Did I Hear Something? Of Course, You Didn’t

HearingThis is the second of three posts regarding OPSEC this week. Today we’re going to discuss the need to keep quite; I don’t mean about your supplies and gear, I mean when you’re trying to keep a low-profile during a SHTF scenario. Besides, the ability to see, humans have a pretty good sense of hearing as well. Again, not as good at it as many animals are, but certainly good enough to detect other humans nearby.

Just like with avoiding detection by sight, we’re not trying to avoid the most thorough of inspections here, just the “cursory” ones if somebody is walking down the street.

So, what types of activities are we trying to minimize. Well, there are a lot; far more than activities that may require light. For example, cooking food, bathing, chopping firewood, and basically anything else you can think of probably make some noise. Add in noisy children, barking dogs, sick people coughing, and who knows what else… there’s a lot to be concerned about. Obviously, you can’t keep everything quite at all times but you can try.

The important question is: what can you do about it, if anything?

Unlike with light discipline, it’s a bit more difficult to do something that directly minimizes noise. That is, there’s no such thing as an equivalent “blackout curtain” for noise. Well, that’s not entirely true. While there are noise-reducing substances that exist, they’re either expensive or just not very applicable for reducing noise from an entire house.

So, what can you honestly do?

Well, it has to start with being conscious of your activities, especially the kids. Everyone needs to learn very quickly that they need to be much more quite than they are normally, especially at night. Maybe night time is a good time for the kids to play quiet games, such as cards or board games if they need quiet entertainment options.

Of course, there are activities that just make noise and there isn’t much you can do about it. An example would be chopping firewood. It’s noisy and very distinctive. In this case, my only suggestion would be to enlist another person’s help to get the job done faster.

With regards to minimizing interior noises, you could consider moving noisier activities to an interior room, though, I understand most homes are not setup like that. Instead, consider a basement if it’s underground (or even partially so). In addition, the most probably sources of noise “escape” would be the same as for light, namely windows and doors. In this case, it could prove helpful to put something over the windows and doors that inhibit noise, such as a thick comforter. But, sadly, even that won’t do much good and then you’re down a comforter that could be otherwise used for warmth.

Perhaps a better idea would be (assuming you triage a part of your home) is to purposely remove carpeting from the unused part of your home (also assuming you have carpeting there) and erect several layers of carpet that cover windows that your family will occupy. This sounds like a lot of work but you could possibly kill two birds with one stone here in that you’ve erected both a noise and light barrier in one. To be honest, I’ve never tried this myself so I can’t say for sure if it works, but I do recognize how much difference a single layer of carpeting makes in reducing noise throughout a house (as opposed to tile or hardwood flooring) so I’m assuming the same can be said here. Of course, if you don’t want to rip up your own carpeting I’m sure you can find a roll that somebody was just throwing out. If you don’t like the carpeting idea then maybe you can find something else to use. The point is to force sound to “slow down” around windows and doors.

It might also be wise to construct a “room within a room” to help reduce noise. Basically, anything that you can do to slow down noise from escaping your home is what you’re trying to accomplish. In this way, you might have quiet areas (such as rooms without any noise reduction solutions), less quiet areas (rooms where you do have noise reduction solutions such as carpeting over windows), and some noise allowed areas (such as the room within a room idea).

What can you think of?

There’s Nothing to See Here… Move Along Please!

envious eyeI figured I would spend this week (three total posts) talking about OPSEC concerns. We need to have a plan on how to minimize the ability of others (the bad guys) of detecting our presence as much as possible. In particular, we need to consider our three most important senses: sight, hearing, and smell. Today we’ll focus on sight.

The ability of humans to see things like movement and light are pretty darn good. Sure, we’re not as capable as a cat in the dead of night but humans don’t need to be that good, just good enough to detect the presence of other people, in this case, YOU and your family. The fact is that it’s probably not that hard at all, unless YOU take serious steps to make being seen difficult.

Just consider that a human can see the glow of a single candle at night from over a mile away… that’s pretty amazing! Now consider how easy it would be to see a flashlight or lantern from inside an open window and, voila, your cover is blown.

The way I see it, however, is that we’re not trying to be completely invisible to an up-close and personal inspection. That is, if somebody is literally snooping around the outside of your house then you’re not going to be able to “pass inspection” for the simple fact that there WILL be other giveaway signs that there is human activity here. In this case, people shouldn’t be allowed that close to your house, but that’s a topic for another day.

The point here is that we need to be able to pass a “cursory inspection,” one where somebody (or a group of people) may be walking down the street scanning houses for any sign of activity.

