells, etc.  Anything you can control with your cell phone or get online content from. Most modern devices provide an easy way to install updates when needed, but some can be annoyingly complex. I’m not going to sugar coat this one. Updating all of your “things” is going to be a pain, but think of it like changing the batteries in your smoke detectors or replacing the fire extinguisher in your kitchen.

Side Note: I know right now a bunch of you are thinking, “When did I last change the batteries in the smoke detector? Do I even have a smoke detector?” And even more of you are thinking, “Am I supposed to have a fire extinguisher in my kitchen?” If you can’t remember when you last changed the batteries in your smoke detector, go change them now. Better yet, go out and get some of the newer ones that have a built in battery good for 10 years. If you don’t have smoke detectors you should get at least one on each floor of your home. You should definitely have a fire extinguisher in your kitchen. You don’t necessarily need the big red ones. You can get small aerosol can sized ones like the First Alert AF400 Tundra Fire Extinguishing Aerosol Spray.

There are some things we can do to make this easier though. And add some extra security to our home setup along the way.

  • First, we want to make an inventory of every device in our home. You can do this in a spreadsheet or a word document. Whatever you like. You can even do it on paper if you want.
  • Second, however you decide to keep your inventory, write down the name of the product, when it was purchased, and if available, write down the serial number or other identifying information.
  • Third, make a note about how to update the item’s software (Sometimes we call it firmware. Don’t worry about the difference). These instructions will usually be in the instructions that came with the product. If not, Google the product name and “install updates” and you should find instructions. Usually the instructions will give you a website to go to for updates. Make a note of the website and any other information you will need.
  • Fourth, Test your instructions by checking for updates for your device and installing them if needed. Whether you update or not, make a note of the current version or at least the date you checked for updates.
  • Fifth, set that recurring alert or event to check your inventory every month. When you do a check, update the date or version number.

If you want to go for extra credit, you can see if the product vendor offers a mailing list you can subscribe to that will notify you of updates. You might want to create a new email account or a special folder for these emails to go into so they don’t get lost in your email.

I know this sounds like a lot of work. But once you get into the habit and have things set up for automatic updates it will not be as bad as it seems. And the additional protection for you and your family is definitely worth it. Just like the smoke alarms and fire extinguisher.

There are a few things you can consider that will reduce the burden somewhat. The easiest and most effective is to really think about the kind of computer you need. The mobile operating systems like iOS and Android are much easier to update and keep current and are built with security in mind so tend to be less vulnerable. So if a tablet would meet your computing needs consider not using a PC at all. If you do still need a laptop but use it mostly for internet and email consider a Chromebook. ChromeOS, used in Chromebooks, is another very secure operating system which is automatically updated for you. If you are a heavy user of GMail and Google Docs, this may be the right solution for you. Especially for kids or casual users of the internet, one of these devices may be a better choice than a traditional laptop or desktop computer.

There are many other ways to improve your home security. Using strong passwords, setting up WIFI in a secure way, and having a reliable backup strategy for your information are all important parts of securing your personal information and protecting your home network. We’ll cover many of these topics in future posts, but making sure you are updating your devices in a timely manner will make a huge impact on your home network safety.  

For more helpful tips from our good friends at US-CERT, check out the US-CERT Home Network Security Tips.

The Talk

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Not THAT talk. That’s beyond my expertise and if anyone has good advice on THAT talk please let me know. This talk is the talk with your kids about online safety. As parents, we want to arm our kids with the knowledge and an appropriate caution to avoid the truly dangerous hazards of the internet, but we don’t want to scare them so much they have nightmares or never want to engage online at all. We all grew up with the basic rules for staying safe in the real world. Stranger danger, the buddy system, and never get in a car with someone, and we were pretty much all set. But these rules need a few tweaks and additions for online safety. Here are some tips for how and when to talk to your kids and some simple rules you can teach them.

When to talk with your kids

It’s never too early. The right time to talk to kids about online safety is before they have to deal with it. A good first step is to find some YouTube channels or Twitter feeds (Facebook would also work but I don’t recommend facebook at all) that your kids will be interested in. Spend some time watching the videos or reading posts with your kids and talk about the comments or other interactive features of the site. If your kids like a video, help them post a comment. Take some time to review what kinds of things it is OK to post. Supportive comments are great, but no personal information.

This is also a good time to review the golden rule and talk about etiquette. We want our kids to understand that online content is someone’s creative effort (we’ll teach them about mega-corporate advertising later) and that it is OK if they don’t like it but if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Cyberbullies learn early, just like other bullies.

How to talk to your kids

First of all, this isn’t going to be a one-time talk. You’re going to have a lot of small conversations rather than one long one. If your kids are anything like mine, then they are going to lose interest after about 5 minutes so we are going to have to prioritize what we want them to know and deliver it quickly. Remember, the most important part of talking to your kids about online safety is that they are willing to talk to you. You can’t prepare them for every situation so what you want is for them to feel comfortable coming to ask for your advice or help when a situation comes up.

