20 April, 2011

Vulnerability - The Internet Connection ...


(Image courtesy : csaawarenessmonth.wordpress.com)

Through the month of April 2011, more than 40 bloggers from around the world have joined hands to write about the various aspects of Child Sexual Abuse, in an effort to raise awareness about this issue, which, unfortunately, is seen rearing its head at a rather alarming rate, all over the world.

Posts have been rolling in steadily, a lot has been said, experts have written in, survivor stories have poured in, there have been trolls over Twitter and other forums who’ve dismissed the whole thing as “an over rated issue which is not so serious”. So far, the focus has been on sexual abuse of the physical kind which leaves not just physical scars behind but also very intense mental and emotional ones.

This post is not about physical sexual abuse of children but about a form of abuse which I believe is increasing by leaps and bounds in the world of today. This is a kind of abuse that totally destroys young minds mentally and emotionally. This kind of abuse is just as dangerous as face to face physical sexual abuse, especially given the fact that it does not leave physical scars behind for parents to see and notice.

Cyber or Internet Sexual Abuse of children.

In this world of today, which is increasingly becoming dependent on the cyber world, this threat / problem is real. It is not non-existent. Quite the contrary. During our childhood days, we did not know what a computer was. Compare that with the children of today. They simply cannot do without one. Right from a very tender age, children are used to electronic gadgets which give them access to this vast world web. They browse, they play games online and apart from all this, the internet is now increasingly being used as a medium of instruction. The internet is being used to “teach” and children are using the internet more frequently for “education related” activities. Projects, research work, online learning, online exams – the internet has manifested itself in almost every sphere of a child’s life. Chat forums, online groups, social networking and much more have virtually become the order of the day.

Yet again, the onus does, to a great extent fall on the parents to be extra vigilant when children go online. What makes it difficult even more so is the fact that one cannot police the children every moment they are on the internet. That does not make sense – from any angle. Children of today need their freedom too. They need space to explore their thoughts, they need to network as networking has proven to be an extremely valuable social tool. At the same time, they need to be protected against cyber sexual abuse. Talk about balancing options and priorities !!!

There were days when parents used to rest assured and bask in the security of the fact that they had installed software on their computers which monitored the sites which the children visited, software which blocked pornographic or graphic content, software which “protected” the children, safe searches turned on so that an innocuous request for an image by a child would not lead to porn pictures being thrown up over the net. I do believe that sense of security is on its way down too. There are porn sites which piggyback onto “educational” sites, there are pop-ups that flash across the screen when least expected. Put these together with the natural curiosity and innocence of children – strain your ears, it won’t be long before you hear the bomb ticking away. More so the case with social networks and chat forums. Those are minefields. Those are ideal places for predators to prey upon young and innocent minds, perfect grounds for predators to gratify their demented urges by finding young quarries and victims.

We, as human beings, are vulnerable. Being vulnerable to assault or abuse of any kind is a possibility that is very real. What makes children more vulnerable is the fact that children have in them a large amount of innocence and this makes them more gullible to deception and abuse.

How then, can we, as parents, be more vigilant in protecting our children against Cyber Sex Abuse ?
The solution, as with any problem, lies in first identifying and recognizing it. According to a study conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there are signs that parents can look out for, with regard to Sexual Abuse of children over the Internet.

Children spend a lot of time online, especially at night when parental supervision is next to NIL.

During the day, children invariably run the risk of having an adult “catching” them chatting on chat forums but during the night, the rest of the household is invariably asleep. They go online to chat with friends, they browse the web just to kill time, make new friends. And on the other hand, are predators, constantly prowling the very same web for victims.

Finding pornography on your child’s computer

Pornography is often used in sexually victimising children. Sex offenders often send their potention victims or supply them with pornographic content – pictures, film clips, as a means to open sexual discussions or as a means to seduce their young victims. It is also used to drive home the notion that sexual alliances between an adult and a child are “normal”.

Your child turns off the computer or changes the image on the monitor to view another site as soon as you or any other adult in the house walks in

A child looking at porn or sexually explicit images on the screen will definitely not want his/her parents to know about it.