The most obvious answer is to put up blackout curtains, which I certainly suggest (I’m sure there are a few links in the How-to Knowledge Base about constructing them). But, I must then emphasize how important it is to ensure your blackout curtains work as anticipated. You might be un-pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to see light through any number of substances, from window blinds to window blackout film to garbage bags and curtains. Even a combination of various things still won’t do the trick. As an example, we have very dark window film, blinds, and occasionally curtains drawn in our bedroom and you can still see light at night. And, to make things worse, even a small speck of uncovered window WILL allow precious light to escape, which means all of your efforts were for naught.

So, the moral of the story is to check your plans, and do it soon. Things like several layers of newspaper or several layers of black plastic should work but you need to test it. Put up your blackout curtains in a single room and then use your brightest lantern to test… adjust accordingly. And, you need to ensure you have enough of whatever it is you plan to use to cover ALL of the windows that need to be covered. The typical house has dozens of windows, which means A LOT of something to get the job done. Do you have enough? Do you have the tape needed to put it all up? How long might it take you?

And, let’s not forget about the cracks around doors. You may find need to cover those as well, especially around french doors and even sliding doors too.

While I’m thinking about it, this could be a good time to consider exactly what area or rooms of your house that you will occupy in such a situation. Rather than trying to blackout all rooms of the house, if you focus your efforts on a single floor or maybe a few rooms then your blackout job–among others–will be a bit easier. Of course, this also means strict discipline in the use of lights and lanterns too.

Oh, and just to be sure you understand precisely how dark it will be inside without lamps and lanterns, find a room in your house that has no exterior windows or doors (maybe a bathroom) and close the door… yeah, it’s going to be like that every night all night, so you will be using something to light the interior… just in case you thought you could get away without doing so. 😉

I should also touch upon the use of directional lighting while outdoors, you know, a flashlight. If you thought a light from inside your house can be seen from a long way away, just think about how easily a flashlight might be seen when you’re pointing it all over the place. In order to combat this problem, consider fashioning a simple lens filter over the end, red seems to work out well. Or, consider very judicious use of it by turning it on only for short periods of time and perhaps even covering most of the light output with your hand. Heck, anything has to be better than doing nothing at all.

That said, probably the best way to avoid detection is to utilize some form of night vision goggles, but that can get very expensive very fast. The least expensive option would be something like a night vision monocular, which would be my first choice with cost in mind.

Basically, lighting OPSEC isn’t that difficult as it mostly depends on being aware of what you do and how it might be seen from afar. Think about it and consider your actions accordingly.

Light Sleepers Look Out!

Woman SleepingStrangely, one of the things that “worries” me the most on a personal level is my ability to sleep in a grid-down situation. You see, I’m a light sleeper, I mean REALLY light sleeper and if you are too you know what I mean. Some might think that’s a good thing during times where you need to be on-guard and maybe it will prove useful some day, but in my normal life it generally sucks.

To combat this I’ve grown accustomed to sleeping with a fan turned on whether it’s needed for cooling or not. It’s so important to me that I’ll pack it if I go on vacation–not that this happens very often anymore–or anywhere there might not be something that makes steady noise. In fact, it’s those rare times that the power goes out and it’s dead quite that I’ll sit up at night awake for hours on end. The thing is, it’s not the absolute quite that’s a problem, it’s the odd and occasional noises that keep me up, from a gust of wind to my wife stirring and who knows what else.

So, I need a plan to combat that. I briefly contemplated sleep aids but I figure that last thing I wanted is to be artificially asleep when I may need to function immediately and without warning. Scratch that thought! In fact, a while back I posted about my grogginess when being awoke in the middle of the night in this post Think Twice Before Bringing Your Gun to Bed, which compounds my problem but that’s not the point here.

I then thought about simply powering a fan. While I can power a typical AC fan using my solar setup I don’t feel like that’s the best use of my power system so I’m thinking that’s not a great plan either. On the other hand, I do have a DC-powered fan that would probably get used if it were hot regardless but, again, it’s probably not the best use of finite power (in this case D-cell batteries) just so I can sleep.

I’ve also contemplated using ear plugs which might be my best bet but still not quite what I’m looking for. While they do help a bit it’s not nearly enough most of the time and likely more annoying to me than just not using them. And, yes, I have tried just a pillow over my head!

While noise is more of my problem, I can see how early daylight might be some people’s problem. In this case consider a sleep mask or heavy curtains. Of course, it might not be such a bad thing to be up early in the day to get work done. Remember, there was a time when people regularly rose when the sun came up and retired when it went down.

Many years ago my wife had me try a few different herbal concoctions that probably helped a bit but I’m not much of a herb/tea drinker so that plan didn’t stick, but may be a viable option in a SHTF situation.

All that said, I might just be so tired from a full day of hard manual labor or from pulling long security detail that it’s all a moot point, who knows. The point is that for those who have a similar problem (or those who live with people like this) it is a significant concern not to be ignored. I, for one, am not the nicest of people when I haven’t had my “beauty rest.” 😉

If you have any great ideas, I would appreciate hearing them.

