Wednesday, November 23, 2011


This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for:

  • Four wonderful, healthy boys who challenge, inspire and teach me every single day
  • Acts of kindness from friends, neighbors and strangers
  • A close-knit community
  • A church that welcomes my children as valuable members of the faith community
  • Technology! I couldn't live the life I do without the Internet.
  • The ability to read. Did you ever stop and wonder how much richer your life is because you know how to read?
  • Red wine and coffee
  • My woodstove
  • Our puppy, who, like my boys, challenges me daily, but brings so, so much to our lives.
  • The Muppets (this one might be because I saw The Muppet Movie today, but c'mon -- I really think the Muppets make the world a better place)
  • Quiet times for reflection
  • Camping trips with my boys
  • Hikes in the woods
  • Plentiful work -- and the ability to make a living doing interesting work I enjoy
  • Online communities that create real-life connections (FLX!)
  • The fact that I am still standing, four years into the recession and one year post-divorce. While so many in the world struggle, I still have my children, my friends, my home and my family, and that is everything.
Thanks for sharing the journey with me.

What are you thankful for this holiday season?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Penn State and Sexual Abuse

I've been thinking about Penn State a lot lately.

By now, you've heard the story: Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State football coach, has been charged with molesting eight boys over a 15-year period. Sandusky denies molesting anyone, though he admits to showering and "horsing around" with young boys.

Whether or not the allegations against Sandusky are true, the fact remains that sexual abuse of young boys is a problem. One in six boys will be a victim of sexual abuse before the age of 18. Most will know their perpetrator.

Scared yet? I am. While I truly believe that most people who work with kids are good, kind people, statistics, case studies and anecdotal data tell me that there are some bad people out there as well. And the real problem is that the bad guys don't always look like the bad guys.

Sexual abusers are often, on the surface, well-liked members of the community. Many of them appear genuinely concerned about kids; many of them have convinced themselves that they are genuinely concerned about kids. But sexual abusers gradually break down boundaries. Sexual abuse may start with a gentle touch. Who, after all, is going to object to a slow back rub from a coach who's an all-around good guy?

Put yourself in the place of potential victim. Imagine, for a minute, that you are 10-years-old. That your home life is less-than-stellar. Not abusive, necessarily; just less-than-nurturing. Perhaps your mom works all the time to support the family. Maybe your dad just lost his job and is feeling kind of depressed. Maybe your parents are too busy to really spend time with you, and maybe, in your heart of hearts, you're feeling a little bit lonely.

Along comes a coach. Where your parents see an interruption and interference, he sees potential. He spends time with you. He tells you you're special. He smiles when he sees you coming; your mom frowned today when she saw your report card.

So when your coach invites you to his house after practice, you feel honored. His family is so nice to you!

Now...imagine this scenario playing out over a matter of months or years. Imagine the warm feelings you develop for the coach. Now imagine that the coach touches your back just a little too long after dinner one day. The quick squeeze of the shoulders turns into something else -- fingers rubbing up and down your back. It feels odd, but it's over as soon as it starts.

Would you tell someone? Probably not. After all, "nothing" really happened, and Coach is a good guy. Besides, you're 10; he's the adult. It seemed normal to Coach, so you're probably just over-reacting.

Most sexual abusers groom their victims over a period of time. After gaining the victim's trust, there are gradual violations of the victim's boundaries. By the time the hard-core sexual abuse happens, the abuser has essentially trained the child to ignore the boundary violations. The abuser has become an important part of the child's life. And sometimes, the abuse feels good on a physical level. Imagine the shame and confusion felt by a child who actually felt a moment of pleasure when sexually abused by a trusted adult!

It's up to us, as parents and community members, to create safe environments for our children.

How do we do that?

1. Love our children.
All children need to feel special, loved and valuable. Love your children, and be kind to their friends as well. Listen to their hopes, dreams and fears. Support their efforts and desires. A child with a strong sense of self and a strong support system at home is not an attractive target for sexual abuse.

2. Teach children to question authority.
Teachers and coaches and priests are not always right. Let your child know that it's OK to ask questions and express opinions --- and live that lesson in your home. Encourage children to think critically; welcome their questions and queries.

