Bringing Back the ‘90s: Parenting Edition

I consider myself to be incredibly lucky that I was born in 1989. Still (barely) an ‘80s babe, I experienced my childhood in the very best of all decades: the nineties.

Growing up in the ‘90s was completely, mind-blowingly wonderful. An age of playing outside til the street lights came on (and it was time to go home), inflatable chairs, landline phones, dial up internet on the family computer (all those hours spent playing with Microsoft Paint and Clippy, anyone?), Polly Pockets, circling things you wanted in Christmas catalogs, malls, and some of the best Disney movies ever made, chosen after great deliberation in Blockbuster Video. It was a simple yet joyous time – a time when the only demands made on you as a kid, were, well, just being a kid.
My sister and I, New Year’s Day circa 1992-3.

‘90s kids actually hold a unique position in history. We watched the world shift before our very eyes, but remained confident of our place within it. We remember what life was like before computers, social media, and cell phones; were the generation that learned and adapted to life with the new technologies that we now take for granted. We also helped our parents get to grips with these new technologies – and maybe still do!

Childhood in the ‘90s was free and easy, and in many ways, so was parenthood. While yes, there were some of the seminal textbooks about parenting (especially for new parents, think: What to Expect When You’re Expecting, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, etc. which were old enough to be revised periodically through the decade) the overwhelming avalanche of information now available to us online was conspicuously absent. As a result, the parents of the ‘90s fundamentally worried less – they worried less about us, their children, and about what other people thought of their parenting.

As my son gets older (he’s currently 3) I find myself increasingly thinking back to my childhood, to the things I loved and appreciated; about what was important, and how things have changed. The world has grown and changed hugely since the turn of the new millennium, and I think we can all agree that those changes haven’t all been positive.

With that in mind, I’ve decided that I’m bringing back the ‘90s to my parenting: borrowing from the greatest decade to give my son the very best of childhoods. This is how I’m doing it.

My son thinks rainy day puddles are much more fun than sunshine.

1. Get Outside

As a child of the ‘90s – and though I did grow up in the UK, my husband assures me it was much the same for him in San Antonio – spending time outside was a huge part of my childhood.

Climbing holidays, walks, camping in tents, scootering, skipping, helping out in the yard, filling the paddling pool on a hot day, and visiting gardens and parks represent a handful of my most positive memories of growing up. So many of my sensory memories – picking our own strawberries, shelling peas, bonfires, and sledding in the snow – revolve around being outside. It wasn’t just for vacations, either, but an everyday experience of spending life as a child out in the fresh air.

My son loves to be outside, and it is definitely something I nurture, whatever the weather. This is an easy goal to achieve as he is just as happy outside in the pouring rain as on a warm, sunny day – perhaps even happier, as there are puddles to jump in and snails to find. Despite the wet days of winter and the heat of the summer months, we will easily hit the quota sought after by the 1,000 Hours Outside movement.

Sure, San Antonio summers are brutal – but spending time outside is a childhood rite of passage, and kids don’t feel the cold or the heat as keenly as we do as adults. So give them the freedom to climb trees, have water fights, and play hide and seek. Make the most of the pools and splash pads across the city during spring and summer, let them dig in the dirt and grow their own flowers and plants. Fuel their imaginations with a playhouse, build a fort, and let them camp out in the yard. These are predominantly free, easy, and independence-building activities that ‘90s kids thrived on.

While we’re on the subject of independence-building, lots of the things ‘90s kids did outside seem to be falling by the wayside. I vote for bringing back entrepreneurial lemonade stands, mowing the grass for an allowance, and helping elderly neighbors take care of their yards and get their trash to the curb. I think it’s often easier for us to say that people are closed off or community isn’t as important as it once was, but I’ve found that generally people still crave that sense of connection and neighborliness. Talking to other adults is a valuable and necessary skill for tweens and teens, and our relationships with those who live around us are worth investing in.

