It was Tuesday afternoon. My children were downstairs. I had no idea what they were doing and I was trying and failing not to care. My kindergartner had recently been making “traps” out of tape and I was certain I’d left a roll unattended. He’d also become enamored of the scissors. I imagined him cutting up our valuables while his snack-crazed older brother went full Caligula. Still, I did not check in. Why? Because I’d read roughly a dozen internet and print homages to the 1980s as a golden age of parenting, a time when studied indifference to children produced great results and countless stickball games. I wanted to know if the retrospective hype for Max Headroom parenting was pure nostalgia or if there was something in it.
It’s a cliché of the era, but when I was my sons’ age, growing up in the 1980s, my parents definitely didn’t care. They left me to my own devices and whatever devices I could find around the house. To be honest, parenting like them seemed like a terrible idea. Still, I turned out mediocre so I figure it was worth a shot. For as long as I’ve been a parent, I’ve only known modern, intensive parenting. I’ve only known panic. A vacation from all that sounded nice.
My mother and stepfather were helicopter parents only in the sense that they probably would have let me get on a helicopter with strangers. They had priorities that weren’t me, namely themselves. They treated me like a roommate they could push around because I never paid rent. And it’s not like I had a unique experience. This was the case for most of the kids in my cohort. We were a generation of latch-key kids.
I’m reminded of how little oversight I had every time I look in the mirror. One of the scars on my forehead is from the neighbor boy, Cliffy, who whacked me in the head with a pickax while we were playing in his driveway. As a father, I can’t help but wonder why we were allowed to have a pickax. But that’s 2020 thinking and my parents didn’t sweat that sort of small stuff. I do, but I don’t enjoy that endless shvitz.
On Monday, after I announced the 1980s project to my wife she pointed out that if we were really gonna lean into the experiment, I should do very little. In the 1980s, moms were still doing a bulk of household labor (while, in many cases, also holding down jobs). My wife was obviously not too pumped about this idea. She liked the idea of conscientiously ignoring our kids, but as far as housekeeping was concerned she suggested a “Spielbergian” approach inspired by the chaotic households featured in Close Encounters and E.T. Naturally, I agreed.
The 1980s clutter built up at speed. The stress that normally would have resulted in this state of our home was balanced by our requirement to not give a shit. The emotional result was kind of like a Chardonnay buzz, which felt about right.
To make things even more authentic, I did away with devices for the week. If we wanted entertainment we’d have to be entertained together with limited content. And to simulate latch-keying my kids, I simply told them that once they returned from school they were on their own until 5:30 p.m. — a full hour and a half. Until then they were not to disturb me.
At first, this unsupervised time disturbed them. Wouldn’t they starve or die of dehydration, they wondered? “Figure it out,” I said before heading upstairs to my office. They couldn’t resist calling me down for favors, but they soon got the picture. By Wednesday, they’d come to relish the time: The television was theirs and they could get into anything. And they did. I would find them in the evening, sitting in a pile of couch cushions, covered in pretzel crumbs, watching LEGO video game playthroughs with glazed eyes. It was like looking at a picture of me at that age.
When 5:30 p.m. arrived, my wife and I would take over. We ate what was convenient and we watched what we wanted to watch on TV. We took great care not to be terribly concerned about our parenting. We operated on a first-thought, best thought basis when it came to discipline. We attempted to answer most queries and complaints from our kids with the barest concern and effort and it sucked.
Our default is to be thoughtful in our parenting. It’s baked into us. It was hard not to be invested and super-thoughtful about our kid’s needs. It was nerve-wracking.
But also, once our kids got used to our approach, falling into freedom and growing to relish it. By the time Thursday afternoon came, they were walking out of the house together at will, grabbing snacks and drinks on their own and of course, tearing the house apart with creative delight.
What amazed me was how capable they were. They stopped asking and started doing, which was a mind-boggling situation. They didn’t whine for me to come pour the milk on their cereal. They just poured it themselves. Was it sloppy? Sure. Did I have to do it? Nope.
But frankly, when the end of the week came, I was happy it was over. The fact is that I like being involved in my kids’ lives. Give me a choice to do whatever I want with my leisure time and I’ll spend it hanging out with my kids. I might cook too. On that level, the experience made me reconsider my parents’ decision-making. I think that maybe they wanted to be more involved with me, but that a high level of engagement was out of step with the norms of the age.
Still, I do see a need for modern parents to take an occasional trip back to the 1980s. The week was fun while it lasted even if I was fine when it was over. My kids aren’t scarred. At least I don’t think they are. The only thing amiss now is that the pickaxe in the garage is nowhere to be seen. I wonder where that went.…