3. Minimize opportunity.
One-on-one situations are the most dangerous for kids. Does that mean that your child can never go fishing with an adult friend? No. It means that you better know that friend awfully well first. And that you should pay close attention to your child's behavior before and after outings with the friend. At the first sign of trouble, halt all further contact until you figure out what's going on.

4. Teach children the difference between good and bad secrets
. Abusers often convince children to keep "their secret." So be sure to tell your child about the different kinds of secrets. Good secrets -- like birthday surprises -- are ones that make people feel happy. Good secrets are only kept for a certain period of time before they're revealed. Bad secrets, on the other hand, make you feel yucky inside. Bad secrets are ones that are supposed to be kept forever. Tell your child that you will help him handle bad secrets.

5. Steer away from adults who exhibit risky behavior.
According to a recent article, adults who don't respect your rules when they're with your child may be setting up an unhealthy dynamic. Also be alert for adults who want to spend time alone with kids.

6. Respond to symptoms
. Be alert for these possible symptoms of abuse:
  • Change in appearance. Kids who are being sexually abused may start dressing in baggy, unattractive clothing.
  • Withdrawal and social isolation. It's common for teens to spend time alone in their rooms. But if your child has pulled away from all his friends, something more might be going on.
  • Anxiety. Some kids will be anxious before specific activities. Other sexually abused kids experience general anxiety.
  • Decreased school performance. Have your child's grades recently dropped, for no explainable reason?
  • Disinterest in usual activities. If your formerly hyped-up-about-football son loses interest in the sport, it's up to you to figure out what's up.
7. Report your suspicions. According to the first reports out of Penn State, another football coach called his dad -- not the police --after witnessing a disturbing scene between Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy. (The coach has since said he talked with the police). Frankly, I can understand how shock might impair activity. But the bottom line is this: kids' lives are on the line. Sexual abuse affects victims' entire lives; it affects the lives of their children and spouses as well. So don't wait. If you even think that something inappropriate is going on between an adult and a child, speak up. Report your suspicions to the authorities and let them conduct an investigation.

Have you been talking about Penn State with your kids?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why My Boys are Getting Gardisil -- and Why Yours Should Too

Have you heard of Gardisil? It's one of the two HPV vaccines that are currently on the market. (The other is Cervarix.) HPV, or human papilloma virus, is shorthand for a number of HPV strains that are known to cause cancer.

Put the pieces together. HPV causes cancer. There are two effective HPV -- cancer preventing! -- vaccines on the market. Why are we not jumping up and down about this news?

Instead, everyone from Michelle Bachmann to the parent down the street is weighing in on the merits and dangers of the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently upped the ante when they recommended routinely vaccinating boys as well as girls.

That recommendation doesn't make sense to some parents. After all, doesn't HPV cause cervical cancer?

Well, it does. But did you know that HPV is now a leading cause of head and neck cancers as well? Or that it can cause penile and anal cancer also?

According to the CDC, each year in the U.S.:

  • 1,500 women and 5,600 men get HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the back of throat including base of tongue and tonsils)
  • 400 men get HPV-associated penile cancer
  • 2,700 women and 1,500 men get HPV-associated anal cancer
Traditionally, smoking and tobacco usage were the main causes of head and neck cancers. But experts say that's changing. In a recent interview, Dr. Gregory Weinstein of the University of Pennsylvania told me that the number of oropharyngeal cancers is rising, and that head and neck cancers are increasingly occurring in younger patients.

Think about that for a bit. HPV is incredibly common; medical experts say that up to 50% of the sexually active population will be infected with HPV at some point. And oral sex is increasingly common among teenagers. According to the CDC, between 2006 and 2008, 48.4% of males between that ages of 15 and 19 have had oral sex with a female. 44.6% of 15 to 19 year-old girls have had oral sex with a male.

Not surprisingly, the numbers increase as the teens grow into adults. By adulthood, the number of people who have had oral sex hovers around 90 percent.

So, statistically-speaking, my boys -- and yours --are at risk for oral exposure to HPV. There's no guarantee that HPV exposure will result in oral cancer; researchers are still trying to determine why some people seem to clear with virus from their bodies without problem, while others go on to develop pre-cancerous and cancerous lesions. But given what we know now -- HPV can cause cancer, HPV is sexually transmitted and is virtually endemic in the population -- why wouldn't I take steps now to protect my sons' health?