If There’s Anything That I’ve Learned About Prepping The Past Few Months…

crowded…it’s that I have no idea how I would really be able to survive if SHTF. Seriously. You see, there’s a weird conundrum afoot with respect to this particular problem. On the one hand we have the belief in OPSEC, save yourself (and your immediate family), too bad for everybody else mentality that is generally a part of most prepper’s mentalities. Yet, on the other hand, it’s fairly clear that in any true long term, SHTF, mutant zombie biker scenario you really can’t go it alone–even as a family unit–and you, therefore, MUST include additional people and families into your prepping to aid with security, gardening, and any number of other survival-related tasks.

The problem, obviously, is that of (1) either convincing your family and close friends to see life and the future the way that you do and, thereby, encouraging them to prepare or (2) spending your own hard-earned money to purchase supplies such as food with the expectation that YOU will be supplying them these basic needs and in return these people will do what’s needed, such as pull guard duty, wash clothes, cook meals, tend the garden, etc. I also recognize that this is an “either/or” fallacy and that there are potentially other possible choices but I feel that most of us are going to be facing one of the two aforementioned options, like it or not.

As for what I’ve learned the past few months…

  1. With respect to point one above: Most people plainly do NOT see the future the way that I do… and I’m afraid they never will. Regardless of what people say, no close family or friends (other than my in-laws) attempt any level of preparedness at all. None whatsoever and it still amazes me. People even talk about things like an economic collapse, the dollar being worthless, and so on but what conclusion do they draw from it? None. Sometimes it makes me wonder if I’M THE CRAZY ONE. Maybe I am. I’m not saying TEOTWAWKI will occur tomorrow or even next week; heck, I haven’t a clue. But I can see the writing on the wall. Why does nobody else?
  2. With respect to point two above: It’s VERY hard living with other people. Due to our personal life tragedy a few months back we’ve had numerous family and friends staying with us up until about two weeks ago and I can honestly say I’m glad everyone is gone. And, as a result, I can’t say that I would really want the vast majority of my family and friends to be living under the same roof as me. Just a few months time was enough to remind me how set in my ways I am. Therefore, I’m not seeing how it would even work logistically anymore. Sure, I had thoughts and some plans but maybe now I need to reconsider it all. I’m not so sure that I would either want to suppor these people OR attempt to rely on them to do anything I needed done in a SHTF scenario.
  3. With respect to “other possible choices”: I don’t know about you but I’ve looked in the past for like-minded people and essentially had no luck. It makes me wonder where you all are! (Come to think of it you must be living in Texas.) The world is rife with people who say things and have the best of intentions but very few who actually take action. And when you put it all together that what it’s all about: finding people who not only see things the way that you or I do but also who are willing, ready, and able to take action to prepare themselves for the future and, in so doing, will not burden or hinder you and I to do the same. Thus far I’ve met none of these people. If you have then consider yourself very fortunate.

Ultimately, I’d say that if things could really get as bad as some predict during a SHTF scenario then we’re all going to be very lucky to get through it unscathed despite what we do. That said, I’d rather have a good plan in place, supplies to see me through, and people to rely on but thus far that’s not entirely the case. I truly hope you have better luck than I.

I Got Schooled by My Kids This Weekend (and what it means to your prepping)

school2Ok, I’m not proud of it but I did get “schooled” by my kids this weekend. Long story short, we were out and about trying to find what my kids called the “ladder” park which turned out to be a nearby playground at the local lake. After about 45 minutes of driving we finally found it. Never mind that.

The point of this story is this: during our travels we wound on the same street as my child’s school but coming from the opposite direction. As I didn’t realize it at the time my kids swore up and down that this was THE street to the school. I said “no way” believing that we were in an entirely different part of the city–yes I was that turned around–and willingly bet my oldest child $20 expecting to teach him a lesson not to bet unless you’re sure. As you might suspect, I was absolutely WRONG! We were, in fact, on the correct street but I didn’t realize it because we were coming at it from the opposite direction and my brain just wouldn’t accept that’s where we were.

The question, therefore, was how in the world could that have happened to me? It’s not like I just moved to the area (we’ve been here about a year) and have never been to my kid’s school. Granted, I’ve never been down that particular road beyond the school but, c’mon… there’s no way I could have been that lost. And yet I was.

So, what does all this mean to your prepping?

Well, the first thing I thought of was how I saw/read interviews of people who have had their entire neighborhoods (and towns) demolished by natural disasters–be it an earthquake, tornado, or hurricane–and one of the things I noticed being repeated was how un-recognizable the area was after such a disaster. I always thought to myself that there’s no way it was THAT bad. But, after this weekend, I see the light. Heck, everything was perfectly fine and I couldn’t recognize the area!

