Switching your kids to Linux

Based on some of the feedback on my previous postings, there seems to be some interest in this topic. I’m sure that this is more like Perl than Python (there is more than one way to do it), but this is how I managed it….
Step 0: Decide you’re going to switch them. There will be push back because it’s not what all their friends have. Make your decision and stick with it. If you aren’t going to stick with it, stop here.
Step 1: Get them using FOSS on Windows. In my case it was Firefox, Thunderbird, and Open Office. They still use these apps on Linux today. You need to find out what they are doing on the computer (you should know this anyway, but I digress …) and figure out how you are going to support it on Linux.
Step 2: Gap analysis – There may be some things that just aren’t happening. In our case my nemesis was iTunes and the particular iPod that Child #2 owned. At the time, it just wasn’t happening. If they need to dual boot, let them dual boot and don’t get very excited about it.
Step 3: Migrate their data and tell them the have to use Linux. In our house the response was very ho hum. You’ll either get resistance (see step 0) or acceptance. Here we got mostly acceptance because the applications they use every day mostly didn’t change and I helped them figure out how to use the applications that did change (AIM to Kopete took a little training).
Step 4: Relax. One thing I’ve told the kids is that because they are using Linux, I’m less worried about looking at exactly where they are surfing or what they are downloading because the operating system they are using is more secure. Teenagers see this as a feature.
Today the kids still dual boot for iTunes (now that we have Wine 1.0, that’s doable, i just haven’t gotten to it yet).
System configuration notes:
By default, Ubuntu inherits from Debian world readable Home directories. You’ll want to change this if you have multiple children so they have some privacy from each other.
Change Open Office to use the MS Office file formats. This may be FOSS heresy, but the first time you don’t get a call from your kid at school with a file on their memory stick in ODF and they can’t turn in their homework, you’ll be happy you made this change.
Policy considerations:
We treat the kids computer much like I would an employees. We’ve made it clear to them that it’s our computer that we let them use and they should have no expectation of privacy. That doesn’t mean that I sift through their Home directories on a daily basis, but I definitely reserve the right to go look and they know that.
The house rule is that they must have parental permission to boot into Windows. This is partly for security reasons (don’t run Windows if you don’t have to) and partly to make sure they don’t kill off their sibling’s homework project in an open session when they reboot.
P.S. They all seem to like KDE4 in Intrepid. If you haven’t tried KDE4, you really ought to give it a shot even if you’re a true Gnome fan. I suspect you may be pleasantly surprised.
Update: I guess someone liked this enough to translate it into Polish (they did ask and I said it was OK).

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21 Responses to “Switching your kids to Linux”


  1. 1 Miro October 31, 2008 at 14:39

    Instead of dual booting I recommend setting up virtual machine and possibly Seemless Remote Desktop. Thats how we run it at home and it works just fine. In our house the culprit was Skype since the Skype on Linux doesn’t work with our webcam. It is amazing that on my C2D I can run virtualized XP with skype with fullscreen webcam with no noticable difference.

  2. 2 ethana2 October 31, 2008 at 14:51

    I got my little sister to use Ubuntu just because Windows was so complicated to administrate. I couldn’t do it, you know, servicing what I don’t use is asking for trouble.. She didn’t want to learn what a .com executable was, she didn’t want to learn how to use windows defender and which antivirus to use.. She still misses ‘the real MSN’, but using windows just isn’t worth the trouble for her.

  3. 3 ScottK October 31, 2008 at 15:14

    Since I was starting from a box with Windows already on it, I took the path of least resistance. Also this was 3 years ago and so virtualizing wasn’t so easy.
    Generally though I consider it a feature to make it clear what’s Windows and what isn’t.

  4. 4 Russell Brown October 31, 2008 at 16:13

    Are you aware of any decent content blocker/filters for Linux? My son is getting to a point where he’s going to start exploring outside of the likes of noggin.com, and I want to make sure that he doesn’t inadvertently get to anything unsuitable.

  5. 5 Kees Cook October 31, 2008 at 16:46

    Nice write-up. To help implement the home directory mode privacy, you can change /etc/adduser.conf’s “DIR_MODE” setting: DIR_MODE=0750

  6. 6 ScottK October 31, 2008 at 16:49

    I tend to take a little different view about this (this is no doubt a minority view, but it seems to be working so far). I don’t have any content blocking and don’t plan to.
    The computer that the kids have access to is in a main room in the house where anyone could walk through at any time. We’ve given them rules about what’s allowed and what’s not. If they break the rules, we shut off their access for some time (exceptions for homework). It started with “Do not go to any web site without checking with us” and evolved from there.
    My view is that filtering software just teaches kids to try to get around the blocks and that whatever they can reach must be OK. I think it’s better to work with them to learn how to surf safely. I think the benifits of this approach outweigh the risks that the might see something inappropriate.
    Similarly, if they have an account on a site like Facebook or MySpace, we require that we are on their ‘Friends’ list so we can see what they’re up to.