I was looking for a picture of a bored child, but then I found this cute picture of a girl with a rabbit.

When I was in high school, I had a “deal” with my parents that if I ever found myself in an unsafe situation, for example if I was out with friends and someone was too drunk to drive, I could call my parents and they would come pick me up no questions asked. I recommend something similar with your kids here. Make sure they understand that even if they are doing something online you have forbidden, they can still come to you and get a free pass. If this ever happens you should praise them for being honest and open,  help them address the issue, and then you can block the site or content if necessary. We are working on a post explaining how to block online content effectively so if you are interested, please subscribe to be notified of new posts.

So, keep it short but also make it clear that this is an important discussion. You may want to explicitly lay out what’s in it for your child. You might say something like, “I want you to be able to chat with your friends or play online games, so we are going to talk about some rules for online safety. Just like we have rules for going to the park or the store, there are some rules I need you to follow online.”

I recommend against trying to scare kids straight in these talks. There may be times when it is appropriate or even necessary to share some of the awful stories about kids going missing or people’s homes being robbed while they are on vacation. But generally I find it is sufficient to say “These rules help to keep you and your friends and family safe. There are some bad people on the internet and if they have too much information about you they could do bad things.” If your child is old enough and wants more details you can talk about things like identity theft or online fraud. These are less scary but still help kids understand some of the potential consequences.

What to say (Dan’s basic rules for online safety)

For my kids, I like to keep rules simple and absolute. Yes, there will be exceptions and as they get older I’ll expect them to use more of their own judgement to decide when it is OK not to follow these rules. In the beginning, I want these rules to be walls protecting my kids. As they get older, these should be guidelines that remind them to consider carefully before sharing information or trusting people and content online.

As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t going to be a one-time talk. So pick a few items from the list you want to cover each time you talk. The priority for some of these will depend on your child and the kind of activities they are engaged in online. I try to touch on the first three rules every time. A key fact to remember is that no online attacker can reach through the internet and grab your kid. So making sure that kids don’t give out any information that could help a bad actor is the most important part of online safety.

  • Rule 1: Friends you meet online don’t need to know anything about your real life. Don’t tell them your name, where you live, where you go to school, or how old you are. 
  • Rule 2: If someone online is asking you for any of this information, in addition to not answering, you should tell a parent right away. 
  • Rule 3: Never agree to meet someone IRL (in real life)
  • Rule 4: People online may not be who they say. If you get a message from someone who is claiming to be a friend or even a family member or teacher, you can respond, but all the rules about not giving out any information about your real life still apply. If the person really is who they claim, they will have other ways of getting your information.
  • Rule 5: There are other topics you should avoid with online acquaintances. These can give a bad guy information they can use to learn more about you. Don’t talk about the weather or big public events in your area like concerts or rallies. If talking about sports, try not to refer to a “home team”. For the most part, it is best to avoid small talk and focus on the game or the topic of the online discussion.
  • Rule 6: Never open files or download anything an online friend sends you without checking with a parent. Often times gamers may send you a link to download a game plugin or even a free game. These links may contain viruses or other dangerous programs, or they may be illegal copies of a game (Pirated Software). Downloading pirated software, even if you did not know it was illegally obtained, is a serious crime. So always check with a grownup before trusting a link or file from someone you only know online. You can check the safety of links or files using some easy online tools like this Google service. Another good online tool for checking websites is Virus Total. This site will also scan files for you to see if they contain known viruses.
  • Rule 7: Never tell someone online your password. Not even if they claim to be from the company that made a game or website you are trying to use. No legitimate technical support should be asking for your password. Never share your password with online friends either. They may ask for your password to give you some loot in a game or to help you level up. You should not trust these kinds of offers. Just not worth the risk. Plus it is kind of cheating.
  • Rule 8: Never threaten anyone else online. Cyberbullying is a serious issue and in some places can be a serious crime. We are not as anonymous as we think we are online. So don’t say or do anything you would not do in real life.
  • Rule 9: If someone online ever threatens you or makes you feel uncomfortable, tell a parent or another grownup as soon as you can. If you can save the messages or capture them with a screen shot, that will help your adults put a stop to this behavior.
  • Rule 10: Talk to your parents. Show them the games and sites you are interested in. They may have some interesting information to share with you (probably not, they are parents after all, but who knows?). But knowing the kinds of online communities you are a part of will let your parents help you stay safe online.

What if my kids won’t listen?

Yeah, my kids don’t listen either. Keep trying. Maybe ice cream will help? 

Screen time is also quality time

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One of the most common questions I’m asked by parents is,

“My kids are always on their phones/tablets/xbox/playstation/ etc.”