Second, it means that if you’re anything like me then it’s easy to get into a comfort zone. I’m sure we all have a preferred way to get to places like work, school, and the store, but what happens if you can’t use your normal routes. While I certainly do have alternate ways to get to my anticipated evacuation destinations, for example, what about the basic places like work, school, the store, or wherever?

More importantly, what can you do about it?

The obvious answer is to simply get out and drive around the area. I mean REALLY drive the area. I thought I had done some of this basic “get to know the area” driving a while back but it’s clear that I didn’t do nearly enough as I hadn’t gotten beyond the other side of my child’s school. Had I lived here for twenty plus years then I’d imagine I would know the area much better but I didn’t have that experience to fall back on.

Another answer is to get out the map… and look at it, no, I mean REALLY look at it. I decided to get out a local map yesterday and, amazingly enough, it all makes sense now. I see how the road I ended up on connected to my kid’s school. Would I have figured that out if I hadn’t been looking for it? I don’t know but maybe I would have remembered something and connected the dots.

Probably the best thing to do is to both drive and read the map–not at the same time, of course–to see how it all fits together. Maybe even get a bit lost intentionally so that you can find your way back or even wind up who knows where otherwise. I can see now how important it is to truly get out and about. If I can get confused when things are good and normal how bad could it be if things are un-recognizable, such as in a true disaster? I can only imagine!

Oh, and did I pay him the $20 bet? Yes, I did… but only after I made him pay me back $1.50 he owned me. I guess that’ll teach me not to bet when I’m not 110% sure. 😉

Better Places to Find Last Minute Preps

shopThe post on Monday asked whether pet stores were a “secret” place to find last minute preps and the answer was obviously NO. Today, however, I try to point out a few places where you could actually find last minutes supplies if you really had to. Now, even though I wrote an e-book about last minute shopping at places like Walmart and Home Depot, you know as well as I do that that places like these–along with your local grocery stores–are going to be swamped and quickly drained of anything useful if a true emergency were imminent.

Obviously, these places should be avoided if at all possible. The question, therefore, is where might you be able to find last minute supplies should you actually need to do so AND not have to literally fight over the last package of crackers? Here’s a few thoughts to get you started…

  • Gas stations – this has got to be at the top of my list as they’re so numerous I would be surprised if you can’t find anything useful in at least one or two nearby you. Certainly you can find gasoline, but many stores stock plenty of shelf-stable foods, propane (a huge MUST), as well as an assortment of OTC medications, hard alcohol (for more than just drinking), batteries, and other random supplies. Certainly, you’re going to pay a premium price for these goods and their availability will depend largely on the gas station you stop at but, in my opinion, I would hit every gas station within a 5 mile radius ASAP if this were your plan.
  • ATM machines (any of them) – I know you can’t actually find supplies at an ATM machine but you can get the next best thing so long as stores are optating: cash. Even if you have to pay bank fees to get a few hundred dollars from another bank’s ATM machine, I’d say it’s worth the expense to get the currency that most businesses are likely to accept if power is out. Don’t expect that credit cards, debit cards, or even checks can or will be accepted. Regardless, it’s wise to already have some cash on hand for just such an occasion but it can’t hurt to have a bit more.
  • Garden centers – think of all the tools and supplies you can find to work your garden, from seeds to soil and more. You might even be able to find additional water barrels to add to a rainwater system or just for water storage. Certainly, you’re not stocking up on the obvious last minute supplies but you’re at least bolstering you ability to be more self reliant.
  • Drug stores – places like CVS Pharmacy are becoming more and more numerous and would be better options to get many medical supplies than fighting through Walmart crowds. You might even be able to find a few snack type foods and water to stockpile as well.
  • Hospitals – oftentimes hospitals have small convenience stores where you can purchase small snacks foods and bottles of water. I briefly considered airport convenience stores that sounds like a nightmare I want no part of for just a few supplies.
  • Dollar stores – again, like any other convenience store you can find many, many useful items here… far more than just food and water. However, I would suspect a place like this would be wiped out fairly quickly too so it’s last on my list.

It should go without saying that you’re going to pay through the nose by buying last minute supplies in this way but if you’re desperate then you may have no other choice.

What if I had to go to a grocery store or Walmart?

It should go without saying that staples like food and water are going to fly off the shelves before you can say “boo,” so I wouldn’t look here for the obvious. Rather, I would look for things like OTC medications, propane, various home improvement supplies (such as duct tape), hard alcohol (again, many uses besides the obvious), child care products, disposable eating supplies, and so on. Basically, you’re walking along the outside aisles of most grocery stores and grabbing things most people may overlook. Oh, and you can probably find an ATM machine too.

What places would you add?

