What the 1980s Got Right About Parenting

In the game of life, parents of the 1980s got some things right.

When I think back to growing up with 1980s parenting, I often wonder how any of us survived an era without the knowledge and technology we have now. When I first became a mom, I used every guide and gadget I could get my hands on to make my child’s environment as safe as humanly possible. Once I began working with children more, I realized just how often kids fall down—and how ready they are to get back up! 

Looking back on the 80s now, I can appreciate so much more about how we were handled then, in that it actually left us feeling more resilient, independent, and free. Remembering why might give today’s parents a new perspective that has the potential to enhance our own children’s development of those same feelings.  

When 1980s parenting involved bumps and bruises: Rub some dirt on it.

Kids get hurt. It happens all of the time. But kids also heal, and usually pretty quickly. Today’s parents tend to work through a complex checklist for even the slightest bump or bruise:

  • Get the first aid kit.
  • Google for proper medical protocol.
  • Post on social media to get unsolicited advice from others.
  • Call the emergency line at the doctor’s office. 
  • Put the child to bed with snacks, stuffed animals, and at least a half dozen options for entertainment.

An 80s parent? Make sure we weren’t bleeding (too much) and send us back to whatever we were doing in the first place. You might get a Popsicle if you’re lucky. Check and check.

When it involved everyday tasks: Figure it out.

The 80s were full of busy grownups who almost always pushed back when kids asked for help. Whether it was how to use a hair dryer, an iron, or a stove, we often figured out how (relatively unscathed). When things got hard, children of that time had to be stronger, push harder, and do better. The lawnmower parents of today often want to plow over any obstacles in a child’s path. They want to offer as much help as possible. As a result, kids aren’t figuring things out for themselves or learning how to cope.

For kids of the 80s, everyday tasks and mundane chores were just something kids did. I can say from experience that this allowed us opportunities to gain confidence through the practice of regularly figuring things out on our own. 

When it involved failure: It happens.

Being a child in the 1980s meant becoming all too familiar with failure. We did our own projects, played our sports, and had our performances. Sometimes things went well, and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes we got a trophy, and often we didn’t. We mastered the epic fail before it ever trended on social media. Our flubs only made it as far as the rumor mill could get in person or over the phone.

Yes, disappointment and humiliation stung then just as much as it might now, but our grainy photos and videos could be fairly forgiving. Plus, our parents encouraged us to shake it off, look to the next challenge, and resume normal activities. They didn’t try to save us from ourselves, and they were loath to overshare. At the end of the day, our successes and our failures were our own, just as they would be when we were all grown up.

When it involved rules and boundaries: Respect adults. 

Nowadays, we often hear (if not tell) stories about our kids following us into the bathroom or otherwise not giving us a moment’s peace. When I was growing up, parents had boundaries. Serious boundaries. When the door was closed, you didn’t open it unless it was an emergency—and even then, you knocked first. And if adults were talking? You were lucky to be allowed within eyesight, let alone hang around … or interrupt! It wasn’t because we had miraculously good manners; it was that 1980s parenting, in general, had different expectations for children.

Even more important, they were clearer about where their lines were and what it meant to respect those lines. They gave themselves space to be adults without the pressure of being all things to all children 24/7. It taught us kids to respect people’s space, privacy, and just adults themselves. Decades later, there are far fewer boundaries and rules for kids. Perhaps it’s time to get some of these house rules back into the mix. 

When 1980s parenting involved stuff: Do we really need it? 

Getting new things wasn’t always in the cards when I was growing up. And it was never the first thought as the solution to a problem. From boredom to broken glasses, store-bought solutions were almost always a last resort. Also, they were usually reserved for after we’d put legitimate effort into finding, fixing, or otherwise solving our own issues. Most often, we were taught to look to hand-me-downs, Mother Nature, or our imaginations to get by—or find age-appropriate jobs to earn what you needed to get what you wanted. In teaching us about the value of a dollar and encouraging us to leverage our own creativity, 80s parents provided us with priceless knowledge and skills that served us well into the future.

When it involved free time: Go play! 

Autonomy was an amazing thing in the 80s. It was a time when just before the door slammed behind you as you were heading out, you heard a parent yell to be back by dinner (or maybe even before dark!). Families weren’t overscheduled with activities. Kids didn’t have helicopter parents watching their every move. We had the freedom and trust to decide what we would do with our time, where we would go to do it, how we would get there, and with whom.

Making these types of decisions—and doing so responsibly—gave us the chance to live and learn in a way that isn’t so often seen today. Kids get bored, and that’s okay! While this may have changed for plenty of solid reasons, children and adults alike could undoubtedly use more unscheduled time to relax, pursue passions without pressure, and make more room for more wellness and mindfulness.

There’s a reason 1980s sitcoms centered on kids making good on mistakes by the end of each hour. Caregivers of the time gave us a blend of space and support that helped us manifest our individual confidence on all kinds of levels. Given similar room from parents today to try, fail, and try again, our kids could certainly reach new heights of their own.