One of my earliest childhood memories is being tied to the mailbox in our front yard by my older brother. I was about 5 years old–which would make him about seven.
I don’t remember how long I sat there. Five minutes? Two hours? No clue. I do know that a kind neighbor eventually freed me and told me to run along and find my parents. Ah, the 1980s. Back when neighbors actually knew each other and no one asked questions.
When I brought this up to my mother recently, I was met with a “Well, you survived.” Uh, yeah. But it seems like the odds were stacked against me.
Mailbox trauma aside, my childhood was pretty much the bee’s knees. I grew up in New Jersey in the 80s and I recall my neighborhood as basically one massive, collective backyard. At any given moment, I could pop into a neighbor’s house for a Kool-Aid or a chat. It was awesome.
So when my children ask me about my life as a kid, I have some pretty great stories to tell them. In doing so, I’ve come up with the ‘6 Most Important Lessons Learned From my Pre-Internet Childhood.’
Scene of the crime.
1. Look Out for Yourself—Because No One Else Will.
Bike helmets? No one wore ‘em. Cereal with marshmallows? Health food. Kool-Aid? Drink up. Bubble gum cigarettes? Why not. We waited for our parents alone in the car at the grocery store. We walked to and from school—alone. We never wore seatbelts. Sometimes, there weren’t even seats.
Just throw the 5 & 7 year old in the back of the truck with some snacks and a sleeping bag.
Our babysitters were about eleven years old on average. Adults didn’t supervise ‘playdates’—mostly because playdates didn’t exist. You just went over to your friends house to play–and you rode your bike there. Alone. Even the playgrounds were dangerous.
Essentially, kids were breaking bones all over the place. On the upside, we learned from a very young age the importance of looking out for number one, mostly because no one else was looking out for us.
Exhibit A. Toddler in a rusty metal swing.
Exhibit B. This playground staple kept ERs busy for an entire decade.
2. Pay Attention.
‘Can’t you just email my teacher?,’my daughter asked me last week when we had a question about an assignment. My kids just assume that I can get ahold of everyone in the world instantly—and mostly they are correct in that assumption. But with this instant gratification comes an odd sense of entitlement. My kids expect their teachers to post every assignment on their class website and to be available to field questions via email at all hours of the day and night.
It wasn’t always so. Our teachers simply didn’t have email addresses when we were kids and they most certainly were not giving out their home phone numbers to answer the questions that were gone over in class. So, if we had a question about an assignment, we had to pick up the–—corded–—telephone and call a more-studious classmate.
If no one answered our calls, tough break kid. Better start crafting a killer excuse because mom most certainly had no intention of bailing us out. It wouldn’t even occur to us to ask her.
The original iPhone.
3. Be Punctual.
These days, our kids sleep in and watch their favorite shows whenever they’re ready to start their day. When we were kids, we had no choice but to wake up as soon as possible in order to tune in or else we’d completely miss out on our favorite shows.
We woke up early, fixed ourselves a bowl of Lucky Charms, parked it in front of the television and prayed that our parents didn’t make us run errands with them that early in the morning.
There was no DVR. No OnDemand. No Hulu. No Netflix. No YouTube. And we were pretty easily impressed back then because when the TV Guide Channel came out our minds were blown.
Turning on the TV Guide Channel right after the channel’s listing you wanted to see had already scrolled.
4. Be Nice to Everyone.
Long before any of us had heard of the term cyberbullying, Biff Tannen was telling Marty McFly to ‘make like a tree and get out of here.’ Although now extinct, the movie bully was at one time all-powerful and came in the form of a sadistic karate master, an intolerant redneck, or a drunk fraternity dude.
Despite being blessed with so much, these characters were all totally horrible human beings whose sole mission was to make life a living hell for anyone poor, artistic, creative, intelligent, or sensitive.
From James Spader’s use of classism and psychological warfare as Steff McKee in Pretty in Pink to William Zabka’s smug douchebaggery as Johnny Lawrence in The Karate Kid—the movie bully demanded both our fear and our admiration.
In the end, however, the freaks and the nerds always triumphed, leaving us with one big unavoidable life lesson: Be nice to everyone, especially nerds.
James Spader. The dreamiest of assholes ever filmed.
5. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.
Before text messaging became a thing, we had to actually call our crush on the telephone. For most of us, this required a Herculean effort and a whole lotta prep work because the possibilities for embarrassment were limitless.
What if his mom picks up the phone? Or his dad? Or even worse, an older sibling. Shudder.
We rehearsed what we had to say a thousand times and then dialed with shaky hands and a panicky feeling in our chest when we heard the phone ring on the other end. And pre-CallerID, we probably even chickened out and hung up a few times.
And after all that, we actually had to have a conversation with the kid—using words.
This adolescent dating ritual, while brutal, actually forced us to develop our own distinctive personalities. Because we weren’t afforded the luxury of crafting a clever response via text message with a group of supportive friends on standby.
It was every twelve year old for herself.
6. If You Want to be Happy, You’re Gonna Have to Work for It.
Like everything in the 1980s, toys were hard. Back then, we would literally sit and spin until we were about to vomit in our pursuit of a good time. We would meticulously press hundreds of tiny colored lights into our Lite Brites for hours on end to craft a design that no one cared about or even looked at. Even our toys made for drawing were designed to make drawing virtually impossible.
I’m looking at you, Etch-a-Sketch.
And no matter how hard we tried to take care of them, our Slinkys always became irrevocably twisted. But the feeling of accomplishment that we experienced once we mastered these Machiavellian-instruments-of-‘fun’ made it all worthwhile. Anyone who was actually able to get his Slinky to go down two consecutive stairs at a time knows exactly what I’m talking about.
While growing up in the 80s wasn’t all Slinkys and Kool-Aid, it was a pretty awesome time to be a kid. It seems like it was a pretty great time to be a parent, too. Mostly because there was no Pinterest to make moms feel inadequate.
So nowadays, whenever you feel a stab of fear-laden guilt every time your kid eats a Cheez-it, relax and remember that our parents let us ride around without bike helmets whilst happily smoking bubble gum cigarettes.
Seriously though they weren’t even trying.
What was the biggest lesson YOU learned from your pre-internet childhood? Share in the comments below.