Five Reasons Why My Daughters Will Learn to Code

A mother explains why she’s happy her daughters are learning to code with Scratch

By Heather Burton

As a parent, you often find yourself bombarded with well-intended, but ever-conflicting advice. My husband and I are blessed with four children in a “yours, mine, and ours” blended family. As with most moms, I think all of my children are amazing, but just like any family, we have our unique challenges. Together, we face asthma, allergies, Asperger’s (ASD), and a few other obstacles — that don’t begin with A — that make life interesting. These challenges bring a plethora of suggestions our way. When we began to face most of these obstacles, the research was not concluded or, in some cases, not even started. It was difficult to navigate through all of the recommendations. We found many things that did not work for us, but we love all of our children and want each of them to be happy, healthy, and helpful contributors to society someday. This motivates us to continue to reach out to people and to scour books, magazines, websites, and medical journals to find treatments, research, and activities that are the “right fit.”

We are blessed with four children in a “yours, mine, and ours” blended family.

I recognize that each of my children will face a distinct set of obstacles as they navigate their personal paths. This world that all of our children are growing in is uncertain, so I strive to prepare my kids as best as I can for what life may bring them. In this personal quest, I have stumbled upon a tool, one that may surprise some, that works for us, and in particular, my daughters: coding, also called programming.

Why, of all things, coding?

Coding brings confidence.

Grace, my eldest daughter, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism at the age of six. She is extremely high functioning, so despite three years of private therapy and psychology, she was not diagnosed until entering school and society as a whole was beginning to hear about the disorder. Grace navigated academics relatively well until the third grade when she began to really struggle socially. By the fourth grade, the stress and the social anxiety began to bleed over into her school work. I watched a brilliant, straight-A student bring home D’s and F’s and her confidence wane. She had all but given up having friends or succeeding at anything. At the same time, my youngest daughter, Sophia, in the second grade at the time, began to be picked on because her sister was different. My social butterfly, also a gifted and advanced learning student, and Grace’s biggest supporter, also began to withdraw, not only from school, but from her sister.

In a desperate attempt to save my daughters, I enrolled them in online school. At Georgia Cyber Academy, both girls excelled academically and seemed happier. Still, Grace didn’t seem to have much passion for anything but YouTube. She didn’t aspire to seek new information or hyper-focus on new interests. Sophia also seemed listless.

Younger sister Sophia (left) is Grace’s (right) biggest supporter.

That summer, my brother-in-law, an Instructional Technologist at Floyd County Board of Education, suggested I enroll the girls in a “Girls Who Code” camp. It was the first camp of this kind to be offered in our area, a “beta test,” if you will. I had to have special permission for Sophia to attend because she was younger than the accepted age range. I honestly had no idea how this would go, much less that this would reignite a fire in my children that I thought I would never see again. The first afternoon, both girls logged onto their computers, and I could barely tear them away — even to eat. I finally had them show me what they were so engrossed in…Scratch.

Scratch is a visual programming language and online community created by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. It’s cleverly named in that “scratching” in computer science lingo means to reuse code and adapt it to new scenarios and projects which is a key element in Scratch. Being a visual programming language, it is more user-friendly for beginners. The “remix” feature allows a “scratcher” essentially to borrow code from another user and build upon it, much like a DJ “scratching” records and building upon popular music. This makes programming a collaborative, communal experience.

I was amazed as Sophia explained her first project: you pose a question to a squirrel and get silly answers. Both girls giggled with every response. Grace had begun a more in-depth project, a game involving a flying taco in its quest to not be eaten. My daughters could explain every detail, every command, every aspect. Grace showed where she had begun five other projects in order to try different techniques and command structures, but not threaten the integrity of each project. Sophia had begun her own game and was eager to finish it. I was elated, but I still had not seen the full effect of this newfound outlet.

Grace created a game about a flying taco on its quest not to be eaten.

On the final day, the entire camp presented their creations to friends and family. I watched each attendee present their projects with poise and enthusiasm. Each had their own style and creativity. Each seemed eager to share what they had learned. My own daughters were no exception. Sophia, though the youngest in the entire class, leapt at the chance to share her project and volunteered to go first. You could not distinguish an age gap. Her grasp of both HTML and Scratch was just as developed as the others. I was so proud of her bravery and her intellect. Though she didn’t volunteer to go first, Grace was just as excited. The girl who often avoided groups was suddenly engaging the audience and even told jokes! She navigated her project with ease and could explain every detail, but most of all, she connected with everyone in the room. To the confusion of all of my children, I wept with joy.

In an attempt to keep my daughters informed and educated, they were also given what they needed most: self-worth. I never expected this would be the result, and I will never be able to convey to the wonderful women who taught that camp what that gift means to us. Even if my daughters do not become computer programmers someday, this experience has given them the self-validation to pursue whatever they wish.

Coding is a language.

Programming has symbols that represent meaning. It is a structured, written and visual form of human communication that is used in a conventional way. There may not be as many programming languages as spoken languages in the world yet, but they evolve just as our vernacular and colloquialisms do. Programming languages are distinct and have their own nuances. Some are now defunct and “ancient” like hieroglyphics from the dawn of the computer age.