Are Pet Stores a “Secret” Place For Last Minute Preps?

pet-storeI was recently watching a show about Armageddon or zombie apocalypse (aren’t they really all the same?) when one of the people on the show suggested that your local pet store was a better place to find lats minute supplies–in particular food and water–than any local grocery store. I said “What!? No way.” He basically stated that most people wouldn’t bother to go to a pet store because they wouldn’t see that as a place to get the things they needed, such as food, water, and medicines. And, to a large extent, he’s quite right.

I know I wouldn’t have bothered to go to a pet store for any last minute preps and I doubt you would either. To be fair, he was only suggesting it as a place to go if you were really desperate and didn’t have anything whatsoever. However, because the entire purpose of “being prepared” is to not have these kinds of problems then finding need to shop for last minute supplies at a pet store should be a moot point, right?

Well, I got to thinking about this more and more, mostly because it bothered me that people might see the show and think a pet store is a great place to last minute shop, and so I did some research online and thought about it a bit more and, whether I like the idea or not, the guy might have a small point, albeit a VERY small point.

Now, the first thing I did was Google “is pet food safe for human consumption” and, as it turns out, pet food might generally be safe for human consumption. I say “might” because I can’t find anything that says emphatically that it isn’t safe. In fact, there are EU laws that require pet food to be safe for human consumption unless specifically stated otherwise; on the other hand, I couldn’t find anything about US safety laws in my brief online search. That said, we do have ample evidence from homeless persons that you can eat pet food and at least stay alive. Would I want to do it? Of course not. Should you? Probably not if for nothing more than the fact that who knows what by-products, end-products, or other odd ingredients went into the food BECAUSE it’s not meant to be consumed by humans.

I then decided to stop by a local Petco (and even search their website) to see what’s possible. No, I didn’t buy any cans of cat food to “test” and besides the obvious pet supplies I was having a hard time finding anything that I thought would be truly useful. Maybe I could turn a dog leash into some usable cordage by that seems like a huge waste of money among other problems. Now, if I agreed that I could buy pet food to eat if I had to and maybe even find some bottles of water then that’s something. Most importantly, however, is that I could probably buy some fish antibiotics for my sick “fish” if I felt I needed more.

But, what else could I utilize? Well, like I said I had a really hard time finding anything else that I can truly use for prepping for myself and not my dog. Ultimately, I found myself asking “is this a secret place for preps” and the answer is emphatically NO. Can you find supplies there? Yeah, sort of… if I had no other choice. But, remember, you do have a choice: the choice to be prepared and not have to go out at the last minute for any reason.

How to Keep Children Safe, Part 6: A Few More Things


[Editor’s note: This is a 6-part series regarding my views and plenty of common sense on how to keep your children safe in a dangerous world. It is generally geared toward children 12 and under. I hope it helps you.]

Thus far we’ve covered how to keep your children safe in public, at home, in school, from strangers, and online. What could be left? Well, here’s a few more things to consider…

Car Safety

Certainly our kids spend a lot of time in the car and, for the most part, have no control over what goes on because they’re the passengers. That said, the obvious things we can and should teach our children is that they should be properly buckled up, in appropriate cars seats, and not to sit up front until it’s safer (because of air bags). Occasionally I see people who allow their children to roam the car freely in the car, which boggles my mind for a number of reasons. Granted, we didn’t have such seat belt laws when I was a kid and did the same thing but, hey, times are different.

I know my kids are very good about buckling up (though I always ask anyway) but on occasion I’ve found them unbuckled for some unknown reason, especially on long car rides. Likewise, I’ve caught them not utilizing their seat belts properly, such as moving the shoulder belt behind them so they are effectively only wearing a lap belt. Again, these are good times to remind them why they wear their seat belts and should do so properly. Right now my youngest is 7 and is itching to get out of his car seat (he can get out at 8) but we persist because those are “the rules.”


The last area I want to touch upon are friends. In my opinion, this is the most “dangerous” category of them all. Anybody that has been a young boy or has them–I assume girls can be included here too but I don’t have that experience–can fully understand how much influence peer pressure has on children, especially as they become teenagers. My oldest is still only 10 but I can already see how important and all-consuming his friends are becoming… and it’s only going to get worse.

I’m sure I was the same way but it’s different when the shoe is on the other foot and now I have to worry about what my children might be up to when I’m not around. Fortunately, we’ve been really blessed with the vast majority of their close friends. In particular, the family next door has wonderful children who happen to be our childrens’ best friends and they get along marvelously. There is one new influence, however, in my oldest child’s life that I’m not too thrilled with and who happens to be a school friend. Long story short, we’ve had a few talks about what we expect his behavior to be and have severely limited their ability to get together outside of school. In fact, the post from this Wednesday regarding “online” safety came into play because my child was “face timing” his buddy (something you can do via iPods) which has been put to an end because they were having potentially inappropriate conversations.

