The Purple Flag and Other Stuff Parents Didn't Worry about in the '80s

the ’80s

Has the world become more dangerous since the ’80s, or have parents become more paranoid?

Sometimes I long for the carefree days growing up in the ’80s, sitting around in my Umbros eating SpaghettiOs and Ho Hos with my 5th grade best friend discussing the latest Babysitters Club book as the toddlers we were babysitting sat watching Mister Rogers and drinking Tang. As a parent of young children today, I sometimes find myself feeling envious of parents who raised their kids in the ’80s, in a world of blissful ignorance. In that pre-Columbine world, my parents didn’t think twice about letting me and my twin sister walk four blocks to kindergarten by ourselves. And as I reached my preteens, neighborhood families trusted me to babysit their infants, including four-month-old triplets (by myself!) at age 12 — and not because I was particularly trustworthy, just because I lived nearby. Parents of Gen-Xers could make Bisquick chicken pot pies and green Jell-O and believe they were serving up a healthy meal. They could feel proud about purchasing the “healthier” margarine and “low-fat” foods without scouring labels. In a pinch, they could heat up Market Day meals without running into the savory dishes their friends were posting on Pinterest. And if kids growing up today could see the free rein that kids enjoyed then, running around their neighborhoods playing “cops and robbers” and “ghost in the graveyard” late into summer evenings, they might feel a bit jealous of those ’80s children.

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Children today are allowed to do far less independently than children 30 years ago were, and when asked why, people say, “Well, it’s a different world today.” But is it really more dangerous than it was in the ’80s? Or has the Age of Information given us a little TMI? Are we making decisions based on facts or fears?

These questions washed over me in one large wave on a recent outing to San Clemente Beach in Southern California, after my 10-year-old daughter spotted a purple flag fluttering in the wind. Unlike many of our beach trips, I had spent this one actually diving into the Pacific with gusto, coming up to gulp fresh air between salty splashes and spouts of laughter, as my girl and I held hands and allowed the water to knock us around a bit. After some of the most fun, playful hours of my life, my daughter noticed the purple flag, so we asked a lifeguard what it meant.

“Unusual sea life warning,” was her reply, as if she’d just told me there were some clouds in the forecast and I should mosey along.

But I had more questions. “Like sharks?”

“No.” She laughed. “Just stingrays. Oh, and a sea lion bit someone down the way.”

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She went on to show us how to do the “stingray shuffle” in order to avoid getting stung, but all of a sudden I didn’t feel like shuffling. Or swimming. With one sweep of a flag, my carefree spirit fled and my sensible self wanted to go home after a very satisfying — and safe — trip to the beach. The funny thing is that the purple flag had been up all day, but I found myself feeling grateful that we hadn’t seen it earlier. Yes, we could have been doing the “stingray shuffle” all day, but my guard would have been up, and I probably would not have even entered the water. Which brings me back to this question: Is ignorance, or at least a certain amount of it, bliss?

Would we as a society be better off not seeing news of attempted kidnappings and school lockdowns or large warning labels telling us the building we’re about to enter is made with materials that may cause cancer? I know many current regulations, warnings and labels arose for a reason and the “better safe than sorry” adage probably prevents many injuries and even deaths. But has it gone too far? Are we currently living in paranoia? Do our newfound pieces of knowledge and adjacent worries really make us any safer?

I did some digging into the actual statistics and was surprised by what I found. First, psychology has already established that worry in and of itself is not useful and can be harmful, as it wastes time and energy. Many things we now worry about were legitimate concerns both in the ’80s and today, such as keeping our children away from harm. The difference is that the need to keep our families safe did not consume parents’ minds in the ’80s or prevent them from allowing children to partake in activities that are good for them, such as climbing trees.

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Second, the world as a whole is far less violent today than in the past, according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

Third, crime rates in the United States have dramatically declined since the ’80s. Based on data, crime rates climbed from 1960 through 1990 and then began to fall. In fact, according to the United States Crime Index, rates per 100,000 inhabitants have declined nearly every year since 1990, both violent and nonviolent offenses. For example, the overall crime rate was 3.984 in 1970. Twenty years later in 1990, it hit 5.820. Skip ahead 20 years, and by 2010 the figure had fallen to 3.345. Violent crimes had skyrocketed by 1990 but have since declined significantly.

So what changed in the ’90s and beyond that led to the decline? Some researchers say it’s because of prevention efforts, social services, policies, etc. Rates are still inaccurate, as many go unreported, but there was also underreporting in the ’70s and ’80s, so that factor alone doesn’t explain the drop in crime rates.

