Sneak peak: Many of us have fond memories of growing up in the 80s and want our kids to experience some of that freedom and exploration. A few research-backed tips for helping our kids get a taste of our childhood while still fostering 21st-century skills
My oldest son (almost 10) is at the stage of childhood where friends and sports are his life. As soon as he gets off the bus after school, he coordinates with his neighborhood friends about who can play where.
We are very fortunate to live in a neighborhood with a park at its center. Any afternoon during most seasons of the year, you’ll find packs of kids playing on the playground, playing sports or just biking around the park.
The best part: if the kids are over about the age of 6 or 7, most of them are unaccompanied by parents!
Every time I see these kids, I think, “it’s just like what we did growing up in the 80s”
In today’s world, this seems like a rare find.
The reasons for the rarity of this scene are twofold. One, in our digital age, the appeal of screens is sometimes so high that many kids speed off to video games or online attractions more than the park.
Secondly, in the past few decades, media coverage of kidnappings has created a culture of fear among parents. Although, in reality, these types of crimes are very rare, the public perception of them is very different. Many parents feel the need to keep their kids under close supervision, even at older ages.
Growing Up in the 80s
Many of us with school-aged children grew up in the 1980s when childhood looked much differently. With limited access to video games and neighborhood schools more the norm, we often spent our afternoons with friends from school. I grew up in a very small town, so safety was not a big concern. I spent many an afternoon at friends’ houses playing games, jumping on the trampoline and yes, watching MTV videos.
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If you’re like me, you probably long to recreate this 1980s childhood of freedom and exploration for your own kids. Even in today’s world, I think it is still possible to create at least some aspects of this childhood. The best part—this type of childhood characterized by autonomy, exploration, friendships, and self-determination is backed by a lot of child development research.
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Here I offer a few research-backed ways to support a 1980s childhood in our 21st-century world:
Allow Time for Unstructured Play
Few things have changed more in parenting culture since the 1980s as the desire for activities. Growing up in the 80s, many of our childhoods involved sports or dance, but we had nothing close to the plethora of choices of activities that kids have today. From crafts, and chess club to horseback riding, robotics, and art club, the choices are dizzying and that’s just a few that I’ve heard about as options in our small town today.
These activities are appealing to parents. I understand the desire to “enrich” our kids’ lives and make most of their time spent doing something educational. Sometimes, however, we have to step back and consider how much of the desire for activities is coming from our FOMO (fear of missing out) rather than from our kids’ interests.
More importantly, however, is the fact that unstructured play actually builds real skills too. Unencumbered by adult rules and control, kids often devise their own rules and games when left to play on their own. They have to manage their own conflicts, set their own boundaries and in doing so grow immensely in their social-emotional development and foster strong friendships.
Research strongly supports the notion of allowing more unstructured play for kids. A recent study showed that the more time children spent in structured activities, the lower their scores on the assessment of executive function. In contrast, the more time children spent in less structured activities, the higher their assessment of executive function.
Executive functioning skills are all those real-world skills that we hope our kids are learning like self-control, planning ahead, delayed gratification, and goal-oriented behavior. Not surprisingly, these are the exact skills that are correlated most highly with success in the academic and career world.
Limit Hovering, Helicopter, Lawnmowing Parenting…
First, it was helicopter parenting, then it was lawnmower parenting, or was it snowplow? Whatever the current terminology, they all mean pretty much the same idea: we hinder our children’s development when we take away all the challenges, obstacles or opportunities for failure. As hard as it is, we have to allow our kids to fail sometimes.
The instinct to protect our kids from hurt, even psychological hurt, is strong in us. From birth, our job as parents is to protect, shield, and prevent any type of injury. As our kids mature, however, we must change too (as hard as that is). At a certain point, one of our parenting goals must include allowing our kids to experience the natural consequences of their choices. If my son chooses not to study for that math test (even if I remind him) and he fails it, I must allow the failure so he can really learn what it feels like to bounce back from that.
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These situations are where real skills are fostered. The skills of persistence, resilience, and growth mindset are really only honed in the school of life experience. We can warn and lecture, but until our child experiences real failure, they do not really have the skills to pull themselves up and try again.
If the recent college admissions scandal teaches us nothing, it’s the short-sided view that helicopter parenting instills. We see from this example how parents who consistently move aside barriers for their kids really only hinder their development in the long term.
