By BRUCE FRASSINELLI

Special to The TIMES NEWS

Are we becoming a nation of paranoid parents raising wimpy kids?

OK, OK, maybe that's an overstatement, but, this past summer, I pitied some of our grandchildren who couldn't wander from their parents' watchful eyes.

If these children are out of sight, even for a second, panic sets in. A phantom predator or kidnapper is lurking in every nook and cranny of the mall, in every car that drives down the street and in every human who has the misfortune to walk by.

I mean it's great to be concerned about a child's well-being, but, c'mon, give it a rest.

Compare that to the wondrous expectation of exploration we enjoyed as children. When my friends and I were seven or eight growing up in Summit Hill, we began touring the neighborhood, even beyond. Sure, you had to check in with mom periodically, and you had better be home at noon for lunch. After lunch, though, it was back to the good stuff until supper.

We would play baseball on the street - we used a piece of cardboard for home, curbs were first and third, and we usually found something creative that served as second.

We explored the woods north and south of the borough and had fun with the little critters, including snakes, that inhabited them. We once tried to scale the water tower that overlooks Summit Hill from Sharp Mountain. We even improvised mid-afternoon picnics (usually a Snickers bar, Coke and sometimes penny candy I would swipe from my parents' grocery store at 19 N. Market St.).

We walked above an abandoned coal mine southeast of the community, taking delight in yelling to hear our voices echo back.

When we were a little older, we formed unofficial community football teams and would walk to Lansford or Coaldale to take on their teams. We didn't have biddy, midget or other official feeder programs, but, no problem, we were inventive. By the way, we played tackle football - not tag - and we didn't use pads.

Today, children of that age are literal prisoners of the parental gestapo. "Why don't you let them walk down the street to their friend's house?" I asked recently. "Are you crazy?" comes the incredulous reply as the child is swept up into the family SUV for the short one-block trip. The return home several hours later occurs the same way.

Every day on my morning walk, I see scores of cars harboring youngsters who can't hang out on the street corner until the school bus arrives. When the bus arrives, the child gets out of the heated car and walks 10 steps to the bus.

I recalled that as a 9-year-old, my friends and I went to the swimming pool or theater in Lansford. Our parents didn't transport us; we "bummed" a ride. We later found out the correct word for what we were doing is "hitchhiking."

No one thought it was dangerous. In fact, after the 7 p.m. movie, more than 40 or 50 of us who lived in Summit Hill lined up at the "bumming" corner, and virtually every car heading toward our hometown stopped to pick up two or three of us. In a matter of five or 10 minutes, the corner was empty.

Now, I'm not advocating that parents let their children hitchhike today. I realize times have changed, and some things are much more dangerous than they were when I was a kid, but our concern has gone over the top.

As a result, we are turning our kids into terror-stricken snivelers who are afraid of their own shadows.

When our grandchildren come to visit, if I don't go outside to play with them, I must be physically outside eyeballing them. Don't even think of napping - just in case someone might come along and snatch them out of our backyard.

Sure, I understand that things like that can happen, but let's be realistic. Let's consider actuality vs. probability and act accordingly. Life is filled with potential dangers that must be recognized and dealt with.

Turning our children into paranoid cowards doesn't seem to be a reasonable course to take. Let's teach our children about safety and give them more freedom to find the joys of childhood that come through exploration and discovery.

(Bruce Frassinelli, a native of Summit Hill, lives in Schnecksville and is an adjunct instructor at Lehigh Carbon Community College.)