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6 Meaningful Parenting Lessons From the '80s

Photograph by Getty Images

As a Gen-Xer, I often yearn for the simplicity of my childhood.

While Reaganomics, spandex and cocaine are happily left mostly in the past, there are some parenting lessons we can learn by looking back. Here are six things I miss about growing up in the '70s and '80s:

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1. We were unplugged

While it can be handy—and even life-saving—to be in touch 24/7, it also dampers our freedom and our ability to be present. Being a child of the '70s and '80s means you not only remember a time before smartphones, but a time before answering machines and call waiting. Remember the busy signal? Remember when the only electronics in your bedroom were your glowing alarm clock and the steady whorl of your cassette tapes being eaten?

2. Parents took breaks

In the early months of motherhood, I truly thought I had to be present with my son all the time. I felt guilty plunking him down on his activity mat so I could snatch a quick breakfast. Checking my email while nursing or popping him in his swing so I could pee alone also pressed my maternal guilt buttons.

I hear this frequently from other new moms feeling the pressure to be plugged into their kids constantly. We could take a lesson from parents in the '70s and '80s who weren’t afraid to plop us in a playpen while they did the dishes, read a magazine or gabbed with a friend on the phone. Our parents got little breaks, and we learned that we weren’t the center of the universe and we could entertain ourselves.

3. There were fewer experts

The Internet is an amazing source of connection and information. The first time our son awoke, sounding like a dying seal in the middle of the night, my husband jumped online and figured out we were dealing with the terrifying yet common croup.

But the Internet also exposes us to a constant stream of opinions on how we should be parenting. In the'70s and '80s, moms and dads had a small handful of parenting experts to turn to, namely T. Berry Brazelton, Dr. Spock and Penelope Leach.

4. We were unscheduled

“You only get to be a kid for a little bit longer,” they said. “You should enjoy your time.”

While I tried the typical range of activities, like ballet, violin and softball as a child, I never had more than one or two concurrent activities. I had time to just be, to get bored and to make up games and read books and perch in tree branches. When I was in high school, my parents tried to talk me out of a part-time job. “You only get to be a kid for a little bit longer,” they said. “You should enjoy your time.” While I didn’t heed their sage advice at the time, in retrospect I appreciate the sentiment.

5. More freedom

When I wasn’t in school, I was usually roaming the neighborhood with friends. We rode bikes, plucked bursting blueberries into margarine containers and tromped in and out of each other’s houses. Today, this would be considered free-range, and possibly dangerous parenting, but back then it was just how we lived. Thirty-something years later, and my best childhood memories are populated with the smell of bark and grass, snow forts and caterpillar-catching.

6. Less fretting about food

“Your kids are such good eaters. It’s great!” my mom often says as my children inhale plates of mango and cantaloupe. I stare at her, confused—these kids? The ones who won’t eat spaghetti or anything with more than three ingredients? “Yes! You guys never would’ve touched green beans or whole wheat bread,” she says, rolling her eyes.

It’s true that we’ve learned a lot about nutrition in the previous decades, and food safety is critical. But sometimes I think we’ve grown too uptight, sneaking organic vegetables into muffins or altogether forbidding sugar or fast food. Sometimes I think we make food into such a big deal, forgetting that teaching moderation and variety might be one of the best lessons for our kids.

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I’m grateful for many of the conveniences of modern life, the disappearance of enormous '80s bangs and the Aqua Net we used to get them. But life back then was simpler. We had more time and less competition. We knew less but had more freedom. We used intuition instead of the Internet. We can’t go back, but we can move forward, towing the best parts with us and passing them on.

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