We like to look back to the 1980s as the halcyon days of child-rearing. Moms sat around drinking Tab and smoking Pall-Malls together, watching All My Children while the kids ran rampant through the streets.
Nowadays, we moms often lament the loss of those days — maybe not the Tab and the Pall Malls, but the chance to have mom-time, if only linked via spiral-corded phones, while our kids ran loose outside. Back in those days, you could leave a kid in the car and go grocery shopping for ten minutes. Back in those days, you didn’t have to worry that someone would call child protective services on you if your kids were playing in the yard alone. Back in those days, we didn’t have an extreme sense of stranger danger.
At least, that’s how we remembered it. But then again, we all grew up playing with slap bracelets and old school Nintendos: we’re ’80s kids, not ’80s mamas. We needed women who waited in massive lines trying to score us Cabbage Patch Dolls. Women who patiently explained the Alvin and the Chipmunks special about the Berlin Wall. Women who put up with games like Mall Madness, which told you to prank call people.
But was it really like we remembered? Were moms really smoking and drinking Tab without a care in the world?
Well, as is usually the case, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
My own mother, who had me in 1981, does remember me playing outside alone when I was five — what would be called “free-range parenting” now was just “parenting” back then. “You used to like to paint with water on the cement patio,” she says. “And I would be in the kitchen and you’d be out there.”
Once we moved to a new house when I was around six, my little brother, aged four, and I had full run of the front, side, and backyards. We were trusted to close gates behind us.
But that doesn’t mean our moms didn’t know where we were. “You mostly played on the porch,” my mom says. “You liked to play on the porch a lot. I always knew where you were.” By the time I was seven, and my brother five, we were trusted to walk together at least two blocks to our grandparents’ house. That radius included two streets (we were allowed to cross them), with a park in between that included swing sets, slides, and monkey bars.
And it turns out, there were helicopter moms in the ’80s too. “I was really strict,” says Lila Peterson, whose two children, a girl and a boy, were born in 1981 and 1983. That meant, to her, that her children had set bedtimes, that their toys were always meticulously put away, that politeness was the rule and television severely restricted.
But when it came to kicking her kids outside, she was anything but strict. Her one-acre yard was always full of children from all over the cul-de-sac, nary an adult in sight. Children roamed the neighborhood in packs, on foot and on bicycles. Trees were climbed. They even played flashlight tag at night. Peterson explains that they would put buckets over things like well covers that kids might trip over, but that it was basically hide-and-seek in the dark.
And moms struggled too. Trixie Hatfield, whose kids were born in the ’70s, says, looking back, she was dealing with what would have later been called depression and she often kicked her kids out of the house.
“I told them unless Eric Clapton, Dan Fogelberg, or Jesus Christ comes to the door to leave me alone, and they did.”
Some of the things our moms let us do in the ’80s would be considered downright negligent by today’s standards. For instance, my mother let me walk half a block to buy a loaf of bread when I was four years old.
By eight, I was allowed to walk a block, cross a road, walk another block to a gas station, and buy whatever my money could purchase.
By the time her daughter was 11 years old, Peterson taught her, her 8 year-old son, and some neighbor children to walk about half a mile to a corner store, down a road with only a slight shoulder. She trusted them, and walked with them the first few times. This from a mother who called herself “very strict.”
When asked if she was worried about her kids getting snatched, my own mother laughed at me. “No,” she says. “I worried more that when I left you in the car alone, you would take the emergency brake off and run into someone else’s car.” Peterson says the only time she worried about kidnappings was when she walked the kids to the corner store for the first time, and they had to have the normal, sane conversation about What Would Happen If. Hatfield says she never worried about her kids getting kidnapped out of the yard. “I worried about the kids getting run over, people coming flying down the driveway for no reason,” she says.
But both my mother and Peterson were careful to point out a very important reason they didn’t worry about their kids: they knew almost every one of their neighbors. “We knew no one was going to let our kids bleed on the side of the road,” Peterson says. “We knew everyone who lived there.” My mother says she knew literally everyone up and down our street. They really embraced and trusted their village.
“It’s not like that anymore,” Peterson says. “People don’t know their neighbors and they’re afraid to help with strange kids. You might get sued.”
And while Hatfield doesn’t remember much about whether or not her kids got their own food, my brother and I and the Peterson kids certainly did. “You got cereal. You got drinks. You got peanut butter crackers and fruit from the refrigerator. You climbed on the counter to get cereal from the time you were five,” my mom tells me. Peterson says that she would lay out packages of cookies and jugs of milk with directions on how much people were supposed to have. “If you give them the opportunity,” she says of children, “they will rise to the occasion.”
Despite the laissez faire attitude of ’80s moms when it came to daytime frolicking, lots of us kids had strict bedtimes. My brother and I weren’t allowed to have TVs in our rooms, nor were some of the other ’80s kids we talked to. We had chores to do and were held accountable for our schoolwork. We were all well-looked-after. But we were allowed plenty of freedom. We were left in the car by ourselves on occasion. We were expected to get our own food (at least most of us were). And we all turned out pretty okay.
At least our ’80s moms think so.
So maybe we helicoptering 2020 parents can learn something from those OG Scary Mommies from the 1980s. Maybe we can loosen the reins a little. Kick the kids outside. Chill out. Maybe watch some All My Children. “I always knew generally where you were,” my mother says. But she gets mad when I say she “didn’t care” that we were running around the neighborhood. “Don’t say that,” she scolds. “I did care. But I didn’t worry.”
Maybe in this world of stranger danger, of constantly cycling bad news, of worry and fear, in this world where bad things do happen sometimes — maybe we should listen a little more to my mom. Maybe we should keep caring. But maybe we need to stop worrying.