Celia Rivenbark

From the Belle Tower | ‘Free-range’ parenting back in style

I was watching “Big Eyes” the other night. In the movie, set in 1958, the mom played by Amy Adams (brill as always) is going on her first job interview ever after leaving her husband.

She pulls into the parking lot of a furniture factory where she’s applying for a job. In the back seat of their ginormous tail-finned car, her daughter, about 5 years old, watches her mom fidget with her hair and makeup. Mom is hugely nervous about the interview. She has never held a paying job, and nobody even knows yet about those weird “big eyes” kid paintings she practically exhales by the dozen every day. Mom gives a bright “wish me luck” smile to her daughter and exits the car.

Wait. What?

I’m sure that wasn’t what Tim Burton expected me to get hung up on. There’s a lot going on in this movie, after all. But I could scarcely think about art theft and duplicitous spouses when a 5-year-old was left in the car. For maybe an hour! Wouldn’t some well-meaning soul summon the cops? Where was Child Protective Services? And to cross-pollinate a bit, would this end horribly with Det. Olivia Benson from “SVU” getting in the mix?

And then I realize that, in the ’50s, everyone was a “free-range” parent. That’s what it’s called now. In my childhood, it was called “walking a quarter mile to the store and getting a Nutty Buddy.” As a recovering helicopter mom, I get that we all went a bit overboard. A new friend lamented to me last week that she feels at least “partly responsible for the fact that in the very near future, we will have a U.S. Congress full of elected officials who will need to ask their moms how to vote.”

The image stuck with me. Was she right? Would we really have 100 senators texting back home to find out what Mom thought about this vote on ethanol subsidies? How does Mom feel about Iranian influence in Damascus? Is the Senate Bean Soup the best choice for lunch today?

What hath we wrought?

The pendulum is swinging back toward something more normal, thanks to the free-range movement led by Lenore Skenazy, who believes that “children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage.” But, hopefully, not on someone’s plate.

Skenazy, who was labeled “world’s worst mom” years ago for letting her 9-year-old ride the subway home by himself, has become the loudest voice on behalf of kids everywhere who just want to freakin’ ride their bikes over to Joey’s house two blocks over.

Surely the most encouraging news to come out of this “everything old is new again” parenting strategy is this nugget: It would take the average child standing outside by himself 750,000 hours to be kidnapped by a stranger. Statistically speaking, the “child” would be 85 years old before that would happen.

So there’s that.

Skenazy’s made a career out of training modern parents how to raise less-fearful, more capable kids. And Joeys everywhere are wicked grateful to her.

CELIA RIVENBARK is a New York Times best-selling author. Visit www.celiarivenbark.com.

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