Now, can I control that at school? Of course not. The best I can do is to continually re-iterate what I expect and hope that it eventually sinks in. I guess my point here is to (1) pay attention to who your children really hang out with and (2) nip problems in the bud early on.

Certainly, there are plenty of positive influences, you just have to put your children in the position to foster them. Activities like sports could be one area while church and church-related activities could be another great one. Ultimately, I know I won’t be able to control exactly what my children do at all moments, neither can I control who they hang out with, in particular as they get older. The best I can do is to set my expectations and hope something sank in… and then make their live miserable if they do something really dumb. 😉

If you have your own suggestions feel free to share them below…

How to Keep Children Safe, Part 5: Online and Social Media


[Editor’s note: This is a 6-part series regarding my views and plenty of common sense on how to keep your children safe in a dangerous world. It is generally geared toward children 12 and under. I hope it helps you.]

This is a topic I’ve had to deal with more and more lately as my kids get older, bolder, and more technically savvy. Sadly, I’m already starting to ask my 10 and 7 year old children how to work various electronics. ;( Very soon I suspect that they will understand how to defeat any “safeguards” I put into place, but until then I’ll continue to try my best to protect them from… themselves.

Now, like I mentioned in a previous “How to Keep Children Safe…” post, it’s about setting expectations. Tell them what is acceptable to you and what is not. For example, “you’re allowed to visit this site and this one too, but NOT others without seeking permission first.” Obviously, this works for a while on younger children but not so well on the older ones. In this case, be as honest with them as you can be. I’m not saying come right out and say there are sometimes people out there who want to molest you or who knows what else, but to say that there are bad people on the Net and they WILL prey upon young children like you if you’re not careful… or however you want to put it. I feel that’s a more honest way to frame your reasoning rather than “because daddy/mommy said so.”

A Few Personal Examples

I recall years ago when my oldest must have been around 6 or so he was playing a computer game and, as kids do, figured out how to get online and play other people and while he was doing that he was chatting with the other person (via keyboard). Shortly thereafter he came downstairs and asked for our phone number. We couldn’t figure out why until we realized that he had gotten into the online gaming aspect of the game he was playing and that the other person wanted to call him. We quickly said no, had our talk, and then I immediately shut down that function of the game. The point here is that you shouldn’t take for granted what your kids can figure out… they’re likely a lot more tech savvy than you realize even at a very young age. Speaking of which…

As another example, my youngest (he must have been 3 or 4 then) has always been very curious about sex. Long story short, he was able to get online, search for the word “sex” and happened upon some very disturbing things. A part of me was proud because he was learning to spell but, needless to say, I immediately installed a kid-safety application on all computers we owned (among others) called K9 Web Protection, which we’ve kept ever since. While there are plenty of other options this one was free and seems to work just fine once you get it setup properly. I don’t recall exactly what wasn’t correct when I first installed it but my wife had asked if I got K9 installed, I said “yes” and figured I was done. She wanted to test it and low-and-behold something didn’t work as expected because it wasn’t filtering adult content. Oops! I eventually fixed the problem but the point is to ensure that your safeguards actually do what you expected.

I’ll tell you, lately my kids have been worse about technology, especially the older one (he’s still only 10). Just a few weeks ago he asked for a Facebook account because one of his friends apparently has one. I said “you’ve got to be kidding me and don’t ask again.” (Apparently Facebook agrees and limits the minimum age to 13.) He’s also wanted a cell phone but wound up with an iPod over Christmas, which is bad enough if you ask me.

So Many Devices, So Little Time

While I’m thinking about it, are you even aware of how many devices can access the internet these days?

Obviously, any computer can, as well as netbooks which are like mini laptops, tablets (e.g., iPad, Nexus, Android, Kindle, Nook), smartphones (e.g., iPhones, Droid, Galaxy), gaming consoles (e.g., Wii, Xbox, Playstation), iPods which are like small versions of iPads, PDA’s (e.g., Blackberry or the “old” Palms), and even some newer home entertainment equipment such as televisions and blu-ray players. I probably missed a few too. That’s not even mentioning how easy it is to get internet access not only at home via wireless routers but at many public places as well.

With respect to children and their interests, every gaming console (and game it seems) WANTS you to be on the internet to play it, to share with friends, compete against others, and so on. In fact, there are some games that won’t even work unless connected to the internet. Yes, folks, it’s the internet or bust where games are concerned so please be fully aware that your children WILL be on the internet and interacting with other people–not just other kids–if they’re playing games of any sort. I guarantee it.

So, what can you do about it all?

