Sue Freeman of Rochester, a partner with her husband in publishing books about hiking, biking and canoeing, wrote me recently about an interesting episode: "Just yesterday I was doing a mindless job, so I had the TV on for background noise. I don't even know what program it was, but they were lambasting a mother for letting her children play outside unsupervised.
"The mother defended herself, saying that we all played unsupervised as kids and actual crime rates are now down despite what the media lead us to believe. They barely let her speak, instead berating her for child neglect. It was our media frenzy at its finest - a sad commentary on our current state of affairs. Kids aren't even allowed to walk to the school bus. I watch parents drive their kids down our quiet cul-de-sac road and wait with them in the car until the bus arrives. Those poor kids - held captive indoors."
Contrast her comments with the experiences many of us had as youngsters. As preteens, we hiked miles away from home. We climbed trees: a group of us even constructed a tree house in an isolated woodlot. I rode my bike alone from Rochester to Conesus Lake and back several times, and with a friend to Letchworth Park and Mendon Ponds. We swam in the Erie Canal and in local creeks. We organized and played our own baseball and football games. We made and bottled root beer and sold it to highway workmen. We took the bus downtown to movies and to buy candy to sell house-to-house.
None of those activities was supervised by adults. Our parents lived their lives while we lived ours.
Programs like "Dateline" and "48 Hours" offer horrible crime stories at an ever-increasing rate. Why? It appears we love to feel threatened. As one result, parents today are convinced that their children are threatened by lurking pedophiles, rapists and thieves.
A recent survey showed that 43 percent of our children are not allowed to visit their closest park alone and 65 percent of adults view the world as a more dangerous place today. As a result, a generation of children is now staying indoors for longer periods of time and is restricted to going out only with a parent present.
But what is the real story? Despite the worst downturn since the Great Depression 80 years ago, crime rates are dropping annually.
Patrik Jonsson, of the Christian Science Monitor, said: "The last time the crime rate for serious crime - murder, rape, robbery, assault - fell to these levels, gasoline cost 29 cents a gallon and the average income for a working American was $5,807. That was 1963.
"In the past 20 years, for instance, the murder rate in this country has dropped by almost half, from 9.8 per 100,000 people in 1991 to 5 in 2009. Meanwhile, robberies were down 10 percent in 2010 from the year before and 8 percent in 2009."
James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist, summarized, "We are indeed a safer nation than 20 years ago."
What does this sociological information have to do with this nature column? The answer is simple. As we are overprotecting our youngsters, we are failing to give them opportunities to interact with the out-of-doors world on their own.
Many of these issues are raised by Richard Louv in his book, "Last Child in the Woods," but I am also concerned here with young people's ability to interact independently with the natural world.
And interestingly, it is not just children who are affected by this restrictive attitude. Freeman has also posted a fine commentary, "Don't be Afraid to Go Hiking Alone." Aimed specifically at women, it offers both strong arguments for doing this and precautions to consider. Her comments apply to children as well.
I urge parents not only to take their children out-of-doors but also to give them freedom to explore that out-of-doors on their own.