The child becomes withdrawn from the family

Internet sex offenders work at isolating the victim from his/her family. Going by their normal modus operandi, these predators normally befriend their victims first. In the process, they become privy to a lot of inside information – information about what happens at home. Even something as simple as a tiff between the child and the parent can be exploited by these perpretrators – as a tool to drive a wedge between the child and the parents. The perpretrator then poses as the “good person” in an effort to further strengthen the relationship with the victim. In many cases, the child may become withdrawn after incidents of internet sex abuse. Confusion, guilt, shame – all go a long way in contributing to the child becoming more and more withdrawn after they are sexually victimized.

These are some of the obvious signs for parents to look out for in their children.

What can parents do to safeguard children against internet sex abuse ?

Communication

Yet again, this is of prime importance. While it is a fact that the internet is a rich source of information and that children often browse the web for school related activities or social networking, it is important to talk to children about the dangers that lurk in the cyber world as well. Macadamia has to make extensive use of her laptop for her school projects and for the research work that goes towards these projects. Almost all her school work is done on the laptop and the laptop is carried back and forth every day – from school to home and vice versa. We have told her about the dangers associated with internet use. If children are aware that such risks exist, it empowers them to recognize and seek help from an adult if they come across something “uncomfortable” over the internet too.

Spend time with your children on-line. Ask them to take you around their favourite / most visited websites

This is a good way to bond too. There are many instances when either me or Vic sit with Macadamia and Pecan when they are browsing the web. It also gives us time to exchange little snippets of information on various topics. It may be totally unrelated to what they are doing right then, but the flow of communication stays established. It also helps send the message across that we are not averse to them playing games on the computer, as long as it is within the set time limits and as long as we have an idea of what they are playing and where. Now that they know that, they do not rush to close the screen every time we walk into the room. It promotes openness, which is very important.

Tell children never to upload and send out their pictures to people or websites they do not know.

Both Macadamia and Pecan know this. For that matter, uploading or downloading anything here, at home – requires parental consent and parental presence. We have told them the possible risks there are, in uploading or downloading stuff to/from the net. Downloading pictures can also carry the additional risk of pornographic / sexually explicit pictures being piggy backed onto the other material being downloaded.

Tell children to never ever give out their contact details, address, name of their school, telephone numbers

Again, both the siblings are aware of this. Never give out personal information on any internet site, chat forum or social networking sites. If personal information needs to be given, restrict it to the bare minimum. The less you have of yourself (in terms of personal info) on the net, the better.

If your children are members of a social networking site, it would be a good idea for the kids to add the parents to their friends list.

Macadamia recently opened an account on one of the popular social networking sites. We had been stalling the same for quite some time now but there are times when children need to be cut some slack. Rules cannot be too rigid. Peer pressure is something to contend with and no child wants to stick out like a sore thumb. Again, social networking has its benefits, if used properly. One of the conditions for Macadamia to open her account was that both me and Vic would be on her friends’ list. Not that we would be actively engaged in conversing with her online, not that we were going to interfere with her conversations with her friends – but simply that it would make it easier for us to monitor what was happening. We explained this to her, given the fact that privacy does become a big issue between kids and parents.

If your child is a member of a social networking site, tell them to restrict their account to “friends only” and not to set their account to “friends of friends” too.

Restricting access to your account can go a long way in reducing instances of online abuse. This applies not just to children, but to adults too.

Tell children to never ever arrange a face to face meeting with someone whom they’ve “met” over the internet

Normally, sexual predators first establish themselves, get into the good books of kids, get kids to trust them and believe whatever they say – before making a move on the kids. Children have to be educated about the fact that not everything they see or hear on the internet from people is “believable”. Things people say could be true – but there is an equal chance that they are not.

The most important factors in keeping children safe from online abuse are :

- use of appropriate blocking software
- parental control
- having open / honest discussions with your child/children
- regularly monitoring your child’s internet / online activity
- explaining to them as to why you need to regularly monitor their online activity
- keeping channels of communication open

Like with other forms of abuse, the important thing with internet sexual abuse too is the same – children have to be informed and educated about the dangers that lurk on the web too. It is a vast place, with lot of rich knowledge stored and there for the taking but as always, where there is an upside, there is also a downside.
While children should be able to explore and make use of the rich information and knowledge that the internet has to offer, as parents it is our duty to inform, educate and alert them to the hazards that prowl and lie in wait, on the internet too. It is important to teach children to recognize deceptive behavior from people who mean them harm. Also equally important is letting children know, verbally and in absolutely unequivocal terms that if something happens on the internet – something that they are not comfortable with – they can and should always seek parental help.

