Growing Up in the 1980s: Things My Kids Should Know About My Childhood (Part 1)

“When I was your age, Ronald Reagan was president, but Michael Jackson ruled.”

My kids have never experienced life without Google, SpongeBob, Disney-Pixar movies, Blu-ray discs, DVRs, MP3s, and cellphones. They’ve never had to rewind a VHS tape, and they would never even consider picking up a dusty encyclopedia to look up information.

There are so many things I want to tell my kids about my childhood…many years ago, in the totally awesome ’80s:

When I was your age, Ronald Reagan was president, but Michael Jackson ruled. I remember watching Michael Jackson moonwalk across the stage on TV, and suddenly everyone in my class wanted to learn how to moonwalk. MJ’s music video for “Thriller” was the coolest thing any of us had ever seen. One of my classmates wore a replica of Michael’s sparkly glove and his red-and-black “Thriller” jacket to school for months. My dad had the Thriller album on cassette tape. Michael Jackson’s Bad album, released in 1987, was the first CD I ever bought. (But I still bought cassettes to play on the boombox in my bedroom; if I wanted to listen to a CD, I had to go downstairs to use my dad’s stereo.)        

I was aware that President Reagan liked jelly beans. That made an impression on me because I liked jelly beans, too. I knew something called the Cold War was going on and that the Russians/Soviets/Communists were the “bad guys,” but I didn’t really understand any of it (in much the same way that our current president doesn’t understand any of it). I never saw a Ronald Reagan movie until I was in my 20s and addicted to Turner Classic Movies; I was blown away by how young and handsome he was.

When I was your age, I walked across a busy street to go to the drugstore to buy fluorescent slime for a quarter and spritz samples of Debbie Gibson’s “Electric Youth” perfume on my wrists.   

When I was your age, grocery stores and fast-food restaurants didn’t accept credit cards. Most stores that did accept credit cards had to run them through this clunky device that made carbon copies of the name and number from the front of the card. On the plus side, no one had to deal with those crappy touch-screen signature-capture devices at the check stands. (Will the term “check stand” be extinct by the time my children are adults?)  

I was working at a grocery store as a grocery sacker in the early 1990s, and I remember how revolutionary it was when our store started accepting credit cards and debit cards for payment. Today, if I were to pull out a checkbook to pay for groceries, my kids might wonder why I was “writing a note” instead of swiping my credit card.

When I was your age, the only mail we got was “snail mail.” But we didn’t call it “snail mail” back then because no one knew what e-mail was. I didn’t open an e-mail account until I started college, in 1995.  

When I was your age, most of my friends didn’t have computers at home. Some of them still used typewriters. In the early ’80s, my dad had a Tandy personal computer and a dot matrix printer which used a special kind of paper with green and white stripes. After it was done printing, we had to tear off the perforated edges. At my grade school we had a computer lab where we got to play educational games; two of my favorite computer games were Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Those ancient computers used floppy disks (something else my kids have never touched).   

When I was your age, in the mid-1980s, we had to replace our Betamax VCR with a VHS player because we couldn’t get Beta videos at the movie rental store anymore. We didn’t have Redbox or Netflix or any instant-streaming back then, but we still had lots of good movies available to rent. Some of my all-time favorite movies were made in the 1980s: Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Princess Bride. I remember seeing all of those movies in the theater. (Geeky side note: As an adult married to a Star Wars geek, I’ve come to realize that The Empire Strikes Back is better than Return of the Jedi. But those adorable Ewoks will always have a special place in my heart, and the scene in which Darth Vader saves Luke’s life by killing the Emperor still gives me goosebumps.)

My husband says I’m the only person he knows who hates E.T., another classic ’80s film. I hate E.T. because I can’t watch it without remembering how scared and sad the movie made me the very first time I saw it in the theater. I think the Reese’s Pieces are the best part.

Other ’80s movies that stand out in my mind are Top Gun, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Dirty Dancing, Spaceballs, Pretty in Pink, Cocoon, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. I also loved One Crazy Summer with John Cusack and Demi Moore. My husband would add The Last Starfighter, The Goonies, and War Games, and he, of course, loves E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.   

Stay tuned for Parts TwoThree, and Four, where I’ll discuss my favorite ’80s cartoons, sitcoms, video games, toys, books, and more.

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