Things '80s Kids Could Get Away With That Today’s Kids Can’t

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:28:04 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The '80s were epic — it’s as simple as that. Neon-colored leg warmers were all the rage, it was cool to be a latchkey kid and you could ride a bike without a helmet. Today's kids have 24/7 Internet access and smart devices, but '80's kids lived in a world filled with wild imagination and exhilarating freedom.

Saturday morning meant watching new episodes of She-Ra, He-Man and Transformers with a bowl of sugary cereal — and no guilt. Kids could drop by their friends’ houses unannounced (Gasp!), play outside until the street lights came on and feel safe everywhere they went. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here are 30 things '80's kids could get away with that today’s kids can’t.

Saturday Morning Cartoon Binges

Similar to today’s Super Bowl Sunday, Saturday mornings in the '80s had fun commercials and winning entertainment. Commercials in the '80s could be cheesy or risque and often hawked toys featuring popular cartoon characters. Today's kids often aren’t allowed to enjoy a sweet bowl of Cookie Crisp or Smurf Berry Crunch while watching TV, but it was a Saturday morning tradition back in the day.

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Photo Courtesy: Jennie Woodcock/Reflections Photolibrary/Getty Images

The Smurfs, Scooby-Doo and Transformers kept children glued to the screen. No one was cooler than Jem and the Holograms, and many '80's kids pretended to be characters from Thundercats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe during mock battles with friends. Even though many '80 cartoons were glorified commercials to sell toys, kids loved them anyway.

Playing with Payphones

Before the convenience of cell phones and the internet, you had to find a payphone to call home when you were out. That meant kids of the '80s had to have some loose change to dial, or they could make a collect call. Kids who wanted to visit friends or family could drop by unannounced and ring the doorbell without calling first.

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When phone booths still existed, older kids enjoyed stuffing as many friends as possible inside until they risked getting stuck. Payphones today are relics of the past and are usually out-of-order if you stumble across one.

Crossing All the Wires

In the '80s, you couldn't move around the house much when you were on the phone. The phones in homes were usually in the kitchen, and you could only move as far as the attached cord would stretch. The design of a landline phone's cord didn't help. It was easy for the cord to knot or get wrapped around limbs or furniture.

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Mobile phones were a rare sighting in the '80s, and they felt like you were holding a heavy brick in your hands. Mom and Dad spent a lot of time yelling for kids to get off the phone in the kitchen. Some households even had cool novelty phones that looked like a pair of red lips, a football, Mickey Mouse or plenty of other designs.

Wavy Waterbeds

Waterbeds were initially made to relieve stress on joints and prevent bed sores from forming. During the '80s, one of the coolest things was having a waterbed at home. Instead of jumping on them like a traditional mattress, you could simply roll around to bring on the fun. Sleeping on a waterbed was ideal for kids with allergies because the beds didn't attract dust, dirt and bedbugs like mattresses.

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Waterbeds could be risky, however, as kids could slip between the frame and the mattress. Sometimes kids playing on a waterbed could develop motion sickness or cause a leak. After A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master came out in 1988, many kids were too scared to sleep on waterbeds anymore.

Flexible Safety Standards

In the '80s, it was completely normal for kids to travel in cars without wearing seatbelts, and helmets were optional — and rare — when riding bikes. Warning labels now found on many household items weren’t mandatory, and consumers trusted the products sold by companies without asking too many questions. A kid in the '80s could be trusted to handle potentially dangerous items without causing parents to worry.

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Kids could use cleaning materials and be near medicine bottles without childproof caps. Meat sold at grocery stores didn't always have an expiration date, and kids could roam their neighborhoods relatively unsupervised. Heck, the babysitter was often barely a teenager who hadn’t even had a crash course in caring for kids.

Playing Dodgeball

Games only had winners and losers in the ‘80s. Everyone didn't get an award just for making an effort, and gym class was often brutal for those who weren’t physically talented. Dodgeball could either make or break a kid on the playground — fast!

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Move over laser tag, go-kart racing and double dutch. A game of dodgeball could leave a kid with bumps, bruises and the odd broken nose if things really got wild. After years of frequent casualties, dodgeball was phased out from most schools. Even if you hated the game, you have to admit that playing dodgeball in the '80s made you a tough kid who could take a hit without crying for your mom.