Sir Francis Bacon once said “Knowledge is power”.

I’m sure he meant that under different circumstances and meant for that quote to be understood in terms of book knowledge. But in this world of today, that quote does take on a totally different connotation and yet, that simple quote sums it all up.

Yes – Knowledge is indeed power.

In this case, knowledge empowers children to say NO !.

(This post contains a few excerpts from the FBI website regarding Internet Abuse of Children)

18 April, 2011

Waxing and waning .......


(Image courtesy : cartoonstock.com via Google)

A few months back, when Mommy and Macadamia were talking about something, the talk turned to the issues of "waxing", "threading" and the like.  OK - no dramatics but just a couple of months back, Macadamia had rather resolutely, unwaveringly, unfalteringly, unswervingly, resolutely, persistently and very very firmly told the mater that she would not, under any circumstances, put herself through the torment and the pain of waxing.

The mater had said "Tell me the same thing a year or two from now and I will believe you".

Turns out, the mater did not have to wait that long, after all. :-))

But then again, you see, I'm not the kind of person who goes around telling Macadamia "I told you so" every five minutes. 

I just tell her that about once in every half an hour. :-))))))))))))))

Yeah, I'm very considerate that way.

:-))))))))))))))


14 April, 2011

A slip of the tongue



(Image courtesy : happytoysandgames.com via Google)

I've been noticing the way the nutty siblings are, with each other, over the past many months now.  They cannot live without each other around, neither can they live with each other around.  They have to talk to each other, but they also have to yell at each other.  They have to pass each other those "knowing looks (read roll eyes heavenwards) when it comes to something their parents are telling them, yet they have to throw daggers at each other with just their looks, at other times.  They whisper like a pair of co-conspirators at one moment and five minutes later they'll be found stomping and screaming and arguing with each other.  They have to tell each other everything (well, almost), and they have to call each other a tattletale.  Such is the chemistry between Macadamia and Pecan, nowadays.  They are what one can call "A Complex Confusion".  Confusion to the people around them. 

These two are quite blissfully unaware of the fact that with each other, they behave pretty much like the weather in HK, sunny one moment and a typhoon the next. 

Yesterday too, notes had apparently been compared in the evening (well before the parents got home), about the various aspects of their school lives (for the day).  We totally believe in living in the present, you see. 

Macadamia has been filling me in too - about the politics of friendship and the complexities of the relationship called friendship amongst a whole bunch of pre-teens.  Meaning - Macadamia and her friends at school.  As is normally the case, there are always ups and downs and when you have a bunch of pre-teens involved, the ups and downs seem more like a crazy roller coaster ride every second. 

"This one is that one's pet dog, that one is not talking to this one, someone is going out with no one, anyone does not know what someone is up to" and the like.  Was that complex enough ?  Well, it is, for me.  Blame it all on age, I guess ;-).

Oh ! another bit of newsflash - Macadamia has her own Facebook account now.  So that adds a new dimension to friendship, I'm told.  In fact, it was after looking at her facebook account that we realized that we somehow suddenly have three more daughters.  How and when that happened - we know not !!! ;-))

OK - not to digress - yesterday evening found Pecan asking Macadamia if she'd chucked out two of her friends from her Facebook friends list.  "Not from Facebook" she said.  "That's just in real life".  Huh ??!!  We actually have scenes of The Matrix playing out at home !!  "You mean they're still on your Facebook friends list ?" queried Pecan, quite unable to comprehend the complexities of girls' minds. 

"What was that about ?  Whom are you talking about ?" interjected Yours Truly.  Before Macadamia could say a word, Pecan was found hopping around like a cat on a hot tin roof saying "That's A and B she's talking about."  I've heard A's name and B's name being dropped a lot since Macadamia started Middle School. 

