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What Parenting Was Like Before the Internet Had All the Answers

"There was a lot less guilt before the Internet."

“How the hell did people do this without Google?” my wife asks me for the umpteenth time since our daughter was born two and a half years ago.

She was researching the 2-year-old’s sleep regression, but the what isn’t irrelevant. It’s the how that really got me thinking — how anytime my wife and I are even the slightest bit unsure about what to do for our children, we rely on the myriad of articles, message boards, and videos that are at our fingertips.

The Internet is an asset for the many new and scared-shitless parents out there. No matter how crazy the situation, you just type a brief description into a Google search (“Is it normal for my toddler to scream until she throws up?”) to discover you’re far from alone — that scores of moms and dads across the globe have dealt with or are dealing with the exact same issue with which you’re currently struggling.

But the advice can also be paralyzing. And if you go too far down the online rabbit hole of parenting advice, you can convince yourself the only way to treat 2-year sleep regression is with a rare topical ointment that can only be obtained by visiting a reclusive shaman in a Guatemalan jungle on the fourth Tuesday in February.

Still, Google is an asset. And, of course, not so long ago, parents were forced to parent without it. How did fathers deal with parenting conundrums and late-night worries without the pleasure of message boards?  What the hell did they do? I caught up with a trio of dads who were young parents before the dawn of search engines to find out what it was like. Here’s what they told me.

Dad No. 1: Perry

On what he did when he didn’t know something…

When Perry ran into those “Oh shit!” parenting moments that tend to get this generation of dads searching online for a magic answer, he simply thought back to what his own dad did.

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“Sometimes, I remembered what I liked and went with that,” he says. “Sometimes, I didn’t like that memory and tried what I wish had happened instead.” A prime example of where Perry and his father differed on a key moment: handling the sex talk. As Perry put it, “When I was that age, my father bought me a razor, a can of shaving cream, and a book called ‘What Every Young Man Wants to Know About Sex.’ With my son, I reserved some time at the end of a guys’ weekend and sat him down for our first man-to-man discussion on that topic instead. It was at times embarrassing for both of us, but we survived it pretty well.”

On the hardest part of pre-Google parenting…

For Perry, the lack of resources and options made the choices clearer, but not less difficult because, as he put it, “Parenting is hard in general.” The most difficult part of raising a kid when you were unsure of so many things was the fact that “every day and every situation is a risk analysis: Will he survive? Will he survive unscathed? Will this result in therapy or good memories?”

On the positives of a parenting life without Google…

Perry definitely saw the freedom of pre-Google parenting as a definite advantage in many ways. “Personally, I think it’s easier if you stop worrying about what the neighbors and Google thinks.” For Perry, that job came down to staying true to a parenting mission statement: “Teach him (or her) that actions have consequences, risks have rewards, efforts have payoff, love is greater than hate, and that doing the right thing is not always doing the easy thing.”

Dad No. 2: Ruben

On what he did when he didn’t know something…

Ruben’s Google for anything and everything kid-related was his mom. “I would say 100 percent of the time, we went to our moms for help,” he says. “Fussiness, not eating, colored stool, or even clogged breast ducts.”

On the hardest part of pre-Google parenting… 

Ruben struggled to know what to do in the case of emergencies, like when his kid fell and bumped his head. But he also struggled with a lack of technical guidance. He didn’t know how “to properly install a car seat or how to properly clean a manual breast pump.” He also struggled with misinformation. “Every parent thinks they are experts and have theories or ways they did things. The issue is you do not know if what they do is safe.”

On the positives of a parenting life without Google…

Ruben appreciates Google, but fears that by relying too heavily on “expert advice,” today’s parents will ignore what worked for generation after generation of dads. ”Some wives’ tales are actually very effective,” he says. “I think we lose that with Google. And a bond is created between generations. My dad or my grandpa would stop me from doing something and say, ‘Hey, this is the way to drink water from a hose.’ Or my wife would get advice from my grandma on burping.” Those were bonding moments.

Dad No. 3: Mark

On what he did when he didn’t know something…

Mark used word of mouth. He relied on friends, neighbors, coworkers, or anybody who had any insight into what he was facing at the time. While this worked, there were occasional issues with that approach — such as not understanding the gravity of the issue at hand. He remembered one time where, on the referral of a trusted friend, he wound up taking his son to a specialist. The doctor had to perform a very exact injection into his son’s eye, and he had to do it perfectly or there could have been severe damage. It wasn’t until the doctor was about to prod his son’s eyeball that Mark realized how serious the situation was. Today, it would be a lot easier to research everything you need to know so you can be fully prepared for what is about to happen.

On the hardest part of pre-Google parenting…

To Mark, the hardest part of parenting back in the day was “the great unknown.” As he put it, “the kids went out early in the morning, and all you could do was hope they came back at night.” The freedom was great for kids. For parents, not so much.

On the positives of a parenting life without Google…

“There was a lot less guilt before the Internet,” Mark says. Without answers to every conceivable question, dads didn’t research every minor decision they made and worry about whether they made the right choice. They simply used the tools and knowledge they had at their disposal and did the best they could. Today, Mark says, “parents tend to feel guilty or worry about everything, even though most stuff ends up being just fine in the end.” Preach.