The Smartest Smartphone Alternative
In practical terms, trying to not be a helicopter parent often means taking on small changes and challenges at a time. For example, in recent years we have allowed our oldest son (almost 10) to walk to friends’ houses in the neighborhood without us. Honestly, I had to give myself several internal “pep talks” to make this happen. Like most parents, I was concerned for his safety and his ability to make good choices.
We discussed the boundaries of where he can go, rules about when to return, etc. but ultimately it took a leap of faith on my part. One thing that helped was having access to a Gabb phone, a cool safe smartphone for kids. With this phone, he can call or text and it has a GPS tracking feature so I know where he is. I can also message him back if I need him to return home sooner than we planned. Unlike other phones, however, it does not allow unfettered access to the internet, social media or other features that we are not ready to allow. He can keep it in his pocket and I don’t have to worry about not being able to reach his friends’ parents if they don’t have their phone handy.
Allowing him this level of freedom has been confidence-building for him and eye-opening for me. He has mostly made really good choices with his freedom. He usually texts me if he leaves one place (a friend’s house) and goes somewhere else (the park). That has further built my confidence in his ability to handle a little freedom. It has been eye-opening in that it has allowed me to see the skills that are built by letting go a little. So far, it’s been a win-win!
Risky Play: A Little Risk is Good
I look back at growing up in the 80s and wonder how we did not get injured more than we did. My cousins and I explored our family farm and had no shortage of scrapes, falls, and a few burns (thanks to rouge fireworks), but nothing too serious. As a child, I was much less risk-averse than I am today. Back then, I didn’t think twice about jumping out of a tree or climbing up on a tall tractor.
Looking back on growing up in the 80s, I realize the skills that this risky play provided. These small, tolerable risks helped me gain confidence in myself and my physical strength. They helped me learn about cause and effect, as well as an appreciation for the natural world.
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Recent research backs up this feeling. One of the largest studies of risk-taking analyzed 21 articles on the topic. These studies considered tolerable risks like playing at heights, playing with potentially dangerous items (e.g., water or fire), going fast, and rough-and-tumble play. Kids who engaged in more “risky” play were found to be more active, and perhaps most interesting, were more socially and psychologically healthy. They also found kids involved in risky play had no higher rate of injury than other children.
Foster Friendships…like an 80s Child
We recently had a mini 80s movie marathon at our house while we were stuck indoors during a blizzard. We watched a couple of fun movies from my childhood including E.T. and Big. The one aspect of those movies that struck me most as a parent was how the kids all managed their friendships…without any help from the adults.
In both movies, the kids had adventures, plans, and communication (usually via walkie-talkie) with their neighborhood friends without the parents ever really knowing what’s going on. Now, of course, these are just movies, but I think there is some truth here that we can appreciate. Kids thrive in an environment where they have some control (age-appropriate) over their friendships.
This doesn’t have to mean you are clueless like the parents in those movies, but we can give our kids a little leeway to manage friendships on their own. My 9-year-old is at an age where he wants to talk to his friends all the time. I love this but I do not want him to have a full cellphone yet. I have read too many articles on the dangers of online games and social media to feel comfortable with the idea of a phone at this age. Instead, with the Gabb phone, he can communicate with his friends.
Just as these 80s movies imply, research backs up the idea that friendships are key to children’s development. Studies have found that if a child is lonely or at risk for depression, but has just one friend, it can make all the difference. One friend can put this child on a different trajectory as they enter the tumultuous pre-teen and teen years. One friend can provide a buffer and mental health support to kids, even kids who are shy, “loners” or not very popular.
Part of the positive parenting approach is guiding kids through their emotions and helping them learn self-control. A mostly hands-off approach to kids’ friendships can be part of this emotional learning process as well. By modeling emotional control in your home, your child will be able to manage emotions better with friends as well. You may need to step in if major conflicts arise, but children gain valuable social-emotional skills by managing friendship squabbles on their own.
We cannot totally re-create the laid-back, unplugged experience of growing up in the 80s, but we can parent in such a way as to allow for a little self-determination, freedom and exploration. Technology doesn’t have to be our enemy as we attempt to guide our kids’ development. New inventions can actually help us give our kids some freedom while still feeling positive about their safety. Let’s embrace the good memories of growing up in the 80s, and help our kids develop wonderful memories of their own.
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