"Why ?  What happened ?" asked Yours Truly, trying to get a grasp on the situation.

Yet again, before Macadamia could say anything, a totally excited, hoppity hopping Pecan said "Because A
bitched her.  A bitched her. A bitched Macadamia".  He was so caught up in the intensity of the situation that he totally mixed up his B's and D's.

Macadamia started to roll around the floor (in an attempt to even out our uneven floors, I guess) laughing and it took a moment for it to register in Pecan's head that Mommy too had a grin plastered on her face. 

Mommy has never ever before seen Pecan blush beet red.  He's made several others do so but it's never actually happened to him.  Yesterday was a first.  He realiized that he'd been screaming "bitched" instead of "ditched" all over the place and his face was totally aflame.  He would, by any standards, have put a beetroot to shame yesterday evening.

Combine that beet red face and ears with a totally sheepish look - and that was Pecan yesterday evening.  A picture that was totally priceless.

Sadly enough, Mommy did not have a camera on hand to snap up that candid camera moment !!

Mommy, for one, sure is looking forward to many more such "slips" of the tongue !! :-)

12 April, 2011

CSAAM - April 2011 - Where did I come from ?

(Image courtesy : aintitcool.com via Google)
Sexuality.

Small word, huh ?  I know, by itself, it does not seem like much. 

That word starts to take on a separate dimension, a totally different connotation when one looks at it from the point of view of a parent.  That is when the shades of black and white cease and the shades of grey come into the picture.  Simple question words like “When”, “How to”, “How much” demand much more attention and much more of thought than just a casual approach.

When I was a child, I simply don’t remember having had any discussions or question/answer sessions whatsoever with my mom with regard to sexuality.  Even the standard question that every child asks at some point of time or the other – “Where do babies come from ?” were met with a response that was as standard as an ad for milk from the Aarey milk colony.  I have to say that Aarey milk colony atleast used to change its ads for milk every once in a while.  But my mom’s response was steadfastedly the same “You’ll know when you grow up”.  That was it.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Just that one sentence.  Period !

There were times during my childhood, when this one line answer of hers “You’ll know when you grow up” led me to imagine all sorts of permutations and combinations inside my head.  There was a phase when I sincerely used to believe that babies “just happen” once two people exchange garlands and get married.  There was another such phase when I believed that two flowers moving towards each other was what resulted in babies.  Some pollination, that !!  But thanks to good old Doordarshan and my mom’s one liner, my knowledge of sexuality was restricted to “flowers and garlands”.

Did Child Sex Abuse not exist then ?  I honestly don’t know.  There always have been perverts in this big world of ours, there definitely are perverts around now and I’m sure (unfortunately enough) that they will continue to exist. 

An out an out open talk on all the aspects of sexuality has not happened with Macadamia and Pecan too.  They do know bits and pieces, Macadamia – more so than Pecan.  So as I write this post, I do so not out of personal experience in talking to children about sexuality per se, but out of my thoughts of how we might go about dealing with this, when the time arises.  Both of them ask a lot of questions – some direct and some not so.  Depending on the amount of information they already have, we craft and sculpt our answers – but the one thing we do not do is slam the door shut on their faces saying “this is out of bounds”.  We also do not give them the cock and bull one-liner “You’ll know when you grow up”.  As a parent, it is a part of your responsibility to educate your child about sexuality. 

“Encourage your child to talk about what’s on their minds.  Encourage them to ask questions.”
Both Macadamia and Pecan read a lot.  Macadamia has also had some sex education classes at school (apart from the snippets of information that Macadamia and me keep sharing from time to time) about puberty and the like.  The other day, some talk of babies came up and Macadamia was heard telling Pecan that “it takes a egg thingy and a sperm thingy” to make a baby.  Sure enough – it does take a convention between an egg and a sperm to make a baby.  What the Missy and the Master have not thought of, yet,  is how exactly this “convention” takes place. 

