How Did We Survive Childhood Before the '90s Safety Nannies Came Along?

When our first son was born in 1991 we were told to lay him on his tummy at naptime — never, ever on his back because it would increase his risk of choking and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). By the time our second child came along in 1994 the experts had decided that parents should never, ever let their children sleep on their stomachs because it increased the risk of choking and SIDS. A month after he was born the experts told us that we needed to buy a wedge that forced our son to sleep on his side. This would prevent choking and lower the risk of SIDS. Thus was our introduction to our generation’s obsession with hypervigilant parenting.

We were instructed to bathe our kids in Purell and to sterilize everything that touched our bubble children. We were also told to instruct them about inappropriate touch from the moment they exited the womb. Instead of letting our children explore the neighborhood, entertaining themselves in the great outdoors, parents were encouraged to prop their children up in front of Dora the Explorer so they could vicariously experience her adventures in the safety of their playrooms (while munching on organic peanut-free multi-grain crackers and drinking hormone-free organic milk). Good parenting also demanded scheduling and supervising every minute of a child’s day.

This video is a nostalgic reminder of the freedom children have lost over the years.


When I was growing up (mostly in the ’70s), my parents had no idea where my brother and I were or what we were doing most of the day when school was out. During the summer, we’d leave the house in the morning and wouldn’t return until dinner time, often at the behest of our parents. After dinner we would play outdoors until it got dark. If our parents wanted us to come home, they would shout our names out the back door (our more refined neighbors would turn on the porch light). If we were out of earshot or ignored their calls, there were consequences miserable enough to keep us close to home the next time.

We organized epic neighborhood kick-the-can marathons and kickball games without the help of our parents. We settled squabbles and rivalries with heated arguments that sometimes led to shoving matches —  or if a really egregious injustice had been committed, we  hurled rocks. We participated in some organized sports, but they were not the center of our parents’ universe — a lawn in need of mowing generally took precedence over a softball game. Because we only had one car and my dad drove it to work every day, if we wanted to go to the local pool or the library (2 miles away) we rode our bikes (sometimes two to a bike), walked, or even roller skated.

Everyone I knew had a job in high school (my first was working for $2.00/hour at the Dairy Queen) and nearly everyone got a driver’s license the minute they turned sixteen. We exulted in our freedom and self-sufficiency when we were able to buy our own clothes and purchase our own concert tickets. Our parents didn’t have the option of tracking our movements by pinging our cell phones. If we needed to let them know we’d be late, we’d drop two dimes in a pay phone and call home (or if we didn’t have any change for the phone we would call collect and pay for our rank irresponsibility when we got home).

Somehow, we survived all this independence and freedom, mostly unscathed. And somehow, we managed to produce some of the greatest innovators the world has ever know. I realize that we can’t go back — we live in a day and age when busybody neighbors will call social services if they see your kids unattended in the wild.

But it’s worth thinking about the consequences of raising a generation or two of bubble kids and definitely worth considering how we can give our kids more unstructured time to invent, to create, and to imagine — to just be — free from structure and hovering helicopter parents. Because it’s becoming apparent that all the hovering and over-parenting, rather than helping our kids, has led to a generation of approval-seeking, naval-gazing, adult dependents who cannot navigate the world of adulthood without Buzzfeed or a government official telling them what to do and what to think about everything.