I grew up in a typical Long Island middle class neighborhood in Islip in the 1970s and '80s. Starting around age 6 or 7, on a weekend or after school, we would leave the house, yelling back to our parents, "Going out, be back by dinner!"
We'd leave for the day on our bikes with neighborhood kids. An open field through a patch of woods (now a housing development) was our ballfield. We built tree forts and played hide-and-seek. We went home when the streetlights came on.
By contrast, here in the 21st century, my two boys, ages 6 and 10, are in a constant state of surveillance, never out of sight of a grown-up. Every activity is planned and monitored.
We live only two blocks from their school, but it wasn't until he was in third grade that we let the older one walk there by himself -- even though every street has a crossing guard and we know most of the people between our house and the building.
My older son has asked to ride his bike to his baseball games -- the fields are right next to the school. I say yes sometimes, but I'm only recently becoming more comfortable with this. I also feel that if my children are seen unsupervised, I will be viewed as a bad mother by other parents.
So, what happened? When did we go from a society where children ran free, discovered things on their own and used their imaginations, to what we have now: a culture of hermits, getting outside only for structured playdates or when the grown-ups can watch them?
Of course, a few things happened. There were the disappearances of two 6-year-old boys -- Etan Patz from a Manhattan street back in 1979, and Adam Walsh from a Florida mall in 1981. Etan (whose case was back in the news this week, as detectives sought more evidence about a New Jersey man who is a suspect) became the first child to appear on a milk carton. Adam's abduction and murder were subjects of a 1983 TV movie and his dad, John Walsh, became host of the show "America's Most Wanted."
The growth of such shows, as well as cable news and the Internet, have turned very local child abductions into more widely known news stories.
But at the same time, national data show that crimes against children -- including sexual and physical abuse and neglect -- have dropped in the last 20 years. And experts say abductions by strangers are remarkably rare.
In recent years we've also seen the rise of childhood obesity. Federal officials warn that a third of American children weigh more than they should. And the playdate culture gets some blame.
As a parent, I am torn. While I would love to have my boys experience the kind of childhood freedom I had, I know the risks we took by doing things such as jumping off roofs into pools or making and riding on bicycle ramps -- without helmets!
I try to rationalize that the chances of something happening to my son when he bikes to the baseball field or walks to school are very, very low. But that nagging thought is always with me -- maybe the same thought that Leiby Kletzky's mother had when she let her 7-year-old walk home from his Brooklyn day camp for the first time in 2011: What if something does happen?
Reader Karen Costa lives in Bayport.