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Ask Henry: My kid wants a laptop. Should I cave?

Dear Henry

My nine year old is asking to use my laptop more and more every day. It's kind of annoying, but I can understand why she wants to use it - I find myself using the internet more and more too. Is she old enough for her own computer, or maybe even smartphone? She doesn't have any siblings.

Generous

Hi Generous.

I wanted a laptop when I was nine. Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and seventeen too. I finally received one at age eighteen, the first computer I owned which I had not built myself. These first two sentences would traditionally preempt a stodgy old "she doesn't need it at this age" response, but really she would be fine with a laptop now.

Or an iPod touch.

Really, each situation is different. Is your daughter responsible enough with her possessions to own something worth several hundred dollars? Is she still going to read books often? Is she safe with how she uses the internet? I don't necessarily think nine is too young to own your own computer - the amount she could learn and grow via the internet is stupendous - but I don't think she needs one yet, in the way she might when she is thirteen or so.

The laptop itself? Not a bad idea. Unless she is moving around regularly, a desktop computer might be a better idea though. A desktop computer can be kept in a shared space so you can keep an eye on her, or, if this seems somewhat draconian and you trust her, a desk in her room - at least keeping her from the old 'laptop in bed' trap. Mac Mini's are nice (you will need a screen), as are these teensy Asus computers. No child with a desktop computer will consider running away!

Of course, she might need to take a computer to school in a few years, so if you do follow the laptop route, I recommend either Asus or Apple. Asus are cheaper - they build Windows machines that aren't quite as "cool" - but the computers are generally well made and reliable. With Apple you get what you pay for, which is lots.

Have you considered getting her a tablet or smartphone instead? While the "post-PC" era isn't quite a reality for people doing real work, if all she is after is a dumb internet machine that she can occasionally write stuff on, an iPad could be a good idea - look for a cheap old iPad 2. Even cheaper, the iPod touch is pretty nifty.

One last piece of advice. If you are considering this as a surprise gift, maybe ask her instead. She knows what she wants more than you do, and you don't want to spend $800 on something she will never use. Don't necessarily just buy what she wants, but take it into consideration - look at it as a general direction. She might want something that fits in her pocket, she might just want an hour or so of computer time a day.

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