I was 11 years old in 1982.
I was out of school for the summer and I wasn’t going to summer camp where I’d be entertained by teenage dorks for two weeks straight for the price of a small home. My family wasn’t gearing up for some long summer vacation either, to Europe or even to see the Rocky Mountains.
Nope, instead my single mom saved every penny she had to take us down to the beach for a few days each summer. Europe schmoorup; we wanted to pee in the ocean. That’s all we wanted out of life back then.
What happened though?
I’ve got three young kids now, and I swear I’m not coming at this from a nostalgia angle, but what the hell happened to the whole art of 1980s parenting?
And more importantly, tell me this: what ever happened to living a perfectly dull, beautiful childhood where nothing much ever happened, except maybe breakfast cereal from the grocery store and BMX bikes from Kmart?
Have we created a monster out of what ought to be the most beautiful experience in this world? Have we all lost the parenting plot? Have we gone way overboard with worrying about making sure that our kids are constantly entertained and tiptoeing around their “feelings” to the point that we’re losing control of them little by little?
Are we over-parenting? I’m a dad and I really need to know.
But then again, I already have my answer. Because I remember a time when kids were left to their own devices way more than they are today.
And I was one of those kids.
And I’m so glad about that.
Back in the 1980s, my little brother and I looked up to my single mom as the primary source of discipline and guidance in our lives. She taught us right from wrong. She told us the straight truth about equality and race, about how everyone was the same. She made us promise not to hurt other people, with fists or with words.
Mom explained that our father was an alcoholic and that his total absence from our lives by the time we were 12 and 10 wasn’t his fault.
“He’s so sick,” she explained. “He loves you so much but he doesn’t know how to be your daddy.”
We listened to her words. We cried with her and laughed with her and fought with her and then obeyed her all over again. And we loved her with every ounce of our being. Even though we couldn’t possibly fathom how difficult her life was, we somehow knew that she was the one we needed to follow until the time came when we were on our own.
She cooked us meals, but also taught us how to cook certain things on our own.
Back in the ’80s, our mom loved us as hard and true as any mom has ever loved her kids. But she also let us figure out a lot of things on our own.
And that is where I think we may be messing up these days.
But then again: what do I know?
Here’s a theory I have: we’re over-stimulated as modern parents.
We’re way tuned into trying too hard. We have too many voices coming at us from too many directions. One opinion cancels out the next until white noise is eating our brains and our imaginations. The Internet has changed our lives for the better, no doubt, but it has also destroyed so much of what made parenting great when I was a kid.
Moms and dads used to learn everything by living through stuff; kids, too. There wasn’t a wall of data to scale before they hit the ground running. Life simply happened without a cyber blueprint for living. And we both used to make a lot of mistakes along the way without feeling super guilty about them. Parents and their kids living through the 1980s all lived and died by one of life’s best lessons: you screw it up once, and then you try a better, different approach tomorrow.
Nowadays we’re wolves; we attack the slightest parenting misstep from others in order to get a quick rush of feeling-better-about-ourselves.
There is way less room for just seeing how it goes.
I think the kids are the ones who are missing out on that the most.
By the time I was 12 (1983), my mom used to leave me and my little brother $2 for Slurpees on the kitchen table before she left for work every summer morning. That was it.
And a note.
“Be good. See you at dinner. Pork chops. Don’t fight. I love you. Mom”
The rest of our day was up to us. We made our own sandwiches. We locked the doors when we left the house. We rode our bikes for miles under a sweltering sun. We played baseball. We caught crayfish. We encountered weirdos in the park or in the 7-Eleven parking lot and with that we learned how to dodge the weirdos of the world.
No one was ever hovering over our shoulder.
No one was critiquing our mom or us in the comments section.
No one even knew we were alive and out there in the world except our mother, really. But she knew we would be okay because she had done all she felt she needed to do to ensure that. Now it was our turn to live, to shine, to enjoy our days and to learn what was what.
In so many ways we’re afraid to let our kids really live anymore.
Because we want them to live. To survive. How crazy is that? We want to protect them from this world we think will swallow them whole if we take our eyes off of them for even a moment, and yet we are probably holding them back from so many worthwhile experiences in the process.
What kind of adults will they end up being because of that though? The potential answers scare me.
I’m not going to be around forever, and neither are you. Sometimes I think we owe our own children the chance to prepare themselves for that. Perhaps we ought to trust them way more. They’re not stupid, you know. They might end up that way though if we baby them forever. Or spend our parenting lives copying everyone else.
As parents, we just want everything to be as okay as possible. It keeps creeping back up on me though, this whole ridiculous notion of time travel and saving everything before all hope is lost. I keep wondering if we need to start pretending that it’s 1982 all over again. I keep telling myself it could work.
But I know, I know. It’s probably too late for all that.
And that scares the hell out of me.