To which I usually reply,

“Well that’s not really a question. It’s more of a statement, but i get what you mean.”

My kids each have an iPad and a Kindle Fire, we have 3 Apple TVs a Chromecast, and an xBox. When I want to tell my kids it’s time for dinner I usually FaceTime them and my youngest has been able to text since he was 2. So… I obviously have a different opinion than many about how much screen time is too much.

The general argument for screen time

There is a lot of good science out there about how screen time affects our little one’s developing brain. There are also a lot of studies that highlight the positive effects screen time can bring. In my opinion, the benefits of our modern hyper-connected electronic epoch far outweigh any cultural side effects. But even if I didn’t believe that, it seems unlikely that we are going to be able to put the “always online genie” back in the bottle. Digital literacy is going to be a critical life skill for our children. Believe it or not, playing video games and watching YouTube is preparing your children for the jobs of the future. There are certain constants in the computer-human interface and the more time someone spends with a computer, the more intuitive these constants become. That’s why many IT professionals can sit down with an application they have never used and “figure it out” much faster than someone who has logged fewer hours in front of the keyboard (as we like to say in the industry). It’s not because of the IT professional’s knowledge of how to write programs or setup websites. It is because most programs share certain common design elements and as you get used to these, it becomes much faster and less frustrating to figure out new variations.

Whether you think an hour of screen time a day is too much or you’ve completely abandoned your children’s care and education to YouTube, what I’m going to talk about today is ways you can make sure screen time is also quality time

Educational content

There are a lot of ways you can make screen time more productive. The most obvious ones involve educational apps and websites. There is a lot of great education content out there. And the creators generally do a good job of making content interesting to kids so they won’t even realize they are learning!

It’s best to review any website or app yourself before turning your kid loose on it. You want to watch out for apps that have lots of ads. Sometimes the ads are not appropriate and they can distract your kids from the educational goodness. Many of these apps or websites will cost money, often as a subscription. Of course everyone’s situation is different, but for the most part paid subscriptions are how these content developers are able to deliver such high quality services. So paying a couple of bucks can often get you more content and supports than the free-tier of service.  

Some of my Favorites Apps and Web Sites include:

For toddlers is a great site with content for kids from pre-k through 6th grade. They also have good apps for iOS and Android. The site has educational games in different subjects. For the youngest ones they have games that teach shapes, colors, counting, etc. As the kids get older they can play more challenging games that help with math, reading, etc. is a great resource for those rainy days when your kids have too much energy. The site has lots of fun interactive videos to get your little ones moving and active. There are a few calming videos, but generally this is not something you want to get into near bedtime.

The GoNoodle and ABCya websites both have very good apps. A few others that have been big hits with my kids are First Words Animals by Learning Touch LLC and Toddler Counting by iTot Apps, LLC. First Words is an iOS application that helps kids learn those first important sight words and also teaches letter shapes and sounds. Learning Touch has several other apps that teach other languages as well. Toddler Counting is an incredibly simple app that displays a random number of pictures. The kid has to touch each object once at which point the app says the next number in sequence. This teaches kids one-to-one counting and also helps them learn numbers. The app demonstrates one of the advantageous of electronic education. Skills like counting need repetition for young ones to develop proficiency. The iPad is endlessly patient with the kid which is exactly what is needed to teach the foundational skills.

For older kids

Puzzle and strategy games can help kids build important problem solving skills. One of the best games of this genre is The Room Three. There is actually a The Room and The Room Two, but your not missing anything by jumping straight into the third edition. This puzzle game has a spooky feel but remains safely PG. In the game, you find yourself in a series of rooms each with some kind of machine you need to activate. You have to find objects in the room and figure out how they fit together to solve the puzzle. The game gives you hints over time so you likely won’t get stuck for days on a puzzle. This game is a great chance for kids and parents to play together. There is a great feeling when you finally solve one of the puzzles and sharing that with a parent will be a great bonding opportunity.

Trivia games are also a great choice. There are hundreds of these on different topics so look for something that matches your kids interests. Kids can challenges themselves and each other, but this can also be a fun twist on family game night. Let your kids be the trivia master and ask questions of the grown-ups.

Many popular board games are also available as apps. Monopoly, Life, Risk, etc. as well as things like chess and backgammon. Many of these can be played single player against the computer for practice but can also be multi-player. The nice thing about playing the electronic versions of these games is that there is no setup time and no mess to clean up.

Screen time is the new family drive

Screen time, even when it has no redeeming educational aspect, can still be a valuable parenting tool. Back in the long long ago, when there was no cable TV much less Netflix, families would pile into the steel and fiberglass tank that they lovingly referred to as “the family car” and go for a long drive. Without any specific destination in mind, this was simply a way to spend time together as a family. Families would talk and play games because, let’s face it, they were stuck in the car with nothing else to do. Screen time can be a way to recapture this family time but with more binge watching.