Sweet School Valentine Mementos

In the '80s, Valentine's Day was a holiday to love and loathe. Kids looked forward to collecting as many Valentine's Day cards as possible and gave away cards of their own to try to win over the popular kids. Everyone in the class wasn’t guaranteed to get a V-Day card because life wasn't fair, and no one stacked the deck.

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Scoring Valentine candy in class was the next best thing to trick-or-treating on Halloween. Eating chocolate and making fun messages with a handful of candy message hearts was the best. The feeling of having a secret admirer and trading cards and candy made childhood even more memorable.

Dot Matrix Printing Fun

Following the demise of the Ditto machine, dot-matrix printers took over the classroom. After a game of The Oregon Trail and battling dysentery, printing on a dot matrix was "the bee's knees." One reason these printers of the past were a blast was the paper.

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There was nothing like the sweet satisfaction of ripping off the perforated edges of each page. Sure, it was a bit tedious, but it was as satisfying as popping a sheet of bubble wrap. Recycling and paper conservation weren’t issues, so '80's kids could go to town printing out reams of paper.

Collecting Garbage Pail Kids

Cabbage Patch Kids were the dolls to have in the '80s, but Garbage Pail Kids offered an edgier assortment that looked like they escaped from underneath the stairs. Instead of gushing over doe-eyed, collectible dolls with odd oversized heads, some kids chose to focus on Garbage Pail Kids collectible cards featuring weird, freaky, gross characters.

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Parents cringed over characters like Up Chuck, Meltin' Milton and Barfin' Bart. The Garbage Pail Kids were charming and lovable in a demented way and made '80’s childhoods interesting. Hard to believe? Today's kids are getting a reboot of the series, but they don't have the touch of nostalgia that the original cast of creepy, crusty characters had.

Cuddling with Teddy Ruxpin

In between episodes of Saturday morning cartoons, commercials featuring must-have toys ruled the airwaves. Kids in the '80s had to have a Teddy Ruxpin doll. Love him or hate him, Teddy Ruxpin was an undeniable fan favorite who either creeped kids out or made them smile.

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Teddy Ruxpin came with a tape deck in his back, and his eyes and mouth moved while reading or singing. The popular '80’s toy ran on four AA batteries, but there were odd moments when Teddy Ruxpin would move without batteries or a tape in his deck. He was the '80’s kids precursor to the horrors of Furbies.

MTV for Real Music Jamming

The Buggles had it right with Video Killed the Radio Star. When MTV debuted in the '80s, the cable network focused on every type of music. Kids in the '80s lived to binge-watch videos featuring music artists like Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Run DMC and Aerosmith. Singing along to your favorite videos with friends led to hundreds of magical moments.

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Today's kids probably recognize MTV for reality television shows like 16 and Pregnant and may not even realize the network occasionally plays music videos. Expanding on a concept is nice, but screaming "I want my MTV!" never meant so much until now. The ‘80’s generation misses the never-ending broadcasting of new music videos.

Moonwalking with MJ

The man left a lot of controversy and unanswered questions in his wake, but there will never be another entertainer like Michael Jackson. When "The King of Pop" was on the stage, jaws dropped and crowds went wild. On March 25, 1984, Michael Jackson first performed the moonwalk at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, and it became his iconic dance move from that point forward.

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Every kid in the '80s became an instant Michael Jackson impersonator, magic glove or not. It was a life goal to successfully imitate Michael's slick footwork. When executing the moonwalk correctly, it looks like you’re stepping forward, but you’re moving backward the entire time. Michael first did the moonwalk when performing his song Billie Jean.

Rocking Out with a Walkman

Before the invention of iPods, CDs and mp3s — but long after 8-tracks and records — kids had this gadget known as the Sony Walkman. Sony slayed the music industry with the device, which allowed kids to pop in cassette tapes and jam out to their favorite albums on the go.

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That meant you had to keep an extra set of batteries handy, just in case. When going out for a walk, heading to school or hanging out at the mall, you grabbed your headphones, favorite tapes and your Walkman. Having a Walkman was a status symbol for '80’s kids, as it was much more discreet and hip than walking around with a boombox.

Ruling School with a Trapper Keeper

Before the Trapper Keeper came on the scene, '80’s kids were stuck with boring, bland notebooks and binders. Mead released the Trapper Keeper in 1978, but it didn’t become a status symbol for popular kids until the '80s. A Trapper Keeper featured images like hot air balloons, kittens or sports cars on the front.

