Teaching kids to protect themselves is something most parents do without much thought.

Teaching kids to protect themselves is something most parents do without much thought.

It starts with baby-proofing the house and moves smoothly into making kids aware of "out-there" dangers to avoid. Many parents go a step further and enroll kids in self-defense classes so they'll know what to do if they find themselves in threatening situations.

The same sequence makes sense online. Because young children don't yet have the judgment to protect themselves, parents should "baby-proof" kids' interactive environments. Under age 6, children should have computer playtime only with software that has been carefully selected by a parent. A list of the 100 best programs for children is available from Children's Technology Review: www.childrenssoftware.com.

Early elementary school children need strict rules about which websites they are allowed to visit. Point your child toward sites run by respected organizations such as PBS (pbskids.org), National Geographic (kids.nationalgeographic.

com), or the Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org/explore/). For more ideas, browse the listings at kidsites.com.

Children under 13 should use only social networking sites monitored by adults. Older elementary children will also benefit from a filter that keeps them from inadvertently stumbling into spaces where they may be at risk. The simplest option is a family-friendly search engine. Even Google now has a Safe Search setting. To find it, log into a Google account, click on Settings, click on Safe Search and then select Lock Safe Search.

Although external controls are essential when children are young, eventually kids want - and need - more independence. Around the time kids get their first cell phones, parents should start teaching online self-defense skills that will help them avoid threats whenever possible and respond effectively if they do find themselves in difficult situations. Here are some martial arts principles that readily translate into cyberspace.


Project power.
A good martial artist exudes an aura of confidence and strength that makes fighting unnecessary. Help your child develop both a sense of worth and a community of genuine friends. Point out the differences between the close ties of face-to-face friendships and the loose ties of online relationships. Face-to-face friends will discount rumors and slurs because they know they aren't true. Real friends also will stand up for each other and help each other solve problems. Being a part of that kind of community gives kids a sense of self-assurance that is an excellent defense against predators of all kinds.


Protect your core.
In martial arts, the core includes the vital organs. Online, the core is private information which could be used to steal a child's identity, harm his or her reputation or put someone in physical danger. Many young people become quite sophisticated about knowing what can safely be shared with social networks that include both close and casual friends. Still, it's worth reminding pre-teens especially to think carefully about posting information that could be used to embarrass them, or that would help a potential stalker track their activities. Children also should learn from an early age that they should never share passwords, Social Security numbers or other identifiers with anyone - even a best friend.


Avoid provocation.
Martial arts are called self-defense because they are used in response to the aggression of others. Unfortunately, many young people initiate aggression online - sometimes without intending to provoke. In a misguided effort to impress a peer group, young people are often flip, sarcastic and even cruel. Parents can help by talking about how kids can show respect even when they are teasing or trying to be funny. Encourage your child to think through what he or she says or writes online from the perspective of others. For example, using "gay" as an epithet may be painful to a peer who is struggling with questions of sexual identity.


Stay calm.
One of the first rules of self defense is that you can't respond effectively to an attack if you're angry or flustered. Talk to your child in advance about how he or she would handle online harassment or bullying. Ask "what-if" questions to help think through problems before they occur. What if someone posts something mean on your wall? What if someone sends a message pretending to be you? What if someone forwards a photo or message that was supposed to be private? What if someone puts nasty things about you (or a friend) on a website? Point out that sometimes the best response is to ignore hurtful, ignorant remarks. An angry, emotional rebuttal is likely to escalate the problem because it can be circulated so easily. Be sure your child knows how to de-friend someone who doesn't deserve the label.


Warn your opponent.
Sometimes online aggressors don't realize they've stepped over the line. Peers, in particular, deserve a private warning that their behavior is hurtful. The website www.thatsnotcool.com suggests ways young people can deflect unacceptable online contact especially from members of the opposite sex. Your child also can send the other person a private e-mail or text asking for a simple change in behavior. "Don't text me," or "Please delete the message you posted."


Respond.
This is where online self defense differs from martial arts. Instead of retaliating online, kids should take their concerns about online conflict into the real world where they can get advice from trusted adults. Parents make this more likely when they:
1) Encourage children to come to them with things that make them uncomfortable online and, 2) Don't overreact when they share their problems. Teach kids to copy, save or print problematic messages, photos, or videos, especially if they are threatening in any way. Help them contact customer service departments for the website or the ISP where the messages were posted. In some cases, the management may delete the offensive content, or ban the person who posted it. Documentation also is likely to spur school officials or even the police to take action.

Much as we may want to protect our children, we do them a disservice if we try to insulate them from every risk. Instead, good parents gradually empower children to handle their own problems by teaching them to recognize, avoid, and when necessary, confront the bad guys. Then, instead of feeling like a victim, your child will experience all the confidence of a samurai who knows he or she can handle whatever life may bring.