How We Survived Childhood in the 80s

Like approximately 600,000 or so people have this week, I recently came across the hilarious “Reasons My Son is Crying” on Tumblr.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a picture blog written by the dad of a 21-month old, who, like every other 21-month old I’ve ever known, cries for no particular reason.  His dad, instead of sticking his head (or the baby) in the oven, documents all of the silly reasons that his son is crying.  They include such gems as “The milk isn’t juice,” and “I wouldn’t let him drown in this pond.”  Great stuff, and I imagine if you’re a parent who lives with a toddler, you’ll find it even funnier.  I cracked up looking through it, and then made the mistake of scrolling through some of the comments.  I was astounded to see comments stating this man was a horrible father, that he was humiliating his poor child, and a comment from one woman – whom I have to assume is one of those crazy people that tries to REASON with her toddler – in which she diagnosed the child with a sinus infection who needed his Eustachean tubes removed.  What in the fuck?

It got me thinking about that whole helicopter parent mentality – parents who would like to put their child in a bubble, shielding them from any and all disappointment, pain, and fear until they’re like 21.  At which point they will not have the capability to understand that not everyone is like their mommy; sometimes really bad shit happens and it hurts like hell.  But as I don’t have the experience or fortitude to discuss parenting strategies, I instead started thinking of the things we did as kids that our parents would probably be arrested for should they try them in the no-dodgeball playing, everyone-gets-a-trophy present that we live in.  Here’s a few things we all survived.

The Backyard

My next door neighbors have little kids.  They have a perfectly even yard, an entirely plastic playset, complete with plastic bats and balls, plastic cup holders for their water bottles, a shaded area for those hot days, and perfectly even steps leading up to the (plastic) slide, which they climb up in their little plastic Crocs so their feet don’t get burned.  You know what was in my backyard?  A tire swing made out of an actual tire and rope,  a trampoline, and a slip and slide set up on a slope which was secured at the end with bricks because my mom lost the (metal) stakes that went with it.  And a hose.   We used to make a game of pushing someone as hard as we could on the tire swing to bounce them off of the tree.  And then we would run around, playing running bases and kick the can in our bare feet. We would sit on the edge of the trampoline, with our legs dangling between the (metal) springs, waiting our turn to jump, and sometimes, someone would fall off.  Occasionally, if you were unlucky enough to be waiting while I was jumping, you got knocked off while I attempted a backflip and then overcorrected when I had a panic attack because HELLO? Even then I knew I wasn’t destined to be a gymnast.  Then, when someone inevitably ended up bleeding, we washed down their skinned knee or toe or face with the hose and right after took a big drink from it.  And you know what?  We didn’t die.  And it was fucking AWESOME.

Roller Skates

My next-door neighbors had a circular driveway, and my friend Becca and I used to fancy ourselves famous roller skaters, careening around the driveway, coordinating routines that included jumps and spins.  The thing is – roller skates?  Make no sense.  They especially didn’t make sense for me. Let’s strap four wheels to this obviously uncoordinated child’s feet and put a rubber stopper on the FRONT of the shoe, so every time she tries to stop, it will be immediate and painful.  As we clearly had no helmets or wrist guards or shin guards or safety suits that kids today have, learning to stop properly on cement was imperative to our being discovered as world-class skaters.  Being a spaz, I never quite grasped it.  I could gain speed like no one’s business, I could even pull off a little jump and twirl but come to the end of my routine?  I was on the ground, picking cement out of my palms, crushed in my disappointment of ruining yet another stellar performance.  You know what I did?  I didn’t stop roller skating.  I didn’t learn to use those stupid rubber stoppers.   I knew my limitations, and stopping gracefully wasn’t happening, no matter how hard I tried.  Instead, I used my imagination, and choreographed the end of MY routine to end in the grass.  Sure, sometimes I tripped over the sprinkler head or a rock, and yeah, there were those few times I hit the tree in the middle of the yard.  But I didn’t stop roller skating.  And while I’d love to chalk this up to my grim determination, it was more likely because we weren’t allowed to play inside when it was nice out and I’d be damned if I was going to let her have all the fun just because I couldn’t figure out shoes with wheels.