Yes, there are some risks to the HPV-vaccine. There are also a lot of misconceptions about the vaccine. For a balanced look at the issues, check out this news story by NPR.

Bottom line: I'm getting my boys vaccinated against HPV. I'm doing it for them, and I'm doing it for their future sex partners as well.

How about you? Have your boys gotten the HPV vaccine?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Guest Post: In Praise of Free Play

By Marijke Vroomen Durning

It’s a typical toddler birthday party. The gifts are quickly unwrapped. While his parents ooh and aah over the wonderful toys, little Evan is enthralled with the discarded colorful paper and ribbons. If he’s really lucky, the gifts came in big boxes – and we know what that means. To heck with the gifts, there are boxes to play with!

When we were children, how many of us were thrilled at the prospect of a new appliance delivery? It wasn’t the new fridge or dryer that we were anticipating, it was The Box -- the great mysterious box that would provide us with hours of entertainment. What exotic places or far away planets would we travel to? What magical stories would we tell? What would we experience by getting inside this box?

Amid all the wonderful opportunities our children have, from organized sports and music lessons, to specialized school prep courses, there is one thing those activities don’t offer: the ability, the opportunity for children to reach beyond what they know. To use their imagination.

If we have so much to entertain our children, why is it important for children to play with a box?

Because that box doesn’t tell a child what to do.

It doesn’t present itself as anything but an empty box. There are no preconceived notions as to what should be done with it. What that box becomes is entirely up to the child.

Organized games are fun. Sports, outside activities, card and board games, even video games can offer useful life lessons in terms of cooperation, taking turns, and so on. But these games have rules that are set up in advance. In order for the children to play, they must follow the rules.

On the other hand, free play, such as playing with the box or running around outside with friends, has no preset rules. The rules are what the children decide they should be. And, if you watch children in free play, you may also notice that the rules are often very fluid. What wasn’t allowed at the beginning is more than acceptable later on, for example.

Fantasy play, which can include rough-and-tumble wrestling or having a tea party, calls on using imagination. Roles have to be created and there are decisions on how those roles will be played, who does what, when and where. As the play evolves, more thought has to be put in to the next steps of the game. There is likely a lot of negotiation as each child tries to be what he or she wants, or at least do something that gives him or her pleasure. Cooperation is needed so the play runs smoothly, and learning that you can’t always have your own way may also pop into the equation – that is, if you want to have playmates the next time you want to play.

Unfortunately, fantasy and imaginative play are becoming a lost art in many families. Too many children aren’t allowed to be bored – which is often when fantasy games are created. Many parents feel that if they allow their children to become bored, they must be failing in some way. So, to prevent boredom, there are many activities to choose from, either independently or with a parent.

Fantasy play may also be losing out to a perceived lack of time. Children are spending time in school, in daycare, and in organized activities. When they get home, they may have homework to do or they’re just plain too tired to do anything but watch TV or play on the computer. Parents, who are organizing their own full lives often don’t have the time or wherewithal to encourage their children to play. It’s easier to keep them busy.

And finally, there is the issue of adult hovering, or helicopter parenting. Parents who fall into this category don’t allow their children to play by themselves or with other children without their supervision for fear that they may get hurt physically or that their children may not be able to hold their own against a friend who may be a stronger personality. By being ever present, the hovering parents can ensure that their children always get to play fair, take turns, and have an adult to turn to if they feel that play isn’t going the right way.

Of course, life isn’t always so cut and dry, but if we think about it, it is easy to see that our children are not getting many opportunities to be kids, to pretend there are flying off to planet XYX to battle the bad guys. They can’t set up an elaborate theater so they can present a puppet show to their dolls and stuffed animals, and they can’t lie on the grass, staring up at the sky to see the clouds.

Although our lives are enriched with technology and fun that didn’t exist a generation ago, we shouldn’t relegate free play into the past, something quaint that we do when the power goes off.

Free play is an essential part of being a child and children who don’t get that opportunity to play may be missing out on a vital part of childhood development.

Guest blogger Marijke Vroomen Durning is gathering stories about games we used to play as children. She invites people to visit her website, Games We Used to Play, to read other stories and to submit a memory of a game (or games) they played, perhaps discovering that these favorite games were also played elsewhere with different rules or under a different name.

Photo by Nicholas Kimball via Flickr Creative Commons