''Most parents I talk to have this gut feeling that their kids should be computer literate - whatever that means,'' says a woman who runs a computer camp for children in the Washington, D.C., area. ''They tell me they feel like dinosaurs in their own age, not understanding these machines.''
It's a common feeling, and an accurate one, says Rod Uveges, who teaches a ''computer comfort'' class to parents of his 7th- and 8th-grade students in Arlington, Va. ''These little machines are creeping in everywhere,'' he tells them, ''and will probably be used in nearly every job by the time your kid hits the job market.''
The dinosaur feeling is easy to shake, Mr. Uveges says, in six to eight hands-on sessions with computers. ''You can read about these things, but it doesn't make much sense unless you actually use them,'' he says. His course, which raises money for the computer kitty in the Arlington schools, developed in response to parents who told him: ''What do you mean, 'My kid's taking computers'? I don't even know what they look like!''
The course, similar to many such comfort or ''literacy'' courses offered throughout the country, takes ''before computer'' parents through:
* How a computer works - how to feed, store, and retrieve information.
* How to use software, the commercial tapes or discs containing various programs.
* How to program.
Mr. Uveges broaches this last topic by showing parents a simple program, and then asking them to improve on it. ''Then they learn that when the guy downstairs says, 'The computer won't do that,' it means he doesn't want to redo the program to make the computer do that.''
The teacher also runs a kind of hardware show for parents, highlighting the advantages, disadvantages, and prices of various home computers. ''They always ask me, 'Which one is best?' '' he says. ''It's like asking, 'Which kind of car should I buy?' ''
Parents ''understand the keyboard - we don't have to spend a lot of time showing them how to make a quote or find a letter - and they seem to understand the purpose of a program quickly,'' Mr. Uveges says. But he has a harder time teaching them than their children. ''They don't want to look dumb,'' he says - a real inhibition to quick learning.
Electronic Learning Facilitators, a three-woman firm in Bethesda, Md., gets over this hurdle by teaching children and adults together. ''We introduce the machines via the child,'' says instructor Deborah Blank, who adds that parents and children, typically, have different responses to the computer.
''We run a completely nonthreatening program at the beginning that's based on the old game, Hangman,'' she says. In this game, the player is supposed to guess a word in a certain category (like presidents or birds) with a certain number of letters. ''The kids will start throwing out letters at random, while the parents will try to analyze the word's length and make a more educated guess,'' she explains.
The children's willingness to take risks and make mistakes is the key to more innovative programming, says Barbara Beam of the Computer Learning Tree in Annandale, Va. ''The kids learn to use their mistakes, or to recover from them and make something better,'' she says, ''and I like that - our society really needs that philosophy.''
Playing with computers as children makes for better programmers as adults, she says: ''I'm never going to be as good a programmer as a kid who started at 12, because I don't have the same desire to go after those programming skills.'' Young students often outstrip their teachers' skills in programming, instructors report - something many teachers and parents find nerveracking.
John Brown, computer instructor at the Capital Children's Museum in Washington, D.C., says: ''This is what education is supposed to be about, isn't it? We aren't here to teach them what to think - we're here to give them the tools so they can figure things out for themselves.''
Ms. Blank agrees with this, adding, ''Child's play is adult's work. We're forming real problem solvers here - people who can break a problem down into its component parts, and think it through logically.''
But the computer's ability to reinforce logical thinking does not mandate that one be placed in every classroom, she says. ''Buying computers begs the real question of what the curriculum should be,'' she comments. ''The computer is one of the very few machines ever invented without a specific purpose in mind. First, you should decide what you want to teach; then, you can see how the computer can help you teach it.''
Finding these creative uses is the area where Mr. Uveges thinks his pupils will do best in the future. ''In most jobs, you will need to at least know the capacity of the computer - the way an executive needs to know the capacity of his graphics department or his typing pool.
''But what I want to know is: What will happen to the study of philosophy when these computer 'high wires' get to it? What will happen to the field of graphics when someone who has been playing around with computers all his life enters it?
''Right now, anybody can make a good payroll program, but what's going to happen when they apply computers to fields which have been untouched by them so far? That's what I think is exciting.''