Computer Safety

Well, with respect to computers, it starts with setting expectations as mentioned above. We’ve found that limiting computer time helps a lot (they’re only allowed to play on the weekends for an hour each day). For those with younger children, installing an appropriate kid safety application like K9 is a good option. Most all games allow some ability to control graphic content but they often aren’t great. For Windows users you can setup an assortment of Parental Controls that can help for computer-based games but not so much for the internet. These controls can also restrict access to the computer at specific times of the day among other choices. Of course, these controls are setup by user so it might be wise for each child to have their own account that can then have restrictions setup as you like.

Web browsers often have built-in parental controls (e.g., Internet Explorer has a “Content Advisor”) which are a good start. Spend some time fiddling with them or read a tutorial. In addition, search engines can help too. Google, for example, allows you to filter explicit content but that’s easily turned off so don’t rely on it. That said, there are some sites that try to list only child-friends sites, such as KidSites (or do a Google search for “list of kid safe websites”).

Though I’ve never tried them, there are plug-n-play products (usually free software to download and install) that can be used to completely deny internet access unless the USB-enabled device is physically plugged into the computer. Personally, I don’t like this idea at all but maybe it’s right for you.

Apparently, you can also install your own “spyware” of sorts as there are programs that can take snapshots of what your kids have been doing online. Again, not a big fan here so you can do your own Google search if you want something like this. Likewise, K9 allows you to review online activity too but only sites visited and content by category (such as “gaming,” “images,” and a bunch of others); you can then click on each major category and get details of everything viewed but it’s not very user-friendly whatsoever so I rarely use it.

Computer Security

Needless to say, there are an assortment of other problems besides explicit content, including popup ads, viruses, spyware, etc. To combat these problems, have an anti-virus program installed (AVG has a free version which isn’t too bad but there are plenty of others, especially paid options), and perhaps an anti-spyware program (such as Spybot) is a good idea. There are other computer security tools but I’ve found that the aforementioned are usually enough unless you’re surfing virus-heavy places like bit torrent sites. The best option is to stay off these sites and teach your kids to do the same… and explain why.

Again, there’s so much more to be concerned about other than your computer. All of the aforementioned internet-ready devices can be very problematic, even moreso than your computer. And, sadly, their parental controls are either horrific or way overboard. For example, my iPad (and the kids’ iPods) allow you to control an assortment of age-restricted options, which is great, but you know what happens when you turn them on to any degree of limitation? The iPad/iPod will not only disallow use of any application that could be used to access restricted content but will actually completely hide that application from the screen! What does that mean? It means that even if I wanted to put in my passcode to use the Google Chrome app, because it can access the internet for example, I can’t even see the app in order to do so without first removing the Parental Control restrictions which completely subverts the idea of such controls in the first place. In other words, it’s a huge pain in the rear and I’ve since turned off parental controls on my iPad and relied purely on a passcode. There are apps that help but still leave much to be desired if you ask me.

Social Media

Perhaps the most concerning threats are not simple internet access but social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. And, of course, your kids are going to want to be on them… even before you’re ready for that conversation. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to do about this potential problem except to say that it’s in your child’s best interests for you to know what they’re doing and saying on these sites and with whom they are interacting. In other words, stick your nose in their business whether they like it or not!

And, like I discussed previously, it’s more than just well-known social networks. There are online chat rooms, instant messaging services and, more concerning if you ask me, chatting (as well as the ability to talk) while gaming (at least for boys, that is). Granted, most of this may very well be harmless if they’re ONLY conversing with their friends that you know but it’s ever so easy to begin conversing with unknown people at the click of a button.

My best advice here is to teach your children to keep their personal life and information quite, you know, OPSEC. Don’t give out their phone number, house address, email, school name, even a picture to anyone without your approval… ever. With the ever increasing abilities to do things like take pictures and email them via text from all sorts of devices, they need to understand that even that can be harmful for a variety of reasons, including the fact that GPS location data can be embedded into the picture without their knowledge which thereby gives the recipient your exact location, most likely your home address.

In Conclusion

Ultimately, you’re not going to be able to keep your kids safe from everything, even when they’re very young. While you can be proactive with passwords and pass codes, age-restriction settings, kid-safe applications, and more, you need to remember to (1) set boundaries and expectations and (2) adequately explain the dangers and reasons why they are allowed or not allowed to do certain things. And, of course, remember to adjust those boundaries, expectations, and reasons often and as appropriate to your child’s age and ability to understand.

If you have your own suggestions feel free to share them below…

How to Keep Children Safe, Part 4: From Strangers

safe-children-4[Editor’s note: This is a 6-part series regarding my views and plenty of common sense on how to keep your children safe in a dangerous world. It is generally geared toward children 12 and under. I hope it helps you.]

I’m not sure I can think of much in life that’s more disgusting than someone who actually wants to do harm to a child. These are horrible people and, while they’re a very small minority, they do exist and must be protected against. It should also go without saying that the vast, vast majority of people are good and well-meaning and would do everything they can to truly help your child should they need it… but not everyone.