When talk of this “convention” does take place, we’re mentally prepared for a multitude of “EEEEWWWWWWWWWWWWWW”s and “That’s totally SO gross” and “Ewww – That’s so d.i.s.g.u.s.t.i.n.g”.  I guess it is completely normal for them to exhibit that initial reaction :-).  Think about it – how would we have reacted in our teens had our parents told us about the said “convention between an egg and a sperm and how it happens”.  Could we have imagined our parents doing that ?  I guess not :-).  So then, to expect our kids to take and digest such information with a straight face is, I guess, asking for a bit too much.  Macadamia, for sure, is not going to say “Oh !  That’s so nice.  Sounds lovely.” Far from it ! 

Parents – rest assured – the final salvo is yours.  Questions like “Ewww. You and Daddy did T.H.A.T ?” simply need a simple answer and a smile.  “If mommies and daddies did not “do t.h.a.t”, you children would not be here !!!”

“Do not shy away from talking about sexuality.  For that matter, even when it comes to questions that kids have about their own bodies, questions regarding the difference between the male and female anatomy – it is best to be honest with them.”

Age appropriateness in doling out information is important.  So far, if questions about babies have emerged from the siblings early on in life, we’ve kept our answers simple.  Now that they know a lot more about the human body, as and when questions arise, the answers are more detailed and so it will be, in the future too. 

“Age is important when it comes to giving them information.  Give them advice/information depending on how much they already know. Also, when talking to kids, use language/words that are understandable and comfortable”

Yet again, we do not “set a time” to sit and talk about the human body and babies.  Curious as children are, questions do pop up out of the blue and when they do pop up, I personally feel that it is important to give them as straight forward and age appropriate an answer as possible, right then.  Shrouding the whole issue in a veil of mystery and secrecy just drives them towards other sources for their answers.  Trust me, it is much better that they get the basic information from their parents than from the multitude of other sources available in today’s world.

“Look out for cues from children when they seek information.  There are also “teachable moments” that one can use to start and talk to children about sexuality.  e.g someone in the family is expecting a baby.  It would be a good way to start a conversation regarding babies and how they happen. Or with younger children – bath time or dressing time is a good time to talk to them about their bodies and about “safe and unsafe” touch.”

Our parents’ attitude, presumably, was “why do children need to know about sexuality” ?

Children DO need to know about sexuality because, for the most part, it helps reassure them that such feelings are normal.  It helps them cope with peer pressure – trust me – no child in their preteens or teens wants to stick out like a sore thumb amongst their group of friends.  It makes them more comfortable with the way their own bodies are developing and changing.  Most importantly, it helps them to recognise “a good touch” from “a bad touch” or a “safe touch” from an “unsafe touch”. 

Like I said before, age appropriateness in dispersing information is important.  All the same, it starts at a very young age.  Something as simple as teaching them the names of their body parts – defines and sets the base for openness in seeking for and giving information later in life.  e.g if we were to tell children very early on in life that the private parts of their body is “chee chee” and use terms like “don’t touch there” or “that’s a bad thing in your body” – they’re going to grow up with mixed feelings, feelings of confusion, embarrassment. 

As their bodies grow and develop, pre teens and teens spend a lot of time looking at themselves and wondering if it is only their bodies which are growing in such a manner or whether it is common and normal.  Talking openly about the human body and the way it develops goes a long way in putting their fears to rest.  It is, at this stage, important to tell them that not all bodies develop at the same rate and in exactly the same way.  There are bound to be differences and that “being different is quite normal”.

“Talk to pre-teens and teens about the changes that are taking place in their bodies.  It serves to reassure them that they are not the only ones going through these changes.  It is better that they get this information from you rather than from other sources.”

Within the household too, it is important to place high value on the connection between “affection and touch”. A warm hug goes a long way in conveying affection, warmth, love and caring.  It probably says much more than many a word strung together.  All four of us, at home, place a lot of value in expressing our warmth and affection for each other in terms of “touch”.  Be it a smile, be it laughing together, be it a warm hug, be it holding hands, be it just an arm casually thrown around the shoulder, be it an arm around the waist, be it a casual ruffle of the head, be it a gentle tweak of the ear, be it a tickle when it is least expected – brings about a sense of closeness, a feeling of openness and most importantly the fact that we, as a family, value this sense of openness, understanding, familiarity and intimacy between the four of us.  The message that it carries is a very simple, yet very potent and important one – “good touch is a means of conveying your affection”.  When children know the feel of a “good touch” it becomes that much easier for them to instinctively know the difference between “a safe touch” and “an unsafe touch”.