2. Toned Down Tech

This one is hard, and of course I don’t live under a rock. But technology is one area where the developments that have taken place since my childhood – when dial-up was replaced by more affordable, widespread broadband by 1998 or so – make the lives of kids today utterly unrecognizable from three decades ago.

I’m not saying it’s all bad, and nor am I judging anyone for doing what works for their family. An increasing number of schools rely on technology to assign and check homework, but beyond that, the vast majority of kids are using technology in their free time. In 2021, a survey showed that 57% of households without children owned a tablet, a number that jumped to 75% of those with children under the age of 5, and as many as 81% of households with kids between the ages of 5-17 had tablets. My mind was blown by this figure, which might now be even higher three years later.

It may not be popular (or, always easy) but my three year old doesn’t have an iPad, and he won’t for a long time. He’s not screen free by any means, but the screen he has access to is our TV. Sometimes I’ll turn it on when I need to get some chores done, but we otherwise try to sit down and watch together (as a result, I may have seen Disney Cars more than pretty much any other person in the known universe). If we’re on a long car journey (5.5 hours or thereabouts), I make sure I have a bag of small toys, books, stickers, and snacks. Otherwise we’re lucky that he seems relatively content to look out of the window. We’ll be travelling long haul this year, and my plan looks much the same. I am genuinely not convinced that a tablet would make the experience any easier, anyway – my worry isn’t boredom, but rather, confining someone who loves to run in a seat for 9 hours at a time.

The ‘90s as a decade teaches us one thing in abundance: that boredom is a necessary part of childhood. We had four TV channels and limited hours of (and access to) the shows that interested us. My parents were too busy to keep us continually amused, and our independent play (and reading) skills flourished as a result. I’ve got more time with my son than my mom had with us, but I also want my son to grow up able to make the most of exploring outside, making up his own games, playing board games and doing puzzles on rainy days, swimming and splashing through the summer, and enjoying screen time as part of a happy and varied childhood.

The National Survey of Children’s Health in 2020 reported that 26% of children spent “four or more hours per day in front of a tablet, TV, phone or other electronic device outside of doing schoolwork.” That’s more than double the 1-2 hours recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for kids under 5. I’m no saint here, and we definitely have days where we watch more TV than others, but as parents we have to recognize – and stop – excessive technology use in favor of a healthier, happy childhood. I’m also trying to use my phone less and be more present when we are together, so the door swings both ways here.

Me in 1994.

3. Dressing Like a Kid

The ‘90s had some fashion highs and some fashion lows, but one things for sure: kids dressed like kids. Bib overalls, Peter Pan collars, shiny track pants, primary colors, velvet headbands with our names on, the United Colors of Benetton… we had it all, and didn’t even know it.

In an age of Instagram influencers and targeted ads, it’s really *too* easy to find clothes for all occasions, and matching mommy-and-me fashions. And I get the appeal, but at the same time worry that it means that the line between kids clothing and adult clothing – especially fashion for younger children – is blurring. Kids really don’t need clothes that are tiny versions of adult ones; they need comfortable clothing that is easy to put on and take off, that washed well, and gives them the freedom to play and roam.

For this reason I don’t dress my son in jeans, and I very deliberately dress him in clothing made for children, that is appropriate for his age and what he does in a day. “Dressing their age” gets harder the older they get, and I have little experience with tweens and teens, but for now I opt for clothing that is bright, colorful, and sunny, with age appropriate patterns and motifs. Soft elasticated waistbands, cuffed ankles, reinforced knees, easily turned up sleeves, and jackets with zips are my preference. He also has a selection of hand-knitted cardigans and sweaters that bring personality and vintage flair to his wardrobe.

Similarly, his shoes are not fashionable, they are sturdy and he can run and jump and live without falling or discomfort – I’ve finally realized why my mom fought us so very hard to have supportive, ugly school shoes over ballerina flats. I love that my son’s sunny style matches who he is, and as he gets older he has more opinions about what he wants to wear. Inevitably, you end up with T-shirts with Lightning McQueen, Bluey, TMNT and more, but that’s all part of being a kid, too.

