Those 'carefree' 70s and 80s childhoods weren't the utopia some make them out to be

Let's ditch the rose-colored glasses and acknowledge that Gen X childhoods included a lot of unspoken and unresolved trauma.

kid climbing a tree
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Gen X childhood wasn't as "carefree" as it seems.

Everywhere you turn these days, someone is celebrating the simple joys and freedoms of childhood in the 70s and 80s. Indeed, in some ways, Gen X childhood was glorious compared to how kids grow up today. We went outside and rode our bikes without helmets. We went to the park, climbed trees and risked our lives on questionable play equipment. We knocked on our friends’ doors without calling first and spent endless hours in play and adventure without supervision.

We had television and video games, but what we could do with them was limited by the technology itself. We didn’t have social media or cyberbullying or sextortion to worry about. We didn’t have doom and gloom news blasted in our faces 24/7. No cell phones, no GPS tracking, no Life 360. Our parents only had a vague idea of where we were and what we were doing most of the time. And despite staring into the faces of missing children on milk cartons at the breakfast table every morning, we just accepted that benign neglect was a normal aspect of childhood.

But did we, really? As much as Gen Xers love to reminisce about simplicity of our 80s childhoods, evidence suggests it wasn't quite the free-roaming utopia many make it out to be. After all, a lot of Gen Xers turned into “helicopter parents”—the polar opposite of the way they were raised. There's a reason for that.

Maybe it’s time to ditch the rose-colored glasses and acknowledge that the “carefree” childhood Gen X enjoyed actually included a lot of unspoken and unresolved trauma.

Anyone who has read “Lord of the Flies” knows what can happen when kids are left to their own devices, so let’s start with some of the unsavory things that happened during all those hours Gen X kids spent unsupervised. If you were lucky enough to have a peer group with decent heads on their shoulders, you may have fared okay, even with some ill-advised youthful shenanigans under your belt. But not every Gen X kid was so lucky.

A lot of people came away from those 80s childhoods with experiences no one should have. Bullying was a huge problem, but awareness about bullying was lacking, and if you weren't the type to fight back, you basically just put up with regular abuse. Sexual harassment and assault were common when we were growing up as well, but they weren't talked about in a way that led to support or empowerment of victims. Gen X didn’t have a “Me too” movement before or during their formative years like young people today have. Our generation was left on its own to figure out how to handle those things.

We were left on our own to figure out how to handle a lot of things. That’s likely what made us the resilient, independent adults we are, but that doesn’t mean our generation acquired those traits in a healthy way. Some of us did, but for some of us, independence and resilience were a trauma response.

How about the fact that Gen X grew up during the peak in divorce rates? Or the less talked about reality that millions of Gen Xers were raised by Vietnam vets, some of whom lived with untreated PTSD and who themselves were children of traumatized WWII vets? Or the fact that two-parent working households were new and no one had figured out how to do that without the kids feeling neglected in some way?

As a 2004 study concluded, "Generation X went through its all-important formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history."

That's…not great.

I know I’m painting Gen Xers with a broad brush here. Not everything here applies to everyone, me included, but these are all things I've witnessed in my peers. The reality is a lot of Gen Xers grew up feeling unsafe and devoid of parental guidance a lot of the time, which is probably what prompted so many of us to lean so far into safety and connection with our own kids.

On the one hand, yes, the pendulum may have swung too far the other way into overparenting instead of underparenting. On the other hand, Gen X's own kids have grown up in the safest era for kids America has ever seen. That's not bad. It also appears that Gen X, at least anecdotally, has a closer relationship with their kids than they had with their parents. That's also not bad. We have a lot more research about what helps and harms kids when it comes to parenting, so despite raising our own children in the uncharted territory of the age, we at least have some psychosocial tools in our tool belts that previous generations of parents didn't have.

It's not a bad thing to want to give our kids some of the outdoor play and simple, non-screen-oriented joys we experienced as kids. But in advocating for such things, let's not pretend that our 70s and 80s childhoods were ideal when, in many was, they were anything but.


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