As parents, it is important to tell our children what we believe in and why we do so.  It is important to share our values with them.  That said, if it is our opinion that we are conveying to our children, then it is always better to tell them that what you’re saying is your opinion and not a given fact. 

“Be open in sharing your values and concerns.”

Last but not the least, it is very important to let children know that they can come to their parents with any concerns, questions or problems, no matter how little or how large the said issue may be.

With the siblings too, we have a lot many more bridges to cross.  I guess when it comes to openly talking to them, there may distinctly be moments of “being uncomfortable”.  Knowing us, we’d probably tell them right at the very outset that we might be uncomfortable at some points and that they may be too – but then that’s perfectly normal and is totally OK.

“Keep your sense of humour going, keep it light and don’t be hesitant to express or talk about your own discomfort, if needed.  It is perfectly OK to say “I may be a bit uncomfortable talking about this and so may you, but that’s perfectly fine.”

Once children reach puberty, it is not just the “good touch/bad touch” scenario that children need to watch out for.  It is important for parents to talk to their children about the responsibilities and the consequences of being sexually active.  Pregnancy, STDs, feelings about sex – are also important issues that need to be addressed.  Helping children understand that these are important decisions that require maturity and responsible thought will increase the chances that their decisions, when they do happen, are level headed and responsible, and not just the result of strong peer pressure. 

Parenting, raising a child is probably one of the most rewarding, the most gratifying things and without any doubt, one of the toughest.  There is no single formula that fits one and all.  The factors are different, the variables are different.  What matters at the end of it all, is arriving at a balanced equation. 

Like Bill Cosby once said

“In spite of the six thousand manuals on child raising available in bookstores, child raising is still a dark continent and no one really knows anything.  You just need a lot of love and luck – and of course, courage.”

04 April, 2011

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies







I'd borrowed a book titled "Cookies" by Pippa Cuthbert and Lindsay Cameron Wilson, from the library a couple of months ago.  This was one recipe I really liked.  For one, you can use more oatmeal than plain flour which, in itself, makes the cookies healthier.  This recipe calls for very little butter as the original recipe itself is a mix of butter and oil.  For those who do not want butter in the picture, this recipe can be adapted by using just oil.  The cookies turn out just as good (except the taste bit ;-) - that buttery richness will obviously be missing).

The recipe as per the book

60 ml vegetable oil
75 gms butter
100 gms caster sugar
110 gms light brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg
100 gms porridge oats
150 gms plain flour (unbleached)
1/2 tsp Bicarb of Soda
1/2 tsp Baking Powder
a pinch of salt
Chocolate chips (as preferred)

Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius.

Combine the oil, butter and sugars and cream until smooth.  Beat in the vanilla and the eggs, one at a time, then stir in the oats.  In a separate bowl, sift the flour with the bicarb of soda, baking powder and salt.  Using a wooden spoon, stir the flour mixture together with the chocolate chips.  Stir until just combined. 

(I used more porridge oats than the amount called for in the recipe.  That way, the dough was more manageable when it came to rolling out small balls of the dough rather than dropping rounded spoonfuls of the dough onto the baking sheets).

The recipe calls for 10 mins of baking time.  I found that baking time can be cut down to about 8 mins if using baking sheets or trays that are black.  It retains more heat and thus baking time is reduced.

The changes I made were :

1. Used 100 gms each of white granulated sugar and light brown sugar (tightly packed)

2. Used more porridge oats and less plain flour (in fact, the plain flour was just enough to bind and bring the batter together)

3. I've tried the "all oil" version of these cookies too.  They turn out really well.

4. I made these cookies with a mix of semi-sweet and dark chocolate chips.

5. I've added about 3 heaped tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder to the above recipe and used white chocolate chips in that mix.  That way, inspite of using unsweetened cocoa powder, there was no need to add more sugar as the white chocolate chips tend to be much sweeter than the dark chocolate chips.