The days were long and the years were... also long. In the morning I’d fill my bowl with Frosted Flakes and stare at the tiger, wondering what he had in store for his day, while my mom chatted on the phone with the neighbors, standing near the wall where the cord allowed her just three feet of walking room. She’d yell after me as I bounded outside to find my neighbor friends: “Stay where I can find you!” She meant somewhere in the neighborhood — at least four streets and maybe 30 houses worth of territory. She wasn’t worried. After all, she knew someone would throw a peanut butter and fluff sandwich my way at some point, and if I was skinned up bad enough, I’d limp home.
The ’90s were a different time to raise children, and to be raised. It wasn’t all perfect, and in some ways it was much worse. People with mental health struggles were told to hunker down, power through, suck it up, and keep plugging. We drank a lot of sugary soda and ate way fewer berries. We definitely hadn’t ever heard of chickpea pasta. But we also didn’t have phones that needed security settings or coding camps clogging up our summers. Instead, we had the great outdoors at our fingertips and endless unstructured days.
And this year, I’m trying to channel a little bit of that 1990s energy into my own parenting, here in 2022. Here are the lessons I’m trying to apply, gleaned from remembering my own parents’ efforts back in the day.
Delayed gratification (and the unthinkable word “no”) is okay, and healthy
I’m the kind of parent that tries to say “yes” whenever possible, unless there’s a good reason not to. But sometimes that leads to too many yeses, potentially contributing to my kids being uneasy (okay, straight pissed) when they have to wait for something — new sunglasses from Amazon, a pizza that takes more than 15 minutes to cook, their turn in a long line. Lara Goodrich, a psychologist in Madison, Connecticut, says ’90s kids were a bit better at this, thanks to television commercials and seeking information in an encyclopedia rather than instantly from Alexa.
“I think it’s harder for parents today in that we have to be a little bit more thoughtful of how we teach our kids frustration tolerance, because the world just doesn’t have it built in as much, and that’s not our fault,” she says, adding our kids watching multiple streaming platforms will never know the rush of running to get a snack before a show is back on, because you can’t pause.
“I remember being dragged through multiple stores for errands and now we can shop a website or big box store, and it feels a little bit less drawn out,” she says.
But parents don’t have to time travel back to the ’90s to teach delayed gratification. Instead, she says, they can practice by simply saying “no” firmly, when necessary, and sticking to it even if there’s a fit in the candy aisle. Another idea is to help them pursue activities outside their comfort zone, such as a sport they aren’t instantly great at, to teach “grit” and frustration tolerance, she adds.
We didn’t know the yet-to-be-discovered power of boredom
As I shuttle my kids to four daycares/camps/babysitters each summer day to sneak in a few hours of work, I think back to long care-free days where yard exploration stretched ahead of me and I didn’t even know the time. My biggest problem as a ’90s (only) child was boredom, with just my dolls, playset, and eventually MarioKart to break up the hours. For most people my age, our parents had no problem shooing us away to go figure out what to do, throwing around the “Oh, you need something to do? I’ll give you something to do” (aka laundry). My parents didn’t try to fill my hours with entertainment — either I could figure something out, or they’d put me to work.
They didn’t even know they were giving me something very valuable. Research has since shown that boredom has immense benefits for inspiring creative young minds. Instagram is brimming with lists of activities to give kids today ideas, when they really need the motivation of boredom itself. As a 2022 parent, I’m planning stretches of time now (after all those camps) where my kids intentionally have no plans except to figure out what they actually want to do, and make it happen. And if they don’t, there’s always laundry.
There were multiple barriers between kids and inappropriate content
In the ’90s, the only way you were going to encounter something “inappropriate” for your age was if you intentionally sought out your parents' adult magazines under the bed, or as Goodrich says, peered at a high-rated movie cover at Blockbuster. There wasn’t any access to your friend’s unrestricted iPhone, allowing you to accidentally (or intentionally) search instantly for videos, images, and answers beyond your years.
“Even if a youth was like ‘ooo, I want to see something I’m not supposed to’ there was something to having to plan it out, get away with it, talk to your friends — there was a process that kept you insulated or protected somehow,” she says. “Now, kids can stumble into something they never wanted to be exposed to…I think that’s hard for kids and parents.”
We can’t recreate the phone-free ’90s, but Goodrich says we can combat this increased access by having specific and meaningful conversations about inappropriate material before kids accidentally come across it. She calls those conversations “the protective factor” which means kids have a safe space even in a scary world of instant access to the whole internet.
And one thing we don’t miss about the ’90s…
For all the nostalgia and retro vibes the 90’s bring millennial parents, it wasn’t all Converses and Cheetos. In fact, both mental and physical health awareness have evolved substantially in the past three decades. Goodrich says we’ve moved towards increased attention and action for children with mental health problems, and away from the “show up no matter what” mentality. For example, if you won an attendance award in then’90s, that means you were awarded for coming to school every day whether you were sick, having your first painful period, or having a tough puberty-filled angsty mental health day (that now, you might have been able to taken off in some places).
“The power through, the grin and bear it, the don’t be upset, the you’ll get over it — sometimes that can teach resilience, but I think when it’s too polarized in that direction, it doesn’t teach children how to manage or express their emotions and work through them, it just teaches them to shut them down or that they aren’t valid,” Goodrich says. And that just might be the only thing we don’t miss about the 90’s.
Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter, and editor focusing on health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education, and lifestyle. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also mom to her four sons under age 7, who keep things chaotic, fun, and interesting. For over a decade she has been helping publications and companies connect with readers and bring high-quality information and research to them in a relatable voice. She has been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, and Insider.
Alex has a Master of Arts in Teaching, and a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications/Journalism, both from Miami University. She has also taught high school for 10 years, specializing in media education.