8 Ways 80s Parents Did It Differently Than We Do

From sugar (so much Kool-Aid) to scheduling, 80s parenting was worlds apart from today. It still had a lot of love, though!

Published January 22, 2024
Mother embracing her daughter outside house

If you were growing up in the 80s or have heard stories of those long summer days staying out until dusk and drinking from the garden hose, you know for sure that 80s parenting was different. Every family is unique, of course, and it's silly to say that all 80s parents did the same things. But just like stirrup pants and bike shorts, there are a few trends that stand out when it comes to raising kids during the raddest decade of the 20th century.

The thing is, being a kid during the 80s (I was born in 1977) doesn't really qualify me to know what it was like to parent during that decade (after all, I'm pretty sure my kids don't exactly have an accurate idea of what parenting now is like). To get that perspective, I went right to the source I know best: my own mom, Heather Miller. We talked about a few of the ways Boomers thought about child-rearing and how that's so not what it's like to raise kids now.

1. 80s Parents Let Us Range Farther From Home

kids and retro bikes

In the 80s, being a kid came with a lot of freedom. We could mostly go anywhere we wanted, and our parents didn't always know where we were. Buy all the candy you have money for at the gas station? Check. Ride your bike for miles and fall down and deal with it yourself? Double check.

"You had room to roam, and I didn't worry about that," my mom recalls. "I don’t remember setting a boundary. When you came home, you had stories."

That total freedom isn't exactly on offer today for our kids. Sure, we try to give them some space, but we live in a world where we're just way more aware of all the potential dangers out there.

Need to Know

Moms and dads in the 80s had parenting books to turn to, and some of the big ones were Parent Power (which focused on the role of strict discipline and a solid hierarchy of parents over kids), and on the other end of the spectrum, Growing Up Free: Raising Your Child in the 80s (which talked about a child's psychological development and even gender roles).

2. Parenting in the 80s Meant Managing "Stranger Danger"

One of those dangers is "stranger danger," which really became a thing in the 1980s with a couple of high-profile child abductions. Kids heard all about strangers at school, on TV, and on the back of their milk cartons. I was terrified when cars stopped at the stop sign in front of my house that they were trying to steal me. Parents had to figure out how to balance what they heard on the news with what they allowed their kids to do.

"That was a real hallmark of the 80s, and in retrospect, I wish I'd just never heard of it," my mom said. "You kids would see a stranger, and you would hide. We had to reassure kids that not everybody was dangerous, but at the same time, we still had to worry."

Parents today definitely have similar worries, although there's a bit more balance with this one for most of us now (we're lucky to have the benefit of hindsight that 80s parents really didn't get). We talk to our kids about strangers (and also about being safe with people they know), but it's not on the news every night.

3. 80s Parenting Had Less Pressure to Be Perfect

No matter what generation you're from, the mom guilt (or dad guilt) is real. There's a lot of pressure on parents of any generation, but it's likely that pressure is increasing with access to the internet and tons of advice about how to best raise a kid. 80s parents were not expected to continuously involve themselves in enriching their kids' lives.

"I don’t know for sure, but I think there’s a lot more pressure today," my mom says. "I felt a responsibility to read to you and play with you, but I wouldn't have felt bad sitting and reading a book while you were playing."

I know I'm not the only mom who has taken her kids to the playground and felt guilty looking at her phone while they played. These days, it's hard for us to know when we've done enough to be considered good parents. We wear ourselves out with trying, and we still feel guilty. This is one way that being a parent in the 80s might have been a little easier.

4. Parenting in the 80s Was Less Scheduled & Busy

Vintage image of a family on the roads

Overscheduling is part of that pressure for perfection too. Today's kids have access to so much — from circus lessons to every martial art imaginable. In the 80s, the idea of adding enrichment to kids' lives was just starting to become a thing, but it wasn't in full force yet.