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The Trapper Keeper was invented by E. Bryant Crutchfield and had plenty of pockets, sliding pocket rings and a Velcro closure to keep items secure. Showing off the outside of a Trapper Keeper was the best part. The artwork was vibrant, eye-catching and collectible. Eat your heart out, Lisa Frank. The Trapper Keeper was boss for students at school in this decade.

Scratching ‘N Sniffing Some Stickers

Scratch and sniff stickers made school worth attending in the '80s. Students looked forward to getting their tests back with a scented sticker and collected and traded scratch and sniff stickers with their friends. Some of the popular companies that released scratch and sniff stickers included Creative Teaching Press, Sandylion and Smello Mello.

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The stickers debuted in the 1970s but became increasingly popular throughout the '80s. The technology that allowed stickers to smell "berry good" or "like chocolate" was invented in 1965 by 3M using a process called micro-encapsulation. There’s your science fact for the day!

Sporting the Ultimate Kicks

Fashion for school kids was a status symbol in the '80s, and footwear mattered a lot. In search of popularity and acknowledgment, kids looked forward to showing off their latest back-to-school fashions. High-top sneakers were all the rage, and brands like L.A. Gear and British Knights were choice picks.

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L.A. Gear shoes definitely made an impact on the market, featuring desirable color combinations and even adding lights before the end of the decade. Of course, '80's kids knew how to live it up with the right shoes, and the laces were a big deal too. Today's kids can look online to find out how to trick out their shoelaces '80’s style, but it's not the same.

Taking the Pepsi Challenge

When it comes to carbonated beverages, there can only be one winner. Okay, not really, but like the Highlander, Pepsi and Coke attempted to duke it out to be the number one drink in the ‘80s, and kids will never forget the iconic Pepsi Challenge.

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Alliances were forged and broken over soda. You were either a fan of Pepsi or a fan of Coke. Claiming to love both equally was heresy, and mentioning Yoohoo! to put off answering the question was not allowed. The result? Served ice-cold, in either a bottle or a glass, both Pepsi and Coke were choice drinks to wash down a hamburger, fries, pizza and everything else.

Troubleshooting Nintendo Cartridges

Nintendo arrived on July 15, 1983, giving '80's kids another game console option besides Atari. The graphics obviously weren’t as awesome as today's games for kids, but it was still a huge step up from the previous technology. Hanging out in basements and living rooms, '80’s kids fell in love with Super Mario Bros., Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! and Duck Hunt.

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Unlike today's systems that download games, Nintendo required a cartridge. When a game didn’t work, the only solution was to blow. Of course, the trick was to make sure it was all air and no spit. Sadly, blowing in cartridges did lead to some damage in some cases.

Building Parent-Free Playhouses

Before the birth of helicopter parents, '80’s kids had to rely on their own daring nerve, imagination and elbow grease to get things done. When a kid wanted a playhouse or clubhouse to get away, parents didn't shell out big bucks for a pre-made pad for the backyard.

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Kids in the '80s were clever, and they were comfortable using tools, gathering wood and banding together to make their own treehouses or playspaces. Sure, there might have been an odd rusty nail or splinter you always had to dodge, but it was a reason to be proud. The Little Rascals didn’t have anything on '80's kids and their sweet clubhouses.

Watching Pee-wee's Playhouse

Following a marathon of animation on Saturday, kids of the '80s looked forward to watching Pee-wee's Playhouse. CBS was the channel to watch, and Pee-wee Herman and his friends were always ready to start a wacky adventure. The childlike Pee-wee was played by actor Paul Reubens.

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The show was so popular, it was made into a $7 million movie that cleared $41 million at the box office. There was even a sequel. Today's kids might not know exactly how to handle a character like Pee-wee Herman, but '80’s kids understood completely.

Learning from After-School Specials

Television wasn't perfect in the '80s, and many commercials included some risque material that might freak out today's kids. When kids couldn't talk to their parents or teachers about specific topics, they could learn from watching After-School Specials. Episodes like The Day My Kid Went Punk Rock showcased '80’s subcultures and trends.

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The ABC shows were low budget, but they gave emerging actors a chance to show their skills and taught some valuable life lessons. Latchkey kids had After-School Specials to keep them company while having a snack after school. Kids learned about topics like confidence, childbirth and acceptable behavior. Growing up in the '80s was tricky, but these specials were always there to help.

Getting by Without Adult Supervision

Today's kids wouldn't know what to do if they were allowed to go out without cell phones, long lists of restrictions and helicopter parents to make sure all goes well. Kids in the '80s could stay out until it got dark and the street lights came on. If a kid went missing for a little while, parents didn't immediately assume the worst.