Sure, sometimes screen time is how we keep the kids occupied while we indulge ourselves as parents and do things like cook a meal or do laundry. But screen time can also be an important opportunity to spend time with your kids. Many of the family-friendly movies and TV shows today are entertaining for both children and adults and teach valuable moral lessons. Watching Frozen or Smallfoot with your kids can be a fun bonding experience. After, or even during the movie, take time to talk to your kids about what the characters did, how they might have felt and what lessons they can take away from the show. 

For older kids, movies like The Avengers series or Spider-Man are packed with teachable moments that can serve as an opportunity to discuss very serious issues in a lighter and relatable way. Also, revisiting some of those fun 80s movies can be a great way to bond with our kids and also teach them valuable lessons like what to do if you turn into a werewolf or how much electrical energy is in a bolt of lightning.  

And then there is YouTube

This post would not be complete without some discussion of YouTube. There are literally millions of hours of high quality educational content on YouTube. The trick is finding this content amongst the billions of hours of absolute crap. Here are a few tips to help you:

  • YouTube Red is a subscription service. It allows you to watch some of YouTube’s premium content and also allows you to download YouTube videos to watch offline. Most importantly though, it removes ads from YouTube videos. This is 100{12810d732553a0644ecc90a0e23d1efc26a399b3533b5403ed90d6fcf4bb1dcd} worth the cost.
  • There are 2 official YouTube apps. YouTube Kids provides a simplified interface and a curated library of videos appropriate for kids.
  • Even the regular YouTube app provides some options to filter content.

Lastly, and this is going to be the hardest part, sharing screen time with your kids is going to require some amount of compromise. Yes, you can and should force your children to watch Star Wars with you when they are of the appropriate age. And yes, you should watch them in the original release order (4,5,6,1,2,3). And yes, you have to watch episode 1. We all had to suffer through it, so do our children. But you will always need to let your kids take the lead sometimes and pick the movie. You may even need to spend at least some time watching those Fortnite videos with your kids. Again, this is an opportunity to find teachable moments. Talk with your kids about how you feel about the language and actions of the YouTubers. Make sure they know what you consider OK and what is inappropriate.

In conclusion

The most important factor in making sure screen time is quality time is to be engaged with your kids. This is the chance to learn what they like and think about, and to share with them some of the things you love. Screen time should not be a substitute for family time, it should BE family time.

Back to School

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The start of a new school year. A time of promise and excitement and shock at the cost of new shoes. Going back to school or going to school for the first time can be exciting and sometimes a little scary for kids and parents. In addition to the joys of peer pressure and unreasonable expectations from teachers that we all went through, our kids today also contend with a sudden avalanche of new online content, and the threats and challenges that come with it.

The start of a new school year will often find kids sharing the websites or online communities they have become used to over the summer, so kids are exposed to a lot of new online options in a short period of time. And for kids heading off to school for the first time, it’s never too early to talk about online safety. Even our youngest kids are surprisingly connected, and that can be a great thing. But it also means we need to be educating kids as early as possible about how to stay safe.

The best thing you can do is talk to your kids about what they are doing online. Encourage them to show you the funny (or usually not so funny) YouTube videos that are going around and ask them to introduce you to their online communities. You don’t need to join all their Facebook groups. They can and should have some sense of privacy, but you want to know as much about their online friends as you do about their real life friends. This goes beyond just having kids tell you when they think something is wrong. You want them to share with you the things they don’t see as a problem so you can help them develop the judgement needed online.

US-CERT put together a nice list of resources to help Parents talk with kids, And I particularly like the Safe and Secure program,

You should also check out what computer classes are available at your school. Contact your local PTA or your school administrators and ask if/how computers are being integrated into classrooms, and if there is specific instruction about information technology and basic computer skills. Most middle and high schools offer classes in basic computer skills and many offer classes in things like coding or graphic design. These can be great opportunities for kids to develop some basic skills that will help them no matter what career they choose.

There is a great program called the Hour of Code. The program aims to provide every student from kindergarten though high school with a minimum of one hour of instruction in computer science. The program tries to show kids that anyone can learn to code (that’s what we geeks call making computer programs) and to spark an interest in computer science. I’ve volunteered at my kids’ elementary school the last few years and it’s amazing to watch what these little kids can learn to do in just an hour. And to see the joy on their little faces as they make a cat dance around the computer screen. You don’t need to know anything about computers yourself to help with the Hour of Code. It’s always helpful to have extra adults in the room for crowd control and you will probably learn a few things yourself. If your school doesn’t have an Hour of Code program, you can work with your PTA and your school administrators to create one.

Like everything, the key is to talk with your kids and engage with them about technology. Tech is one of the great topics where you can probably learn as much from your kids as they will learn from you.