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A 1980s Parenting Style Can Build Self-Reliant Kids This Summer

For some parents, taking an '80s-style, hands-off approach can make life easier while growing independent kids.

E. Dronkert / Flickr.com

As I was getting my kids out the door for their penultimate school day of the year, it struck me: Next week, I won’t have to fight with them to put on shoes. They can simply walk out of the house barefoot into the softness of the summer lawn.

The thought was a rare point of hope in what has otherwise been a month of stress over what the hell I’m going to do with my kids when the school year ends. Because the thing is, I’m a parent who works from home. So after Memorial Day, my life becomes way more complicated and my options more limited.

Camps are expensive and logistically tricky as the pandemic ends. Nannies and babysitters are also pricey. Vacation Bible School is free, but sending my kids for religious indoctrination just so I can have some time to work feels morally squishy.

But my vision of barefoot kids was something of a revelation. Maybe this summer I should just bring back the parenting styles of the 80s.

The Decade of the Self-Directed Child

My formative childhood years occurred during the sugar-frosted Day-Glo decade. My nostalgia for the time is deep, but my perspective is limited, which is to say: closer to the ground and blurred by the speed of sidewalk-dominating BMX bikes. So, in my mind, I had ten limitless summers full of dirt-clod fights in undeveloped lots and hunting crawdads in weed-bound ditches.

Parents were largely unseen. They were like ghosts who would occasionally appear from the periphery causing sharp alarm and sudden quiet among groups of busy kids. But soon enough their stern adult faces would disappear and the kids would pick up where they left off.

As a modern parent, I’m mystified by how often my friends and I were left to ourselves. And I’m not convinced it was a calculated choice on the part of the adults. More likely, the disregard was a product of the times. But was it good, bad, or somewhere in the middle? As I face a summer of working from home and taking care of the kids, it’s a question with serious implications.

The Science of Self-Direction

Whatever prompted parents to give children more leeway in the 80s, contemporary research has shown that children do pretty well when offered autonomy. Many 80s parents practiced what University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau, PhD, has come to call “accomplishment of natural growth.” That’s the idea that parents are there to provide kids with food, safety and love, in order to facilitate a self-directed childhood largely free from adult concerns.

Lareau contrasts natural growth with “concerted cultivation,” where parents direct the minutiae of a child’s life. That means moms and dads manage enrichment activities and playdates and generally ensure most of a child’s time is occupied with academic, athletic or self-improvement.

When children raised in these two ways are compared later in life, the ones who experienced natural growth tend to be more resilient and independent. Children who experienced concerted cultivation, on the other hand, tend to experience a prolonged adolescence that remains dependent on parental intervention.

So the resilience is there, but what of the scars? There were plenty to be had in the 80s, both figuratively and literally. I’d rather not romanticize a time that was abjectly dangerous for plenty of kids. When a parent isn’t physically present, physical dangers are heightened. While children did have unprecedented levels of autonomy, there were also fewer guardrails and more spills. I never owned a bike helmet until well into high school and I clearly remember tempting fate by dodging the steel rain of lawn darts.

And what about scars of loneliness? It shouldn’t really be a concern as long as parents are a loving and sheltering home base to which a kid can return. Because there needs to be a bit of loneliness to spark the imagination.

Of course there is a caveat. A self-directed summer is only feasible insofar as a child is able to be left alone safely. A kid who doesn’t know how and when to cross the street should not be kicked out the front door. But around second grade, there’s no reason to not start loosening the reins. As a dad of a third and fifth grader, the time is right for me.

Taking the Good, Leaving the Bad

The solution isn’t as simple as pushing my kids out the front door and locking it behind them. I’m trying to find a sweet spot between helicopter parenting and free-range parenting. The goal is to give my kids autonomy and trust, within safe and reasonable boundaries.

I’m also cognizant of the fact that there are places that simply aren’t compatible for kids. There are neighborhoods that are environmentally unhealthy or too hot, or too busy. But the solution shouldn’t be to abandon autonomy and 80s style parenting. It just means that some boundaries need to be tighter: a couple of blocks instead of a neighborhood, a parking lot instead of a playground. Kids are good at turning any environment into a play zone. My cluttered garage is proof of that.

So here’s my plan:

There’s Safety (and Fun) in Numbers
This is true for the kids and parents. Luckily I’m not the only parent in my neighborhood facing the summer problem. My plan is to suggest our kids team up — a roving band of boys and girls who can explore within designated boundaries. I think of it more of a pack than a playdate. They can watch each other’s backs while being largely unmissable. And as they negotiate their relationships and plans, they’ll be learning serious social skills.

Boundaries and Borders
In order to keep the children somewhat contained, they’ll be given hard boundaries in the neighborhood. They will know landmarks that delineate the territory. They will have streets they are not allowed to cross in order to solidify the borders.

Having such a clear area means that they have both freedom and structure. Plus, they become a fixture in the places they’re allowed to travel. That puts more eyes on them when away from their homes.

Open Door Policy
In order for the 80s kid system to work, the parents need to agree that when parents are home, kids are welcome. The idea is to create a decentralized network of home bases where sweaty kids can come in and pound a glass of tap water before heading back out to play.

There are some caveats. Parents will keep one another abreast of kids locations via text and all effort should be in keeping the group from settling indoors in front of a screen. Most of this is due to the fact that COVID is still a thing and my kids aren’t old enough to be vaccinated. Outdoors are safe.

Home by Dinnertime
The biggest rule for my boys will be that they have to come back in the cool of the evening to have dinner. I have an old school bell for this very purpose. When they hear it ring, they need to head home.

A Matter of Trust
The biggest barrier for me will be in trusting that once my children know the rules — helmets when riding bikes, stay within the defined area, keep us informed when you change location — they will make the appropriate choices. But even more than that it’s about trusting that they will make the right decisions when there are no rules to define their specific behavior.

This trust is crucial. For them, it allows a sense of autonomy and freedom that builds a sense of pride and self-efficacy. For me, it’s the ability to see them as individuals and respect that they have desires and ideals that are unique to my own.

Will my ’80s kid plan work? I think so. I hope so.

Sure, I will expect a few scraped knees and tears from the alignment and realignment of friendships and rivalries. But that’s an important part of childhood. Either way, with any luck, they will have self-directed summer adventures and I will have space to work.

As far as dressing them in Day-Glo? The jury’s still out on that one.