Simplicity vs. Connectivity: Parenthood and Childhood in the 80s and Today

Author and friend circa 1985

Author and friend circa 1985

As the parent of three children under age six, I often wonder what parenting young children was like before the internet and technology took over the world. Now, when I am home with the kids—ages 1, 3, and 5—particularly on the seemingly endless and oppressively hot Florida days, we spend more time than we probably should watching the limitless supply of television shows and movies available on Netflix and YouTube or playing with tablets and other electronic devices.

Do I feel guilty about my children’s reliance on technology for entertainment? Yes. Am I going to do anything about it? Probably not.

But, what did parents do when they didn’t have a choice? Sure, there was plenty of television when I was little, but nothing like today. And, of course, the internet didn’t exist. I’ve become so reliant on social media for distraction from the mundanity of a life where my only human interaction is with preschoolers that I wouldn’t know where to start if it was taken away. I often try to cut back on my online time for the sake of my kids, but usually get reeled back in quickly. As it turns out, there is more than enough time to interact with your kids, tend to their needs, engage in meaningful activities, and check your Twitter on occasion.

In other words, there is a lot of time each day that is free, but not so free that it could be filled with large, time-consuming tasks. For example, the thirty minutes while your child is napping and the laundry is finishing up in the dryer. Or the hour when your children are playing together peacefully (for once), but it’s not quite time to fix dinner. For me, and I suspect many other parents, the default filler for those in-between times is the internet.

And then, there is the matter of entertaining your kid so you can get things done around the house. Television and internet can be a lifesaver when employed strategically. The flip side, though, is that the ubiquity of technology, content, noise, and distraction creates its own challenges. Setting boundaries is hard. And as is often the case with technology, learning to use it effectively and not abuse it is the real problem.

In that regard, childhood and parenting in the 80s, when I was growing up, was certainly simpler—and probably a lot more boring in some ways. What did kids do without iPads? And what did parents do? What did everyone do with all their free time? And before the commenters get fired up, yes, these are rhetorical questions. I understand there are plenty of other things to do and we even do some of those things every now and then. Like leaving the house and what not. But still, I felt like I needed to dig a little to find out what exactly was going on back when I was a kid.

While far from an adequate sample size, I recently stumbled upon an old home video from when I was a toddler. Such tapes are rare in my family because my parents only acquired a video camera secondhand, and when it broke, they never replaced it. My brother asked my mom why they never got another one and she replied that they “didn’t buy things they couldn’t afford.” I’m pretty sure this was a dig at someone, but I have no idea who.

This clip was of my brother and me. We were playing in the swimming pool at our house. This is even more glamorous than it sounds because our swimming pool was a plastic baby pool in our backyard. Also, my brother was twelve years old. In the video, which has the characteristic quality and ambiance of the typical home movie shot in the 70s or early 80s, my brother curls his body inside the plastic pool that is about four feet in diameter. While I climb in and out of the pool like a typical one-year-old, he continually ducks his head under water and holds it there for several seconds before popping back up. Perhaps he was trying to teach me how to drown or maybe dunking his head under water was just his thing. It’s impossible to say because my parents’ video camera didn’t have sound. What a world.

I have to say, though, that despite our obvious material deprivation, we did look quite happy. My brother was enjoying that baby pool like he didn’t have a care in the world. It just goes to show you that simple sometimes is better.

Of course, I’m not planning to eschew technology and leave the constraints and pressures of modern life behind. In particular, I have grown very fond of my iPhone and laptop. And despite all the drawbacks, like how easily you can learn just how abhorrent your friends’ politics are, the internet has opened a world of opportunity for me to express my creativity and connect with like-minded people around the world. Through the internet, I am able to share my parenting journey with others, to commiserate, to find a community without every setting foot outside my house. Sure, it’s not an adequate replacement for the real world of flesh and blood, but it’s still nice to have when I need it. I’m more than happy to leave the tiny swimming pool and grainy home videos to the decade of my childhood.

Me baby sitting with golf club.JPG

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