"We were starting to do more lessons for things like clubs and swimming and after-school activities," my mom remembers. "I thought it was really fun that we would have some, but we didn't have that much. It wasn't a lot of pressure that way. It was just opening up."

Now the possibilities are endless, but that's harder for a lot of parents. When we limit those activities, it can feel like we're not giving kids all the advantages they could have. But the result can be packed evenings, very little unscheduled time, and more stress. It's a hard balance to figure out, and it's different for every family.

Related: 12 Ways to Simplify Your Life & Focus on What Matters Most

5. Parents in the 80s Worried Less About Sugar & Screen Time

Growing up in the 80s often meant a lot of unsupervised time to watch anything we wanted on TV and eat anything we could find that looked tasty. TV commercials were targeted at us too, which meant we begged our parents for sugary snacks and treats (plus all the latest toys). But for parents in the 80s, sugar and screen time might not have been as much of a worry as it is for parents today.

"I know we let up a lot on sugar. I didn’t worry about the snacks," my mom says. "I did try to make sure you had healthy meals, though."

Sugar and screen time are something we worry about a lot more now. The American Academy of Pediatrics first recommended restricting screen time in 1984, and by the time we had kids of our own, the guidance from doctors was pretty clear. Same goes for sugar. Makes you wonder what we let our kids do that will later be considered unhealthy, doesn't it?

Related: 15 Wonderful Ways Parenting Gets Easier as Your Child Ages

6. 80s Parents Had to Change How They Thought About Spanking

Discipline is a big deal in any era, and it's one of those things that can change a lot over the years as parents adjust to different social expectations. I remember friends' parents slapping them in the face when they talked back or threatening to "get out the paddle." But 80s parents were also trying to use less corporal punishment than their own parents did.

"We didn't spank, but I know some people did. The childcare books changed during that time," my mom remembers. "There was a new Dr. Spock edition that came out where he said he regretted saying to spank kids."

The famous pediatrician did release new guidance about spanking in 1985, saying spanking taught "children that the larger, stronger person has the power to get his way whether or not he is in the right.'' Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against spanking, and many parents try to avoid this type of discipline.

7. 80s Parents Defined Parental Respect Differently

How we define parental respect has changed too. Boomer parents grew up in the "children should be seen and not heard" era, and they were split on how they handled their own interactions with their kids. Some kept a strict hierarchy of parents over children, as the Parent Power book advocated, but others tried to loosen things up a little while still maintaining a position of authority.

"My own mom thought it was wrong the way we let you kids talk to us," my mom says, "but I thought it was good to let you speak what was on your mind to a certain point. I think your generation of parents tolerates more as far as that goes. It's important for kids to be heard."

If your parenting experience is anything like mine, you may still have those cringe-worthy moments where you hear something come out of your kids' mouths and know it would never have been tolerated when you were growing up. It's a hard balance, knowing how much to let kids express themselves and how much to teach them to respect the adults in their lives.

8. 80s Parents Expected Us to Self-Soothe

This probably goes along with letting us roam or be latch-key kids, but 80s parents weren't always super into drying our tears for us. This may have made us more independent, but there's also the chance that we didn't get the tools we needed to manage our emotions. Like so many things, it's probably different for every family.

"If someone started crying or fighting, we just let them work it out," my mom says. "If they fell down, we would comfort them but didn’t dwell on it."

It's hard to establish trends about how we handle these things today. There's some pressure in the current "gentle parenting" movement to give kids a lot of guidance on how to label and manage their emotions without any parent-set consequences. On the other hand, many of us sleep-train our babies (no shame here), which is a way of requiring them to learn to self-soothe.

We're All Trying Our Best

When you look at all the differences between parenting in the 80s vs. now, there's one thing that really stands out. It's not about stranger danger or self-soothing, either. It's this: parenting is hard work, and you never know for sure if you're doing it right. Ultimately, we're all just trying our best.

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8 Ways 80s Parents Did It Differently Than We Do