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But while researchers struggle to pinpoint the exact reasons crime rates have declined, they also attempt to explain why people’s fears, especially in regard to safety, continue to rise.

Roger Hart, professor of environmental and developmental psychology, has begun releasing telling information about a longitudinal study in which he’s compiling lengthy interviews and film footage from children growing up in the mid-1970s in a rural Vermont town and comparing it to children growing up in that same town today. When observing play habits and environmental boundaries, he found that children play outside far less today and rely on their parents to direct their creative play far more than children did 30+ years ago. He also found that parents allow their children to go to far fewer places within the town. Most of the kids can now go to only the end of their driveways, in contrast to the children in the ’70s who were permitted to go much farther. Interestingly, many of the kids from the original study who were permitted to run around the town are now the same parents who don’t allow their children to have anything close to the freedoms they enjoyed as children.

So how did the free-range, latchkey kids of the ’70s and ’80s turn into the helicopter parents of today? Researchers and authors on the topic theorize everything from the increased, widespread media coverage highlighting stories of child abductions to the personal experiences of latchkey kids who felt scared and alone at times. Whatever the reason, most agree events that have transpired in the past 30 or so years have created the perfect storm for the fear that heavily influences parents today.

Many wonder if there is any way to bridge the gap between the laid-back parenting of the ’80s to the overprotective parenting of today. Many psychologists and child development experts recommend parents increase opportunities for their children to participate in “risky play,” such as climbing trees, skateboarding fast and rough-and-tumble play fighting. Risky play has been on a decline for the past 60 years, though this type of play is necessary in a child’s development. According to the emotional regulation theory, “play is, among other things, the way that young mammals learn to control their fear and anger so they can encounter real-life dangers, and interact in close quarters with others, without succumbing to negative emotions.” Social researchers are finding that, as risky play has declined, there has been an increase in serious emotional disturbances among children, such as anxiety and depression. In an attempt to keep their children physically safe, researchers say parents are crippling them emotionally.

Bottom line? If you see a purple flag, it’s worth noting, but it doesn’t mean you have to exit the water, at least not permanently. You may just have to shuffle your feet a bit. end



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  • Lori Barnes

    Amen!!! I was in high school and college in the 80s, so I was more of a 70s kid. Just turned 50. But definitely a difference in parenting and what was allowed. I completely agree kids are being emotionally crippled. I am amazed at the parenting I see these days. But on the flip side, today’s kids are not being held accountable for their actions. I was raised in a small town and the village did raise the kids. It was nothing to come home and a neighbor had called my mom because they say me do something wrong. Today, that neighbor would be punched or shot. Actions has consequences then–not now. Parent’s excuse their kid’s bad behavior. The differences I see are that parents to do not truly parent. The kid rules the house and makes the rules. Like the parents are scared of the kid. Lay down some rules, enforce them, make the kid be responsible for behavior, have consequences for bad behavior, parent them–do not just be their friend. That can come when they actually grow up and are responsible and not entitled.

    • earlymusicus

      Well said!!

  • dogdiva730

    This article is hysterically funny to those of us who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s. You went outside in the morning and were told (by very responsible parents, incidentally) to be sure you were home “by the time the street lights come on.” Parents warned us not to talk to strangers, stay way more than arm’s length from a car that stops to ask for directions and not to believe anyone who said their puppy was lost. What they didn’t do was hover. We got wet in the rain and snow, we got dirty in vacant lots playing baseball, and we spent the day at the beach swimming till our lips turned blue (there were always some mothers on the beach, but no life guards until I was in my teens). My dad was very wise – he used to take me for rides and let me pick turning left or right at intersections. I was never afraid of being lost. He taught me to read maps and use the sun for direction. He also made me learn to change a tire and steer out of a skid before I got my license. As a result, I never felt dependent, but self sufficient. Could today’s kids even get themselves out of a jam without a cell phone? If not, you’re hovering WAY too much…

    • earlymusicus

      I grew up in the 50s, too, and had the same experiences you mention. We spent a lot of weekends up north at my uncle’s cabin and our dad taught us how to find our way in the woods, and my brother and I would wander and explore to our heart’s content on our own. All the neighbors knew each other and if you did something wrong at the neighbor’s house, your mom was told and you’d be punished when you got home. People didn’t have to lock their doors back then. People were CIVILIZED, because THEIR parents had raised them to be civilized! Kids didn’t run wild in stores, restaurants, and libraries, as they do today. And we were taught to behave in school, so teachers didn’t have to waste class time disciplining kids, as they do today.