The Playground

Have you seen a playground recently?  It’s all soft mulch and rounded edges and plastic that doesn’t get hot and the only possible way to hurt yourself would be to climb to the highest point and try to bungee jump off of it, headfirst, without using any calculations.  Or a bungee cord.  Do you guys remember the park when we were kids?  The park at the end of our block – which we got to go to without parental supervision – was possibly the most dangerous place in the world for an eight-year old outside of a war-torn country.  First of all, the entire thing was rocks.  Not mulch, not grass, but rocks.  Small rocks, to be sure, but still – ROCKS.  Except for the spot where you could run around the merry go round, which was cement.  I still have a scar on my leg from one time when I was pushing someone on it and trying to run with it and fell down, but being the spaz I was, didn’t have the the wherewithal to LET GO of the bar and instead held on for dear life as the wheel of death dragged me around and around and around on the concrete, which just so happened to have broken glass on it.  That?  Hurt.  But the merry go round had nothing on the most dangerous piece of equipment at the park, which was clearly the slide.  Those of you younger folks whose asses have only slid down plastic slides can’t possibly understand the pain of a slide in the eighties.   Because you have never had the pleasure of having your bare legs stuck to a white hot piece of metal that’s been sitting in the sun all summer after you made the foolish attempt to go down it in shorts.  The slide at our park didn’t even have stairs; it had metal chain ladders on either side and a single bar on the back that the more coordinated children in the group could climb up from.  And you know what we used to do?  Play King of the Hill.  Which, for those of you nineties kids, basically means one person stands at the top of the slide on the platform, and attempts to KNOCK EVERYONE INTO THE ROCKS BELOW as they try to climb up from every direction.  Super fun game.  Amazingly enough – I don’t even recall an emergency room visit.  “Oh, you’re fine.  Let’s spray the shit out of those bleeding hands with Bactine.  Rinse it off with the hose first, you’ll be fine tomorrow.”  And guess what?  We were.

Gym Class

Admittedly, I haven’t been to a grade school gym class recently, but I’m going to go ahead and guess that’s it’s a pretty different picture than last time I was involved in one.  First of all, I know there’s no dodgeball anymore.  Which is ludicrous.   If the arguments were simply safety related, that makes sense.  However, it seems to me that people are more concerned with their kids’ feelings being hurt, “Oh, poor Connor isn’t that athletic, it isn’t fair to him!  The other kids pick him last and gang up to get him out first!”  Or course they do!  You always go for the weakest link!  I know, I was one!  You know what happens?  One of two things: you either learn to duck, which will serve you well later in life, or you get the fucking wind knocked out of you.  And believe me, if you get the wind knocked out of you, you learn to duck faster next time.  You could learn a lot from gym class.  When I was in fourth grade, we were playing hockey with these giant plastic sticks and I got hit so hard in the face that the boy that hit me started to cry.  You know what I learned?  Playing hockey with boys hurts, there’s a reason high sticking is a penalty, and if you don’t cry after getting hit in the face with a hockey stick, fourth graders think you’re cool.  One time, my sister ran smack into the wall during a heated game of Army/Navy and broke her finger.  (Apparently, she learned how to stop from her big sister.)  And despite the fact that her finger was the size of a sausage, the gym teacher told her it wasn’t broken and she went back to her classroom.  Were my parents pissed?  Probably.  Did they sue, as I have to imagine a lot of parents today would?  Not so much.  They probably told her to work on stopping BEFORE she ran into the wall with her hands out and put a splint on her finger.

I’m not against implementing some safety precautions that make sense.  Mulch instead of rocks?  Yes.  Games where everyone wins just so no one gets their feelings hurt?  No.  It’s been said before and I’ll say it again – if kids are given a trophy every time they try something, they are going to be super disappointed when they grow up and have to learn as adults that a lot of the time, your best isn’t good enough.  Life’s hard and it’s messy and it hurts and sometimes you fall down and sometimes you get laughed at. There’s always going to be a bully or a mean girl or a kid with a hockey stick.  Things will break and you’ll get sick and you’re not always going to win.  But the sooner you know this, the more you appreciate your victories.

Believe me.  I had glasses, braces, AND a perm.  If I survived middle school, so will everyone.

We didn't get any signs.  You live, you learn.

We didn’t get any signs. You live, you learn.

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Posted on 04/09/2013, in Chicago, family and friends, life in general and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. This is a brilliant post. I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now and this one has had everyone at work looking at me a little strange. I think that every 80s child would love to do a post like this. Because when you look at the situation, 90s parenting techniques and onwards have resulted in things like American Idol happening. I’m not referring to the talented people that get through, I’m referring to audition weeks tone deaf people actually upset that they don’t get through “my family says I’m a great singer”.

