For nearly a decade, I have tutored children online. I began my career with America Online, through their "Ask a Teacher" program, and gradually continued through the ranks until I worked with several of their divisions. One of them involved monitoring chat rooms for child predators. I watched out for underage children, and anyone who was out there looking for them.

It never ceased to amaze me how much information children gave out, and how many parents had no idea that their children were even in a chat room to begin with.

Although there are many filtering programs that enable parents to supervise what sites their children access, a determined and savvy child can bypass most of these hurdles. And in general, children are often exposed to far more than what their parents are aware of.

That's why it is extremely important for parents to talk with their children about a variety of topics. Some of these topics may be uncomfortable, but it is vital to maintain an open line of communication. If a child is raised from a young age with the expectation of discussing their day with their parents, it will not become uncomfortable to discuss more serious, private topics with their parents, as they get older.

It is perfectly all right to ask your child what he or she did during the day, and who he or she spent time with. From the beginning, a child should be aware that he or she will be held accountable for their day. "Nothing" is never an acceptable answer. Obviously, something was done that day. Did you eat lunch? What? Was it good? Bad? Why? Even insignificant questions such as these opens up a line of conversation.

If necessary, contact your child's teacher. They are usually the first ones to notice that something may not be right.

Aware Parent

Parents need to know who their children's friends are. If you are uncomfortable with a peer choice, discuss it with your child and give some concrete reasons. Simply telling a child, "I don't want you to play with "Joe'," but not explaining why, only encourages the child to spend more time with Joe when Mom and Dad are not paying attention. The ability to do something "taboo" becomes exciting. However, if your child understands the reasons for the rules, you'll have a greater chance of maintaining a trustworthy relationship.

Be an "aware" parent. If you are walking in the street or a store, and you observe your child watching something intently, ask. What are you looking at? Do you understand that? Do you have questions? It can be a topic as innocuous as a different kind of fruit that the child has never seen. But this way, when your child has more sensitive questions, i.e. about gender differences, nontraditional family structures, children who are different, etc., you will already have an open line of conversation.

When a child comes with these questions, be careful not to embarrass or shame him, or refuse to answer his questions. Be honest with your children. The choice is between you discussing these topics with your children, or someone else discussing those topics with your children. Today the most easily accessible source is either the Internet, or a friend who more than likely has "mis-information."

It's not okay to say, "That's something you'll find out when you're older."

When a child comes to you with a curious question, it's important to find out why. Where did they see what they are asking about? What do they (not you) think about what they saw? What do they want to know about what they saw? Are they curious?

It's not okay to say, "That's something you'll find out when you are older," or "That's not something good children talk about," because the truth is that your child saw something somewhere, and has a question. That question will gnaw at them, and one way or the other, they will find an answer that satisfies them. Shaming a child because you are uncomfortable will ensure that your children will hesitate -- or perhaps stop altogether -- asking you questions in the future.

Red Flags

I will never forget the 14-year-old girl who was picked up by the local police department after her parents reported her missing. She got on a bus to come meet a man that she'd met online. The girl told the police that her parents never listened to her, so she ultimately found someone who would. Thankfully she was stopped by the police before she met up with this stranger.

An aware parent should be able to detect any trouble brewing before it actually happens. Several things to look out for:

• if your child constantly comes to you with questions and then suddenly stops asking

• if your child never has anything to tell you about school, in spite of prodding, questioning, and remaining in contact with his/her teacher

• if your child suddenly becomes embarrassed, shy, or blushes easily when you ask about friends

• if you allow your child access to a computer, and he/she quickly shuts down when you enter a room

• if your open, extroverted child suddenly becomes secretive and quiet

Any of the above is a red flag. The answer could be as simple as having had a fight with a friend, but it could be something more. So put any embarrassment and discomfort aside. For the sake of your children, make yourself available and sit down for an honest, open chat with your child.