As with any language, you are at an advantage if you know multiple. You are more sought after in business. You are able to communicate with a larger group of people. You may even become smarter and more interesting. Study after study has demonstrated the cognitive benefits of learning another language. Learning another language gives you a different and more balanced view of the world. Considering that our world is increasingly more reliant on programming, knowing how to code can give you a more comprehensive understanding of the digital world. Why would I not want these things for my daughters?

Coding is pervasive in our society.

EVERYTHING we do in our daily lives uses programming. You simply cannot avoid technology in our culture. It is interwoven and ingrained. Most of us get up in the morning and immediately reach for smartphones, tablets, laptops, whatever we can grab first and check social media even before we brush our teeth…some of us before we sit up in bed.

When I was very young, my dad would take me outside to work on the car. I learned what each tool was, the functions of each component of the car, and what the funny noises meant. He taught me those things because he knew someday I would drive a car. He also acknowledged the unfortunate truth that, being female, I was more likely to encounter a mechanic that might try to take advantage.

My daughters have been immersed in this vehicle we call technology since birth. They do not remember a life without cell phones, wifi, or the internet. They must know how to navigate it to be successful. I want to take it a step further — like my father did — I want them to understand how it works, how to fix it, and how to command it.

Female programmers challenge social norms.

I have spent my entire life challenging the idea of gender norms. From playing a “boy’s” instrument in band to entering a predominantly male career path, I have always viewed “you can’t” as a call-to-action. I have always encouraged my daughters to do the same.

The women of SAI Digital leading the “Girls Who Code Camp” did an excellent job presenting programming in such a fashion that it never occurred to the girls in attendance that this was something they should not be able to do. I really cannot tell you if any of the girls realized that this activity they are involved in is traditionally a male-dominated field. The skills that have for so long been promoted to boys and men — and largely ignored for girls — were presented in a very approachable manner devoid of preconceptions, and the girls eagerly absorbed it.

Grace (left) and Sophia (right) show their cousin Coco some cool projects on Scratch.

Here, in this realm of the internet, there is a comfortable anonymity to aid in avoiding such prejudices. It lends itself to encouraging that invincible attitude in your daughter. Some online communities still ask users to share information in a way that may be used to discriminate, so as a parent you have to be choosy. On Scratch, however, you do not specify your gender, age, race, or sexuality in a profile. You are not judged based on your physical appearance. Instead, you are defined by what you create and by what you contribute. It is refreshing to find a forum like this for my daughters. Especially in this age where it seems that is all we do is accentuate and magnify our differences, to have an inherently neutral space where the projects and programming matter most, is amazing.

“This is SkittlesScratch7. They are really cool. Look at this program they wrote! They taught me how to use this code to replicate it, Mom!” says a very excited Grace. She doesn’t know if the “Scratcher” is a boy or a girl. She doesn’t know if they are 8 or 80. She doesn’t know their race or gender. None of that matters. The code and the “cool” project have connected two people, without any preconceived notions or prejudices. I liken it to preschool where we find appreciation for a person based on shared interests and recognition of an accomplishment without blinding biases. It is so refreshing.

Coding is a useful skill that also imparts important life lessons.

Grace does not like repetitive work. Correction: She LOATHES repetitive work. When she was in pre-K, I spent two hours and many tears just getting her to write ten consecutive number ones. Because of Asperger’s, she also has issues with sequence, cause-and-effect, and “looking at the big picture”. Our entire world, down to physics itself, is built on these premises. For some reason, these all makes sense to her in Scratch. She understands that if she uses this command, then this will happen in her project. She can even identify, locate and fix a bug in the code. If she completes the task, no matter how menial or repetitive, she will be rewarded with the intended result. Once foreign, these concepts have finally clicked. I have leapt at this opportunity and use it to explain other aspects of life to her. “If you were to code a robot to do what I am asking, what would it have to be able to do?” This may sound like a ridiculous question to you, but it has created a much-needed connection for me. With Scratch, we also discovered an incentive that gives instant feedback and encourages her to work through her obstacles. I honestly thought we would never find that.

With Sophia, it has also taught her very important problem-solving skills. If she wants to accomplish something within the program, how does she need to approach it? It has afforded her a bravery to try new things. Even if the first result is failure, that failure is only a clue to an alternate path that should be taken instead of an end to the quest, and there are multiple paths that could lead to the same destination, not always a “right” and “wrong” way. Both of my daughters have benefitted from these lessons in determination, adaptability and tenacity. If they stick with the process, they are rewarded with a desired result. In an age where so many schools focus on standardized test scores, to have an outlet that values this practice is vital.

In an attempt to keep my daughters informed and educated, they were also given what they needed most: self-worth.

Empowering our daughters with confidence, useful skills, strength, and preparing them for the future is a goal I know many parents have. There are so many more reasons to pursue programming I could give. The most basic reason of all, for us, is one that goes without explanation: My daughters love it. I can’t wait to see where it leads them.