    I also have no kids, but my sister has four of them and I work with a few people who do, and when they tell me about the crap that goes on to make sure no one’s feelings are hurt – well I weep for the future.

    I got a nail head through my knee from a merry go round, we used to kneel on it and push with one leg. I’ve also fallen off monkey bars, know the pain of scalding various body parts on metal equipment in hot Australian summers and have a number of small scars from fishing down the creek and playing in stormwater drains.

    But the best fun was the family at the end of the street who had makeshift sleds that we used to ride down their backyard (grass sledding I should mention). You had to drag them up over grass and rocks to the top of a fairly steep little hill (it was about a 15 metre track), avoid getting attacked by the goats, slide down the hill and then pull up (usually meaning fall on your side) before you ended up dropping 2 metres into the creek. Excellent fun! And yes we all survived.

    Thank you for such a fun post and bringing back some awesome memories

    • Kylie so glad you enjoyed it! And thank you for the memory of kneeling on the merry go round and pushing off with one leg – I’d forgotten about that! Also loved the visual of trying to avoid the goats – I bet that was just par for the course for you and how awesome is that?! Reminds me of how we used to sled down the hill at the end of our block which ended in the middle of the street. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Thanks Courtney – Lots of memories of playgrounds in the 50’s too.

  3. Holy shit, I am crying from laughing so hard right now!! Thank you for that post! I too grew up in the 80’s and can totally relate to those posts and to being somewhat of an uncoordinated child. On our elementary school playground (for Kindergarten through 2nd grade) we had a metal jungle gym that was probably 20 feet high at the top and it was all straight up, none of that curvy dome shit for us. I was playing some sort of tag chasing game with some boys and they were chasing me and i was looking behind me to see if they were going to catch me and WHAM! i ran straight into the damn jungle gym! Darn near knocked me unconscious but was my mother called? no. Was i sent to the hospital? no. I was brushed off and send right back on my merry way to continue playing. And I too lived. We also played Red Rover and tried to clothesline the shit out of everyone. It was great fun growing up in the 70’s and 80’s…I feel really sad for kids now. They just don’t have the survival skills that we do.
    To this day I am still rather uncoordinated/unfortunate….I am always leaving an upper cabinet door open and then forgetting about it….returning to the kitchen in a hurry only to almost knock myself out (again!–seems to be a theme here) by nailing the cabinet door with my head/face at warp speed….

    • I’m with you on the continued uncoordination – not long ago I hit my head on the freezer door after looking for something in the fridge and damn near knocked myself out. But luckily I had years of falling off of jungle gyms that prepared me for it 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for the comment!

  4. Where has all the fun gone. We had games banned because of broken limbs – it was freakin’ awesome! I had three older brothers who could inflict pain and misery that we still stay up late, drinking and reminiscing about with laughter. Kids these days will never get share their scar stories – I have one on my wrist from where my brother locked me in the basement and I had to smash a window to get out – good times. He has one on his face from where my other brother mistook his head for a golf tee and smash a 9 iron into his face at high speed. That brother had a scar on his heel from where golf scar brother decided to play moving human dart board and pinned his foot to the floor. My daughter has a scar on her cheek that she is less than proud of – her brother stabbed her with a freakin McDonald’s drinking straw – that’s not a weapon’s armpit! We used to disappear into the neighborhood for hours (we had to cos Mom was usually chasing us with a hair brush or wooden spoon) and only come home when we were hungry. My kids won’t leave home (ever) unless they have $50 and a fully paid up cell phone and even then I have to take them in a car. Oh, and I was known in my family as ‘test pilot’. My brothers spent hours, sometimes minutes, knocking together go karts. Fully customized with deer horns strapped to the front, very dodgy turning mechanisms and no brakes. My job was to make sure they would hold together as they hit the bottom of the 100 yard dip that had a 60 degree gradient. It was loose metal track and that shit would hurt digging it out of your hands after a big crash. Good part is that as your body heals it tries to expel foreign bodies so if you waited a couple of days you could get it out. Otherwise it was the hose – just like you said. Tell that to the youth of today and they’ll never believe you (best Yorkshire accent a la Monty Python). Cheers for the memories!!

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