So, what to do?

As always, it starts with talking to your children and doing so more than once. If there’s anything that kid’s need it’s repetition. The more often you explain “stranger danger” the more likely it is they’ll remember what you’ve told them when and if they ever need to rely on that information. Now, I’m not saying talk to them everyday or even each week. Heck, maybe once or twice a year is all that is required. I don’t know what works for you but I would suggest that if you can’t remotely recall the last time you might have said something then soon might be a good time to do so.

Now, ask yourself–better yet, ask your child–“what does a stranger look like”?

They might say something like “a stranger is mean, ugly, scary looking” or something similar. Obviously, the truth is that strangers look just like any normal person but the question we’re really asking is what does a “bad” stranger look like? Well, the answer is that they probably look no different than anyone else and, therefore, looks cannot be relied upon as a good indicator as to who and who is not a “bad” stranger.

Ask your child “who is a stranger”?

They might say something like “a stranger is somebody they don’t know” which is an easy answer but not quite what you’re looking for. Certainly, people like friends and family they know are not strangers. Their teacher and school principal are not strangers. But, what about people like police officers, firefighters, or the neighbor down the street they see but don’t really know? Are they strangers? Yes, they are. Make it perfectly clear precisely who is and who is not a stranger and why.

Ask you child “who can be trusted”?

Specifically state who in your life can and will relied upon to pick up and care for your child should you be unable to do so. Name them: mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, other specific relatives or friends, etc. Try to keep the list short so they can remember it.

Who are “safe” strangers?

Although people such as police officers and firefighters should be considered and taught as “safe” strangers, bad people have been known to impersonate these authority figures so your children need to know how to (1) identify real authority figures and (2) what is expected behavior from these authority figures. For example, teach them that a police officer will be fully dressed as a police officer with the cop car to go with it. And, if they’re not in the expected uniform (such as an off-duty police officer) then your child should request and expect that this police officer will call upon an on-duty officer with patrol car to show up… no exceptions. Likewise, you should teach them what might be acceptable behavior from a police officer. If that means ONLY calling you and then waiting for YOU to show up or if that means allowing the police office to give your child a ride, then tell your child that. Be clear.

Teach them what is acceptable behavior from “trusted” people as well as from “safe” and “all other” strangers

“Trusted” people, remember, are those people that your child knows well and whom are expected to deal with your child should you be unable to do so. Now, explain what is acceptable… are they only allowed to stay with your child until you arrive or can these people pick them up and deal with them as necessary? I would suspect “trusted” people should be expected to fully care for your child but who knows how you feel about it. Like I said above, what are “safe” people allowed to do? Spell it out. And, of course, what are “all other” strangers allowed to do?

Have a “security” word… maybe

It might also make sense to have a security word, a word that is known only to you, your child, and “trusted” individuals. This could be anything but shouldn’t be easily guessed, maybe something like “blueberries” or “sunset” or maybe something really weird if you think your child will remember it. Then, explain to your child that if this person knows that word then they’re ok to go with. Of course, there are some potential problems with this strategy as the aforementioned “bad” people are probably pretty cunning and may be able to either sweet-talk the word out of your child and/or convince your child that the word was “just recently changed” or something like that. Your kid has to be pretty resilient to use this method if you ask me.

How should they react to situations?

First, teach them about things like personal space or, better yet, instill a “safe distance” attitude in them with anyone they do not know (maybe 3-5 feet). Second, teach them what they can and should do if things go wrong and their safety is threatened. Should they kick the bad guy in the knee-caps, scream at the top of their lungs, and run the other way or what? Third, teach them that you will NEVER provide consequences for their actions if they truly felt the need to fend for themselves.

What about specific situations?

There’s a reason why the “bad” people use stories like “help me find my lost puppy” or “mom or dad are sick and I need to take you to see them right away” and that’s because they work. Talk to your kids about these types of situations and teach them it’s ok to say “NO” to adults under some circumstances. Consider role playing as a help.

Be even more proactive

Use sites like Family Watchdog to check for these people. You’d be surprised at how many sexual predators might be nearby, I know I was and still am anytime I decided to look at the site. They should list their address, place of work, convicted crime, and even provide a photo.

It’s not ALL bad!

Like a commenter pointed out in a previous “how to keep you child safe…” post, we have gone a bit overboard with the “stranger danger” talk. In fact, it seems that there are perhaps only a few hundred abductions in the U.S. per year with the vast majority of those being a result of a domestic disagreement (from someone they already know) so the odds of your child being abducted from someone they really don’t know are extremely low. I’m mean REALLY low. That said, I’d rather be safe than sorry and if you spend just a few minutes looking at the aforementioned  Family Watchdog site then you might get a renewed interest in keeping your child safe from the “bad” people.

If you have your own suggestions feel free to share them below…