Back when I was a kid in the ’80s & ’90s, big bangs were… well…. tall, Madonna ruled MTV, and my world was decidedly analog. All kinds of trends have come and gone in the years since, but one of the things that might be most different: parenting trends. (Also, when did “parenting” even become a verb?)
It’s shocking to see just how dramatically the culture has shifted—for better or worse—toward a decidedly more hands-on parenting style. I notice my kids’ upbringing doesn’t always bear much resemblance to my own. Here are some of the differences between how I was raised and how I’m raising my own kids:
1. Unstructured Play
When I was growing up in suburban Hawaii, my best friend lived next door. Most afternoons, we were either stirring up mild mischief at her house (like convincing her little brother to use Nair as a shampoo—oops) or roaming the ‘hood with a couple of other neighbor girls like it was our personal fiefdom until dark. I don’t ever recall seeing my mom standing on our front lawn to monitor our street-crossing skills or conflict resolution techniques. (For the record, both were pretty abysmal).
My mom didn’t appear to give a second thought to my actions or whereabouts as long as I was home by dinner. That freedom—a tiny piece of what I imagined adulthood was—felt absolutely delicious.
Fast forward to today: my kids’ best friends also live on our block, and despite the fact that I don’t consider myself to be a helicopter parent, I hover with the best of them. In fact, I’m hovering this very moment, my kids just don’t know it. One of them is playing Harry Potter in the backyard with a friend, the other one is practicing for the circus with a buddy on the neighbor’s lawn, and I am listening. Even when I’m working on the computer or making dinner, my ear is highly attuned to the location and velocity of each child. I can determine the difference between a shriek of laughter and a shriek of pain in a hot second. If an argument breaks out, I’m quick to jump in as mediator. And you’d better believe that when a rando walks by I’m standing on the lawn like a she-wolf/ hawk/ mama bear.
Do I wish I didn’t fret about my kids’ safety at all times? Do I yearn to let them solve their own conflicts and fight their own battles? Do I wish I could let them roam the neighborhood with their friends willy-nilly as long as they were home by dark? I do.
2. Staying Home Alone
I did it—early and often. If my mom wanted to run to the grocery store or go out to lunch with a friend, I’d just watch some TV and help myself to a Snickers bar. One or two sugar-addled hours later, she’d be back. I was totally fine with it, and so was everybody else. But today, no matter where you fall on the free-range to helicopter spectrum, leaving young kids home alone is practically considered criminal negligence.
Personally, I want to let my older kid stay home alone for short periods here and there, and I think he can handle it, too. I’m just scared of all the things that could go wrong.
But after a recent conversation with another mom, my fears may be easing a bit. All I need to do, she said, is go over every horrible scenario that could arise in my (short) absence and drill the appropriate response into him over and over again until I’m totally confident that he could handle any manner of emergency or unforeseen event. After covering the basics (don’t open the door for anyone, don’t use the stove), we’ll move on to dealing with floods, tornadoes, and tsunamis. I estimate it should only take 500 hours of training, so I’m sure that by the time he’s a teenager we’ll be more than ready.
3. Car Safety
My cousins and I used to bounce around in the back of our parents’ minivans, and I recall that we sometimes even wore seat belts. (Though I also remember one of my aunts driving on the freeway with one hand while cradling her nursing baby with the other.) Even when the grownups in the front would yell at us to stay in our own seats, we’d somehow end up in a sticky puppy pile on hot summer days, and then thrust our heads out the back windows to cool down. It wasn’t safe—like not even a little bit. But man, was it fun.
Kids today, though, are strapped into their fortress-like seats; long gone are the days when siblings could easily annoy each other with a well-timed poke or some roughhousing in the way back. You can’t even take your newborn home from the hospital without a properly installed infant car seat, the installation of which is so complicated that new parents have to to study the manual like it’s a dissertation. Babies graduate from pricey rear-facing infant seats to pricey rear-facing baby seats to forward-facing toddler seats featuring 3-point harnesses and 5-point harnesses, then there are regular boosters, backless boosters…. the list (and the cost) goes on.
But it’s worth it. According to the CDC, car seats reduce childhood injury by 71-82% compared to seat belt use alone, so of course it’s worth all the hassle and moola. I mean WTF else would you do with all your free time and disposable income?
Just kidding, you guys. Car seats really are important. I just can’t help thinking sometimes about how my grandmother, who raised four children in rural Indiana while driving a tractor, would have laughed ‘til the cows came home about the lengths we now go to in the name of safety.
4. Food Choices
Back when I was a kid, Lucky Charms were a perfectly acceptable way to start the day. Oh, how those multi-colored marshmallows rocked my cereal bowl! And Tang was considered a real beverage. Also, squishy, empty-calorie white bread with American cheese and Miracle Whip. Nutritional science was not nearly as robust as it is now, and reading labels wasn’t really a thing.
Look, I’m not saying that I never serve my family packaged food today—I do. I just spend a lot more money than my parents did on “healthier” convenience food (that’s marketed squarely at moms like me) and I scrutinize those labels. If a food item has a bazillion grams of sugar per serving and/or zero nutritional value, I take it out of my (virtual) shopping cart. And when I do let my kids eat crappy food, I at least am aware of how crappy it is so I can feel horribly guilty.
Jury’s out, still, on whether feeding my family healthier food is better for my health.
My parents were not big spankers, but I was certainly whooped a handful of times for infractions like fibbing or talking back or vandalizing house plants (yes). While I wouldn’t say that corporal punishment was encouraged in the ‘80s and 90s, it was pretty common, and wasn’t yet widely considered an affront to public health and children’s self-esteem, like it is now. Those thwacks were swift, mildly painful, and quite memorable—so, kind of the ideal punishment, right?
Today, consequences, not punishments, are the name of the game, and in my house they often involve the removal (or threatened removal) of sweets and screen time. These consequences seem much more civilized than hitting younger and weaker creatures—absolutely. So much… milder. But they also require a ton more work from parents in the form of teaching and thinking—not to mention flat out mental stamina.
You guys, I don’t make them wear sunscreen every day. Please don’t report me to authorities. Yes, I make them apply the goop for beach days and summer birthday parties, but that’s about it. I do not send them to school covered in war paint. I’d rather spend the extra ten minutes each morning hitting the snooze button.
7. Early Bedtimes
When I was a kid it seemed like there was more of a looseness with bedtimes, generally. In our family that meant that sometimes we’d stay at family’s or friends’ houses ‘til late in the evening and I’d just crash there, or in the car on the way home.
Plenty of my mom friends talk about how their own parents were more relaxed about bedtimes, too—part of the hands-off approach that seemed to prevail back in those days. But many of us aren’t doing same with own kids. Me included. My kids have strict bedtimes because 1) they’re total pains in the butt if they haven’t gotten enough sleep, and 2) my husband and I need a few hours of kid-free time before we go to bed. When else are you gonna watch “Breaking Bad” reruns?