4. Home Movies

One of my biggest resolutions this year was to ensure that my photos find a home beyond my phone. It’s so easy to snap photos every day, and then never look at them again. As well as printing more photos – you can read more about this here – and cycling the prints in my photo frames around, I have also been inspired by my childhood to create “home movies.”

Camcorders and video recorders were a staple at family gatherings and on vacations during the ‘90s, and though we don’t technically need them anymore, creating a visual record of events is still important. There is really no replacement for seeing your children grow up on video, or having those precious memories to look back on as an adult. I have an iPhone, so I make sure that all of my photos are taken in “live” mode. This means that a photo is technically a still taken from a short video (with sound!), which are the ideal media to transform moments of everyday life into a short home video.

I use an app called Splice to select photos and videos (I use a mix of Live Photos, still photos, and longer videos) and create videos every month or so, and whenever we go on trips, with music as a background. Seeing his face change and his voice grow is beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time! Sometimes I share them with friends and family, most of the time I show him and store them up so he can watch and enjoy them when he’s older.

Me with my mother and sister, circa 1993.

5. The Party Bag

There is no greater symbol of the ‘90s than the party bag: a flimsy and dubiously printed swag bag that matched the theme of the party, filled with the kind of treasures prized by kids everywhere. Ring pops, bubble tape, pop rocks, scrunchies, fortune teller fish, whoopie cushions, slap bracelets… you name it, this bag had it, alongside a piece of sheet cake carefully wrapped in a colored napkin. Opening a party bag and discovering its treasures is a huge sensory memory for me, and I cannot wait to bring back that feeling for my son and his friends as they grow.

Parties were a staple of ‘90s kids social calendar. Whether it was a big party and everyone in the class was invited, or a handful of best friends for a sleepover, it was a big deal. We’d look forward to it for weeks, plan our outfits, and wonder what kind of cake or theme it would be. Laser Tag, bowling alleys, arcades, and one-stop-party-shops like Chuck E Cheese were (and are!) childhood favorites for a reason: everyone had fun, the food was kid-friendly, and you only had to stop playing for a rendition of “happy birthday” and a slice of cake.

That said, some of the best ‘90s parties were at home. Maybe your Dad blew up a rented bounce house outside, your hose was hooked up to a slick water slide, you had a water balloon battle of epic proportions, or you swam in the pool with your friends. Maybe there was a magic show, or a clown making balloon animals, and you ate from a buffet of party foods prepared by your mom, grandmothers, aunties, and honorary aunts that were actually your mom’s best friends.

When it was time to blow out the candles, you sat at the head of your own dining table and beamed into the camera as your friends belted out “happy birthday” and “s/he’s a jolly good fellow.” The cake was delicious and all too soon, it was time to hand out those party bags and say goodbye.

Parties remain big business, and there are hundreds of ways to throw a good one! But for me, a party at home is the best way to celebrate those pre-school age birthdays and beyond. Everyone feels comfortable, the entertainment opportunities are endless, and you can always guarantee that the food will be good. Plus, with no venue cost, you can really go to town on party bags – in true ‘90s style! You can read more about fellow ACM Megan’s mission to throw parties like it’s 1999, here.

6. Road Trips

I might be well-travelled and live thousands of miles from where I’m from now, but I haven’t always been so adventurous. In fact, I didn’t leave the UK until I was a teenager, and even then, not properly til I was 20.

Our vacations when I was a child in the ‘90s were, therefore, relatively close to home. We went mountain climbing, to museums, on ferries and trains, stayed in little hotels and lodges, ate ice creams by the sea, and stayed with my grandparents for a week or so at a time. It was sweet and simple and fun, and I never felt like I was missing out on the kind of beach or resort holidays my friends went on overseas.