  7. 7 GregE October 31, 2008 at 19:11

    My daughter uses Ubuntu exclusively despite having dual boot. It defaults to Linux not Windows. The killer app was Amarok. I moved her music to the Linux partition and that was the end of XP. She would laugh at iTunes as a player.
    None of her music is encumbered with DRM, it is mostly encoded from CD or bought from eMusic.
    So far school work has not been a problem as OpenOffice has been up to the task – just use MS Office format as the default save. The only reason to occasionally use XP is to use Powerpoint for a school project, Impress so far does not impress. This is a once a year event and soon I will have Codeweavers to run her Office 2003 on Linux anyway.

  8. 8 Walrus Dude October 31, 2008 at 19:45

    Russel, check out dansguardian, it’s in universe (on Ubuntu) and in free (as far as I know) in Debian as well.

  9. 9 ScottK October 31, 2008 at 21:17

    Yes, we get the Dansguardian package from Debian and in Intrepid it only has very minor changes from what they provide due to some difference in the Ubuntu infrastructure.

  10. 10 Mitch Harden October 31, 2008 at 23:12

    I started using Ubuntu with 8.04 and have loved it. My daughter is 5 years old and she has been fascinated with my computer for quite sometime, and when her ancient TV/VCR combo unit died, we needed some way for her to watch the occasional movie in her room. I took a computer I bought at my school institutional auction for $15 and reformatted with Edubuntu. She LOVES it.
    It is connected to our local network, but does not have internet access; this allows her to stream media from our server, and play with the various kids games bundled in the Edubuntu packages. With any luck she will continue to use Linux for life So you might add a step for “Start Early!”

  11. 11 grep65535 November 1, 2008 at 14:18

    Use VirtualBox. I have many people already running Linux with VirtualBox and they happily use all of their Windows-only apps without effort and barely notice the change really.
    As long as the computer has at least 1.5GB memory, it should work wonders, no Wine involved. 😉

  12. 12 Lifestream November 1, 2008 at 21:53

    For those looking for ways to be safe on the net, try Mike’s Hosts file:
    http://www.everythingisnt.com/hosts.html
    It blocks shock sites, parasite sites, ahem sites, and those nasty ads we don’t want a 5 year old to see.
    I’m 21 years old, and I’m loving this hosts file:P

  13. 13 Russell Brown November 1, 2008 at 23:06

    @Kees Cook – That approach probably makes sense for older kids, but mine is only 4, so the things I’d rather he not see are things I’d rather not have to tell him about at this point in order to set any rules. 🙂 For now I’d rather just prevent him from seeing it at all if possible, and be more open later when he’s old enough to understand.
    @GregE – Thanks for pointing me at dansguardian: I’m checking it out now. 🙂

  14. 14 ScottK November 1, 2008 at 23:35

    Actually that comment was mine. Our 5 year old we teach not to click on links without us there to help her. I can certainly understand your perspective on it.

  15. 15 Fabian Rodriguez November 2, 2008 at 19:34

    Interesting, my oldest (5 y.o.) will probably never see Windows at home. To my surprise she learned to log in just observing my wife and I doing it, as she already knew how to type her name.
    She’s captive in a few kid sites games, Tux Paint and Tux type so far only.
    As soon as she reads a bit more I’ll be configuring OpenDNS which I already use on my home router, so most content will remain safe, although she’s never alone on the computer more than a few minutes.

  16. 16 a fellow ubuntu user November 2, 2008 at 21:14

    Dude, I am 17 and have been using ubuntu since 5.04
    it has been a nerdy choice of mine
    and it’s not always compatible
    I chose to do this to my system
    but FORCING a frequently unstable system and incompatible (yeah, it’s standards based, but it’s not what is standard, i.e. MSoffice file format)
    is RETARDED
    it’s like forcing your children to use the metric system in the household instead of the customary system, which is used everywhere else (in the USA at least, but the analogy holds true)
    keep your nerd philosophy to yourself and let your children use what they need to use to get their computing done…
    FORCING “better” technology on people is stupid…
    better is subjective…
    and you’re forcing your children to be “different”
    but not in a productive way that will actually help them, unless if they want to pursue careers in computing, and even then, they NEED to use windows eventually…I do nearly every day in my work

  17. 17 ScottK November 2, 2008 at 21:35

    Dear Dude,
    They get plenty of Windows at school.
    Parents force things on their children every day for there own good. It’s a significant fraction of what parenting involves.
    Teaching them to make smart technology choices is also part of parenting.
    I expect that by the time they get out of college, Windows will be a lot more optional in many work places than it is today.
    Also I’m not sure what frequently unstable system you think I’m using, but on quality hardware the systems we are using are very stable.

