Congratulations! You are the proud parent of a virtual child! You will be raising this virtual child from birth to 18 years of age. Your virtual child has a unique set of characteristics at birth, some of which were influenced by your answers to the assessments you completed when you first logged onto My Virtual Child. These characteristics will gradually emerge and affect his or her behavior and development. In addition to these individual differences, there are also universal aspects of development that all virtual children will display. My virtual child covers physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development at several age levels. This will give you an opportunity to visualize "the whole child" at various points in development.

As your virtual child progresses through each age level, you will read about events occurring in his or her virtual life and you will be asked to make decisions about your virtual child. Answer the questions the way you think you would act as a real parent. You will have a "partner" (which you can assume to be your spouse, unmarried partner, or whatever you like). You and your partner are assumed to be the biological parents (a male and a female) to make the programming of My Virtual Child as simple as possible. You should assume that a week or more passes between each event or question at a particular age level.

The events that happen in your child's life, and the decisions you make as a parent will gradually change your child's inborn characteristics, and will shape other characteristics of the child that emerge after birth. The virtual child's behavior may vary across ages and settings, although there are basic personality and intellectual traits that remain generally consistent. In addition to the events and questions, you will see typical assessments of your child's behavior at the end of many age levels (pediatrician's report, developmental assessment, psychologist's report, and various school report cards).

Some terms and concepts may be unfamiliar to you. Approximately 50 short definitions are available as you roll over certain terms. More complex concepts (such as temperament, personality type and multiple intelligences) are explained in boxes that pop up at appropriate points. Finally, to help you visualize some of the concepts in My Virtual Child, brief videos are available at almost every age level.

There are 13 sets of critical thinking questions (three questions per set) built in to the program. The question sets are designed to be written up as brief papers or used as the basis for discussions in class, and are designed to help you connect your virtual child's development with course concepts. Each question set appears at the end of each age group. The last question set asks you to reflect on your own development from your last years in high school through your first years of college.You can print these questions out, if desired, but the program allows you to type in your responses directly into the boxes provided, and will be submitted to your instructor for review.

Towards the end of the program, the last 8 events and questions will focus on your child's senior year and future path. When you reach the end of these items, your child will be 18 years, 1 month old and the program will end. You can picture your child heading off into a new adventure. Your baby grew up so fast! At this point you will be given two final sets of questions. The first set of three questions helps you think about the pathways your child has taken through the first 18 years and what factors might have influenced your child's development. This is intended as a final assignment to round off a typical child-adolescent development course. The second set of two questions focuses on applying some concepts from Virtual Child to the transitions occurring in late adolescence and early adulthood (i.e., the typical college years). If your instructor desires, you can write a final self reflective piece on your own development at this age level, perhaps as a Bonus Report.

At any point, you can look at past events, questions, and answers by clicking on the time line on the screen. Click on "Resume Questions" to go from the time line back to the questions where you left off.

You can log off at any time; your information and completed responses are saved automatically. You must answer all multiple choice questions and short answer questions before progressing in the program. If you see a screen that says "Time Passes", there are no questions at that point for your particular child. Continue on.

Many students wonder how they will know when they have given the "right" response to the questions posed to them as parents. The goal of the program is to convey the broad sweep of child development from the point of view of a parent observing a child. The way this is done is by showing you "snapshots" of a child's typical behavior over a period of time (e.g., one year). The program is not fully interactive; that is, the child in the scenarios rarely responds immediately to something you do as a parent. Instead, the child gradually changes, in response to parenting choices, innate temperamental or personality characteristics, random environmental events, and general developmental principles.

In other words, as in real life, you won't find out whether you have made the "right" choices as a parent until you see how the child turns out at various ages, in a variety of contexts (e.g., home, school, peer group). Feedback about child outcomes can be gleaned from your observation of the child's behavior, from comments or reports from teachers and other professionals, and from other "outcome data" (e.g., grades in school, success in peer relationships).

Although feedback about parenting choices is not provided on a question by question basis, some guidelines for being a "good" parent to your Virtual Child can be articulated. In many cases, the "right" answer is the answer provided by developmental research and theory, which often corresponds to common sense (e.g., comfort a crying baby). In some cases, the "right" answer to a question will depend on the child's developmental level or personality. In other cases, there is more than one "right" answer.

Generally speaking, the more extreme answers (i.e., overly strict or overly lenient) will lead to more extreme outcomes with regard to the child's behavior, but this may interact with your child's temperament. Some Virtual Children are harder to get along with and to control, as appears to be the case in real life. Occasionally someone (a developmental examiner, a teacher, a psychologist, or your child him/herself) will tell you directly how you are doing as a parent in terms of two dimensions: warmth/affection and control/discipline.

These dimensions are the basis for four main parenting styles discussed in your book (authoritative, authoritarian, permissive and neglecting). You and your classmates may deliberately decide to vary methods and styles of parenting in order to see how this affects your Virtual Children.