Of course, life will be different for my son, as we navigate living life with families on both sides of the Atlantic. Travel will be a necessary and normal part of his experience of life, and it’s in many ways easier and more affordable than it was when I was growing up. But truthfully, I really prize the quality time we spend on our family trips not far from San Antonio. Exploring West Texas, the towns of the Hill Country, road tripping to Dallas, or heading down to the coast are more my speed. I want to make the most of where we are in the world, take more frequent trips, and enjoy just being together often – much more than I want those “once in a blue moon” vacations.

My son’s first vacation at a cabin in Fredericksburg.

7. Worldly Kids

I saw a funny post on social media recently that said, “I want to take my 3-year-old out, until we get there” and this is so relatable for me. The meltdowns and tantrums at this age are not for the faint of heart! It can make staying home seem like the better – or only – option some days.

However, children of the ‘90s occupied space absolutely everywhere their parents and caregivers wanted and needed to go. Your mom had an appointment at the hair salon? Guess who just found a new coloring venue! Your parents are buying a new car? Good job you brought Barbie and her sister Chelsea along to play with while they navigated a mountain of paperwork. Grandparents needed to return library books or call in on a neighbor? You were there too. Sure, these things could be boring, but we were kids, and we didn’t get to choose our schedule.

The important lesson here is that kids belong in the world – they should go everywhere they are able to go, and as parents we shouldn’t be made to feel bad or apologetic for normal child behavior. Only by spending time in restaurants, shops, cafes, waiting rooms, and theaters will they grow comfortable in these environments, which are not the sole preserve of adults. This takes time, and we shouldn’t demand perfection on the first try! There have been many times when I’ve stopped myself from ordering a grocery delivery or taking my lunch to go, because there was no reason for me not to have my son with me in the store or cafe, other than my fear of inconveniencing or upsetting other people. Frankly, there’s more to life.

Parents of the ‘90s made life easier for themselves, not for other people, and this is something we need to get back to. I remember as a child going out to restaurants with my parents and grandparents and coloring on kids menus, doing the weekly grocery shop, waiting at the car dealership, and queuing at the Post Office. If my mom needed to renew her drivers license or passport, we just went along with her. Our children belong in the world, bringing all their joy and light and hilarity with them. Before Christmas we went to a Santa Brunch at the Petroleum Club of San Antonio, and I cannot tell you how much joy there was (and not just for us!) at seeing a three year old in such a grown up environment, telling people where they could find the dessert table.

While there are aspects of my childhood that I’m more than happy to stay in the ‘90s – inflatable furniture for one, dubious fashions and hair-crimping another – I often find myself longing for those simpler times. So even if there’s just a little nostalgia in our lives, I hope that there will always be ways that my son’s childhood mirrors my own.

Natalie
Natalie is a proud Brit, but moved to Texas at the end of 2017 to be with her husband, a native San Antonian. Their son was born in late October 2020, so her entire experience of pregnancy, birth, and postpartum has been under the cloud of Covid-19. She spent the frivolous years of her early 20s pursuing a PhD in Renaissance history, living in Venice, Italy, and teaching students. She pivoted into editing when she moved to the US, but currently has her academic pursuits on hold while she focuses on her son. Despite being in San Antonio for a few years now, she still considers herself a newbie. She loves to find out more about the history and culture of the city, explore new places, and find local businesses to support. A fastidious researcher and lover of lists, she’s always excited to share her finds and experiences with others. Favorite Restaurant: Dough Favorite Landmark: World’s Largest Cowboy Boots Favorite San Antonio Tradition: Riverwalk Christmas Lights

1 COMMENT

  1. I love this. We parent this way (kids are 12, 12, and 10 now) and have loved the results so far. We still don’t own any tablets. We don’t watch movies during road trips – I HIGHLY recommend audiobooks on road trips, we started those when the oldests were 4 – and our kids spend a lot of time playing games, going outside, and being bored.

    We try not to over schedule, haven’t specialized in sports, and generally try to make sure the kids are well rounded, have a fair measure of independence and responsibility, and understand how to interact with the world around them. Kudos to you, and welcome to the old-school parents’ club!

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