  18. 18 Max November 6, 2008 at 21:56

    Scott,
    I am sorry, I have to strongly disagree with you. You will get them to use GNU/Linux by force. Oh boy, isn’t that great? Then, when your kids get older, they will almost certainly hate that operating system. It’s kind of like the 4 year old who goes to the circus and gets scared by a clown, and grows up to be terrified of clowns; people generally grow up to have the same fears and hates as they did when they were young kids.
    A much better way to approach this would be by installing a version of GNU/Linux on your kids’ computer(s) as a dual boot. Install a bunch of cool games like Tuxracer, Tuxkart, Supertux, possibly even Wesnoth or Globulation2. Set the background as something that they really like, such as a TV character or a sports mascot or something. You may want to install Compiz if the computer will still run fast with it, or E17 if it is older. Show your kids that it exists, explain the features, and give them the choice. If you are really insistent on them switching, “sabotage” the Windows partition with Google Desktop or something else that will make it run much more slowly. Whenever someone has a choice, they are more likely to have positive feelings about it.
    Please, though, do not use the method you described. In a way, it almost treats Windows as a “reward”. It is not a stupid idea; it looks great on paper. It will just end up resulting in one more Microsoft lover.

  19. 19 ScottK November 6, 2008 at 23:27

    Well I switched them 3 years ago and it seems to be going well. Neither of the older ones are gamers, so it really wouldn’t have mattered. After three years, the status is:
    1. Doesn’t care. The comment after I switched them was “I noticed it was a little different, but I didn’t realize you changed the operating system”.
    2. Kind of likes the idea of being different than her peers.
    Both of them understand that Windows has risks that Linux doesn’t and are satisfied to use it.
    3. (The 5 year old) – Loves Mr. Potato Guy and is quite happy.
    KDE4 has it’s own compositing system (kwin) by default in Intrepid, so Compiz isn’t an issue. As the Linux desktop has matured, they’ve gotten happier with it. I think it’d be much easier to do the switch today than when I did it.
    Getting the kids to want to switch is great and I’m certainly not opposed to it, but in the end the parents are in charge.

  20. 20 KSiimson February 3, 2009 at 01:08

    It really matters how you execute it. It can turn into a disaster if you don’t know what you are doing. Yet I demonstrated Ubuntu to my nephew (without intending to ‘convert’ him), and he kept wanting to sneak it in her mother’s laptop. I actually had to keep telling him not to do so without her permission.

  21. 21 Japher February 3, 2009 at 12:29

    Content filtering…the solution I used for my daughter and her twin brothers was Dansguardian in conjunction with Squid proxy.
    So some details, I work from home so I have lots of gear plus wife and 3 kids.. the first thing I did was segment the network.. my work gear on 192.168.1.x and the family gear on 192.168.2.x by daisy chaining 2 $40 Linksys routers. The first router in the chain hosted the main work network 192.168.1.x with 192.168.1.2 being assigned as the static address for the second router which hosted 192.168.2.x.
    On the second router all outbound ports were blocked except for 8080. All outbound traffic was then routed to 192.168.1.99:8080 where squid and dansguardian were running.
    Squid was configured per ident and per address from the home net to shutdown at various times depending on the machine and the user.
    Dansguardian was set up and tuned for my kids according to the family values. Additionally, it was also set up to tell the kids when they were surfing someplace they shouldn’t be..
    Biggest issue for me was dealing with homework in biology and health classes.. kids would tend to use a slang term for a body part in a search and end up with 4 million matches to a porno sites and one match to a site linking to legitimate research.
    Second biggest issue was sites typo squatting on legitimate domains, as 99 times out of a hundred the squatter was a porn site (think whitehouse.gov vs whitehouse.com — former is the US presidents webpage and the latter used to be a porn site).
    The nice thing about Dansguardian is that it truely looks at the content not just the self ascribed content rankings… It does take those into account, but it looks at soo much more…


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