Why Parenting Was So Much Better in the '80s

by Nicole Johnson
Originally Published: 
A mother sitting on the sofa with her three kids while posing for a photo in the '80s

The 1970s and ’80s were a different time. Men drank, women smoked, people enjoyed Tang and SPAM. The stay-at-home mothers of today were yesterday’s housewives, and they were OK with it. Kids were kids and parents were law.

I miss those days. I grew up in those days.

As I watch the parents of today ask the Eastons and Brynnas of tomorrow, the future rulers of the free world, if they’d mind quieting down as they run through early morning tumbling classes, I cringe.

I do my best to hold my tongue, attempting to keep my own parental views to myself, but sometimes when unruly offspring go a bit too far (throwing blocks, screaming as parents smile and continue to talk about the weather) or when my patience has been pushed to the limit, I speak up.

OK, maybe I just make some passive aggressive jabs…loudly. Things like, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people could control their kids?” Maybe I’m out of line. Maybe I’m a bitch. But let’s face it, I’m an honest bitch, and someone has to speak up. We as parents need to end the reckless sense of entitlement we’ve fostered in our progeny. I don’t mean for this post to come across as a rant or a lecture. Rather, I want to go back to the days of the simplistic (I know some of you would argue neglectful) parenting style of the ’70s and ’80s. I can’t help but hear our own parents and grandparents whisper, “You’re doing it wrong.” While they wouldn’t be entirely right, they may not be entirely wrong. So, keep reading if I haven’t pissed you off too much….

Playing was simple.

I think you know what I mean. Little Bruce from down the street knocked on the door and asked if Rodger could come out and play. There was no scheduling, no play dates to set up. iPhones, with color-coded calendars as complicated as ancient Slavic languages, weren’t frantically pulled out.

No, Mom would yell for Bruce and he and Rodge would go out and play with sticks, stones, and trees. Nature sparked imagination, something I wonder if my own kids have lost because the world has imagined everything for them, given them everything in an instantaneous and gluttonous heap. We’ve replaced imagination with rigid schedules, which leave very little time for original thought.

But let’s get back to Bruce and Rodge. When Mom calls them for lunch, she simply sticks her head out the door and yells their names. They come when called and settle into lunches decided upon by the parent, no choices. As my son stands behind me reading this, he says, “I don’t know what to play.” Parents are activities directors. Kids no longer know how to be bored.

Toys were toys.

The Slinkys and Shrinky Dinks, while not gone, have mostly been forgotten, tossed aside for the wonderful world of electronics. Our idea of an electronic was Battleship or Simple Simon. Kids would literally sit and spin until they were about to vomit, but the toy was not without appeal. And don’t even get me started on the precursors to the jazzy software art programs of today—the Lite-Brite, which, while it had a catchy song, was impossible to work. I could never figure out how to make the super ship or suburban house from the commercials. Instead, I made odd boats and nice squares, everything looked boxy. And speaking of boxy, the Etch A Sketch—impossible, but it sure was fun to shake.

Today we have the iPad, Kindles, laptops, and Xboxes, and each year they come out with better versions. As children are whooping it up at birthdays and holidays with the latest and greatest, parents know their kid’s happiness is transitory; in just a short time a newer, better, faster (but just by a bit) version will come out with a price increase because today’s gadgets are like cars, depreciating as we purchase them. Our kids want the best and we, out of guilt and keeping up with the Jones syndrome, often give it to them. I’m guilty of this, so I’m not judging—and if I am, I’m including myself.

Cartoons were on Saturday.

Saturday mornings were a big deal. Mom bought sugar cereal and this was the one day we were allowed to eat it. My own grandmother wouldn’t buy our weekday cereal unless sugar was the third (or fourth) ingredient listed on the box, but on Saturday morning we could get jacked up on sugar and watch cartoons until lunch. Now, cartoons are on every day, 24/7.

When my daughter was up sick I had several shows to chose from, at 2 a.m., on a Tuesday. Growing up we only had Saturday. And we watched what our parents did if we were lucky enough to get to watch TV. I was raised on a steady diet of Aaron Spelling, Norman Lear and soap operas, which taught me the wonders of kissing and serious stares. I dreamed of boarding school because I watched four girls each week and they seemed to really love it. And there was a little boy, the son of a millionaire, who rode a train through his living room and slept in a race car bed. In my world of TV, two boys from Harlem got into trouble each week while their wealthy benefactor father watched and advised from their Park Ave. penthouse. Today’s shows seem unbelievable in comparison: a girl is nanny to four kids adopted by rich parents who are never around to raise them….what?

Kids did what their parents did…period.

We weren’t given options. They didn’t ask if we’d like to go to the beach or amusement park. If our parents said beach, we loaded into the back of the wagon, slapped on our water wings and followed them for a day of crispy (remember, no sunscreen) and often painful fun. We came home red and blistered, but our parents told us we’d had fun and we believed them, because they said so….

And their catchphrases were different from the ones I use on my own children. The I’ll give you something to cry about and no ifs, ands or buts about it have been replaced by no treat tonight, no show or early bedtime. How I miss the old days….

Food was NOT organic.

Because either it wasn’t filled with chemicals and preservatives or our parents just didn’t care. Now, we have to be mindful of ingredients.

Back in the day we ate SPAM, and Fluffernutters. Kool-Aid and Tang were our drinks of choice. Kids weren’t allergic to everything. Today EpiPens and hand sanitizer are pocketbook necessities. Poor kids face lives without ice cream or peanut butter. Eating was simpler back in the ’70s and ’80s, though I can’t figure out why.

And when we sat down to dinner, we ate every single bite….or else!! We didn’t leave the table and we said please and thank you for everything and to everyone. No exceptions.

And finally, the family pet.

Dogs were dogs with dog names like Toby and King. They were not named after Disney princesses or superheroes. Dogs did not wear dresses, or see a therapist; they were not profile pictures on Facebook. They were dogs, and their owners wanted them to know they were dogs. Just like my kids know they are children, and I am the parent.

This doesn’t mean dogs or kids are less than their adults; it simply means they are not the same. So, I will not schedule playdates for my dog or bring her to a doggie dating event (no, I’ve never heard of one, but I’m sure they exist or are about to). Instead, I promise to take her for walks, feed her dog food, let her chew on sticks and act like what she is, a dog. Today, we schedule dates for our dogs. Don’t schedule dates for your dogs. Enough said.

Yes, I am guilty of doing half the things I’ve mentioned. Yes, I’m a hypocrite, but aren’t we all in one way or another. What I hope for myself and for all of us is to fall somewhere in between the carefree and possibly neglectful parenting of the ’70s and ’80s, and the very involved, bordering on coddling, parenting of today. I hope I am aware enough to realize that parenting is hard and we all just do our best to make it through—no matter the decade.

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