Essay: I Gave My Kids an ’80s Summer

As a break from the world’s woes, I let my kids roam around

Julia/Adobe

What with COVID anxiety and a whole bunch of other things on my life’s plate this past winter—one of parenting life’s most ridiculous demands is the gauntlet of deadlines for signing up for summer camps, which begin before you’ve recovered from the winter holidays—I decided to give my kids an ’80s-kid summer. The kind my husband and I had.

These summers involved things like staring out my window for hours, watching my dad cut the grass, and leaving an iced tea on the back step. Also: whooshing into the hushed, chilly Wentworth library with my mom and emerging under a towering stack of books. Trying and failing to get atop a huge floatie in the lake until my lips were blue. Trying not to crack the tops off my Kemps root beer Twin Pops as I broke them apart. Making mixtapes off the radio, my finger hovering above the depressed pause button to catch the magic moment between the DJ introducing the song and the song actually starting. Cruising my hometown’s entire city limits on my cloud-dotted blue banana-seat bike until the big floodlights came on in the R.C. Dick’s grocery-store parking lot, which carried a recognizable buzz, like a cicada signaling the last call of summer: Bedtime.

Generally, the theme was: You’re on your own, kid. Go make some fun.

I know things weren’t carefree. It was the ’80s, after all. But, as a child untethered from the bothersome aspects of life, such as inflation, environmental disaster, and epidemic viruses we didn’t really understand (Ope! What goes around, comes around), I felt free as a bird most days, even if they often contained long stretches of boredom. Looking back, I don’t remember feeling that my parents were absent in any way, but I sense my kids sometimes feel I am, typing away in my office while they have the run of the house downstairs, or when I tell them they have each other to play with while Mom and Dad are busy trying to keep it all together. How did this shift happen? Maybe I felt that way back then, but adulthood has blurred the edges of those feelings and softened them. I really can’t say for certain.

I watch my three kids’ eyes expand as my husband and I explain that no, when we were kids, “Gummi Bears”—arguably one of the best cartoons—was only on at 6 a.m. on Saturdays, and if you weren’t up? Too bad. Your loss. They absolutely cannot process that there wasn’t an endless animated buffet to consume until our eyeballs detached from their sockets. I mean, we played “Mega Man” in my neighbor’s basement on his Nintendo until we nearly gave ourselves seizures, but I didn’t mention that part.

This year, my oldest child is entering her last year of elementary school. Back when I attended school in this same district, you had two years left before transitioning to junior high, but like the acceleration of what feels like everything else on the planet, this will be the final act for her elementary years. Her only normal year of school was kindergarten, and everything since then has been shut down, iPadded at home, restarted, and mixed-masked. My middle child will be in second grade, never really knowing what we accepted as normal, because his preschool memories are fading. My babiest baby is off to big boy school—kindergarten really marks the end of an era when it comes to parenting. He came to consciousness in this new world.

It’s a little bit of a mortality check and a lightning bolt to the heart when I think about the swiftness of time—their babyhoods, vanished; stolen childhoods swiftly disappearing beneath our feet. I remember parts of fourth grade with sharpened focus. We read “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell. We watched “Hatchet” with the partition folded open between two classrooms, the TV seat-belted to one of those top-heavy carts. We still sat crisscross applesauce on the floor, but people started like-liking each other. Second grade, the boiler caught fire and we spent the day in the dark, our teacher reading us “James and the Giant Peach,” and ate lunch at our desks. Kindergarten: pasting my school photo onto a construction-paper star to make a Christmas tree ornament, lining the edges with pink glitter.

This will be one of the only years all my children will be in the same school at the same time as each other, bookends of milestones. In between are all the things: long days, short years, joy and triumph and oof, those unexpected low years when we tried to make magic though some days were a panicked drag.

We lived in an entirely different universe in some ways, and yet some truths of childhood remain: surprising someone with a joyful splash to the face in the lake, getting calluses from rope climbs and monkey bars, worrying your first tooth loose and eventually collecting tooth-fairy treasure, bickering with your siblings because what else have you got to do on this long, sticky, endless day?

Showy fall sweeps in and we close up our summer memories, our quickly disappearing past replaced with a fresh-start energy that smells like freshly sharpened Ticonderogas and decaying leaves instead of coconut sunscreen and fresh-cut grass. My ’80s childhood memory looms, smelling for all the world like grape Bubblelicious, and I wonder: Someday, when they pull out the mental photo albums of these pandemic seasons, what will they remember?

I hope they’ll remember jumping into their aunt’s pool, sun beating down on their blonde heads. Legos and craft kits and fierce protection from their very tired parents. The smell of a new box of Crayolas. A loosely defined freedom to figure it all out themselves, the possibility of adventure.

And I hope they remember their burned-out mothers, fathers, doctors, and teachers—the state of whom they will realize later, if they don’t now as children—who were really trying to give them the world, to allow for the inventiveness born from boredom and necessity, even if it felt like, at the time, everything was crumbling around us.

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Katie Dohman is the managing editor of Dispatch and an award-winning freelance writer based in West St. Paul covering health, wellness, parenting, and other lifestyle topics. She lives with her husband, three kids, and four pets while they slowly renovate a century-old home.