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How I’m Giving My Kids an ’80s Summer

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Read Time: 4 minutes

“What would it take to give my kids the kind of free-ranging childhood that I enjoyed in the ’80s?” asked a mom in Toronto’s The Star.

She’d already given her son an Apple Watch so he could be more independent — or at least so she could feel less worried about letting go. When he and his younger brother rode their bikes to the park unsupervised, she was grateful for the device.

But then she started having second thoughts. Her son was getting distracted by pings and FOMO — fear of missing out.

The alternative to a phone.

What she really wanted for her kids was not an electronic leash, nor a smart phone, which her son was begging for. She wanted to give them something more valuable — the joy and independence of an ’80s summer:

Kelly Kowalczyk lived around the block and was my neighborhood bestie. She’d call my family’s landline or show up on my doorstep, her blond pigtails bouncing. “Can you play?”

There was no parent acting as the middleman. We roamed the neighborhood, cruised one-handed on our bikes with the tassels and banana seats, and skinned our knees on the pavement. All because we found our own fun as mere seven-year-olds.

In which the ’80s summer worked great!

Having read The Anxious Generation by Let Grow Co-Founder Jonathan Haidt, the mom wanted her kids to swap out a virtual summer for the fun IRL she remembered. So she contacted a bunch of nearby parents and suggested they have their kids meet at the local park on a school holiday. But, she added: This would not be a chaperoned playdate. She’d remain at home.

And guess what?

It worked perfectly!

Until it didn’t.

About a dozen kids had gathered. They were having a lot of fun. Then two of the boys started trash talking. Eventually this grew into “a thrown punch to the face, an intense headlock and wrestling to the ground.” The mom was wracked with guilt!

Did my ’80s childhood experiment prove that kids actually needed constant adult supervision?

To my surprise, my friends, even the mums of the boys involved in the skirmish, said no.

Kids need to figure things out without adults. They should take risks, even if that means messing up. They must engage with the real world – from playing games to wandering to the ice cream store – and test their social waters. (And when I think about it, trash talking and fighting were also part and parcel of our idyllic ’80s childhoods.)

An ’80s summer requires an ’80s attitude.

The boys who’d fought talked it over with their parents — caring adults are still part of the equation, even when they step back. It all worked out. And now the mom has a suggestion she’d like to see other neighborhoods adopt:

Will you hold off on the smart phones and replace digital time with real-world experiences for our children? It’s unlikely one family could go it alone, but if we joined forces, we could set a new cultural norm. As parents, we owe it to our kids to give them a glimmer of the independent childhood we were lucky to have.

So I’ll continue to invite kids to join my feral children for some free-range play. It might just take some practice – for both kids and parents – before we get it right

Opening the door to a different outlook.

There’s been a lot of talk lately, as you know, about going phone-free. At Let Grow, we like to flip it and suggest going all-in on the real-world: Giving kids back the experiences (even some bad ones) that kids have always had: Playing, exploring, arguing, discovering, being bored, being creative, being outside, being independent.

If you want your kids to have an ’80s summer, it turns out you have to be ready to open the door and say, as ’80s parents did: “Be home by supper.”

And if you can get some other parents to say the same thing (it doesn’t hurt to ask!), your kids will have an even better time, and so will you.

Our Let Grow Independence Kit can help you loosen the reins, and if you take our Pledge of Independence, we’ll send you one independence-building idea a week for 10 weeks. All of this is free.

Want to chat with other parents on this journey? Join our Raising Independent Kids Facebook group.

Here’s to an ’80s summer for your kids — and an ’80s parents’ summer for you!

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