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Kids felt safe enough to visit the park by themselves or with friends, travel to school unaccompanied and hang out at the mall. In the '80s, kids could talk to strangers, test their limits and interact with the world without their parents looking over their shoulders 24/7.

Playing on Adventurous Playgrounds

During the '80s, if a kid slipped on a piece of playground equipment, it was all part of growing up. Instead of playgrounds featuring safety turf and warning signs, it was understood that playground equipment came with some risk. Kids might chip a tooth falling off a jungle gym, a merry-go-round handle might be rusty or a swing might be creaky.

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Playing on the playground in the '80s was like going on a carnival ride for kids. You might get hurt, but the odds were in your favor that the damage would be minimal. Broken bones were usually reserved for those who tried to mimic Evel Knievel on the playground equipment.

Taking A-Okay Rides

Riding around in a car during the '80s didn't come with the fear of getting pulled over for traffic tickets. Parents were okay with allowing their kids to ride in the backs of station wagons and pickup trucks with no seatbelts.

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Stressing safety when traveling was more of an option than a mandatory part of parenting kids. Today's kids wouldn't dare be caught not buckling up in the car or skipping wearing a helmet on a bike or motorcycle. Considering the risk for injuries and fatalities, it's incredible most '80's kids survived. Today's kids aren't missing out when it comes to safety.

Biking Around Town

If a kid didn't have a scooter or a skateboard, the optimal way to get around the neighborhood was by bike. Kids in the '80s didn't worry about someone stealing their bikes from their front yards, outside stores or at their friends’ houses.

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There was no need to lock up bikes, and helmets were seldom worn. Despite the risks of riding in traffic and the freedom to ride on the sidewalk, '80's kids managed to successfully dodge danger most of the time.

Lighting Up the Night

It's not just for movies. Kids in the '80s understood they could hang out late until the street lights came on — unless their parents told them differently in advance. Kids didn't have cell phones or even rely on wristwatches. You simply knew it was time to head home by watching for the street lights.

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Any kid who dared to press their luck with their parents was subject to grounding or worse if they didn’t make it home around the time the lights came on. It was essential for '80's kids to meet their deadline. Parents didn’t care that you were gone all day, but some were sticklers about the street light curfew.

Visiting Video Arcades

Going to the mall to play at the video arcade was a rite of passage for kids and the place to be for social exchange. It was at video consoles that kids transformed into legends, seeking to secure their place in video game history with the highest score ranking.

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Kids who didn’t have game consoles for at-home playtime gathered their quarters for hours of fun. Video arcades have pretty much disappeared from today's society, although you might run into the odd pinball machine here and there. Who wouldn't love to give all those levels of Pac-Man and Galaga another try?

Puffing on Candy Cigarettes

Grabbing a pack of candy cigarettes and pretending to smoke like a Hollywood star was prominent in the '80s. Anti-smoking campaigns were unheard of, and kids could even pick up packs of smokes for their parents at local stores or from vending machines, provided the store owners knew their parents.

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Candy cigarettes looked a lot better than they tasted. It felt more like you were getting a mouthful of edible chalk, and you couldn't blow any smoke rings, of course. Considering the irreparable damage and health risks associated with cigarette use, this is one trend from the '80s that is best retired.

Getting a Cereal Sugar High

Part of any '80’s kid's balanced breakfast consisted of cereal. Parents didn't mind the tremendous amounts of sugar in the cereals advertised on TV. Munching on a bowl of Sugar Smacks, Apple Jacks or Cap’n Crunch was perfect on Saturday cartoon day or even as an after school snack.

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It was long after the '80s when increasing health problems related to sugar prompted nutritionists to take a closer look at cereal. Kids growing up in the '80s looked forward to cajoling their parents to buy their favorite flavors and finding hidden prizes in their cereal boxes.

Creating Makeshift Water Fountains

A hot summer day in the '80s wasn't complete without a refreshing drink from the garden hose. Kids of all ages gathered in yards, turned on the tap and guzzled down water without a thought to using a cup. If a garden hose was good enough for watering plants, it was safe enough for kids.

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Garden hoses weren’t just instant drinking fountains for kids, either. They provided hours of water entertainment. Kids could grab a swallow between filling up water guns, kiddie pools or balloons for a tournament. Kids in the '80s were either built with tough immune systems, or there was something good in the water.