5 Perfectly Normal Things From My Childhood My GenZ Kids Can't Wrap Their Brains Around

Marlon Weems

Playing with dangerous toys and hanging out with kids you didn’t know was normal life in the 60s and 70s


Photo by mayte wisniewski on Unsplash

I've never written a listicle piece before, but given how 2021 has kicked off, I needed a break from my usual stuff on politics, the economy, and how unfair the world is to people of color.

So I remembered a tweet from during the holidays by Dr. Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, about things that were once normal that kids today wouldn’t understand.

As an example, Professor Musgrave points to the normality of smoking in the 1990s. To be sure, smoking cigarettes was more prevalent then than today. 

Source: Twitter

But by the early 90s, the unhealthy habit was already on the decline. The federal government banned smoking on flights under two hours in 1988, and Congress banned inflight smoking on all flights less than six hours in duration just two years later. 

Anyway, his tweet got me thinking about the difference between my life growing up in the 60s and 70s and how my two Generation Z kids live their lives. It’s pretty dramatic.

When I was growing up, smoking was everywhere. The nasty habit was such an acceptable part of the culture. My high school even had a specific area designated for smoking  —  for us kids. 

Here are some other things from my teenage years that seem absolutely insane to my Gen-Z children:

1. Meeting up with your friends required some serious planning 

For the record, Generation Z, or Gen-Z, is the cohort born between the early 1990s and the early 2000s. They are the first generation with no knowledge of a world without the internet. The rule of thumb is that if you’re too young to remember 9/11, you’re a member of the Gen-Z club. 

By 2013, when my youngest was about eight years old, it’s estimated that 38% of children under the age of 2 used a mobile device for playing games or watching videos. Based on my observations, Gen-Z is seemingly unable to coordinate even the most routine activities without the aid of multiple electronic devices and apps.  

When I was a teenager, I relied primarily on my ten-speed bike to get back across the southern town where I lived. Somehow, we met new friends, went on dates, and scheduled meet-ups  —  all without the ability to contact one another once we’d made our plans.

We were able to navigate our meetups' intricacies without the benefit of so much as a pager, let alone a smartphone. You just had to be wherever you said you’d be. 

2. 8-track tapes and audio cassettes were state-of-the-art for listening to music 

Not long ago, my kids came across a box filled with VCR movie cassettes. They both looked at like a pair of archeologists discovering a trove of prehistoric fossils. ‬I can’t imagine what they’d think of an 8-track tape player. 

3. No smartphones or apps

If you grew up in the 60s or 70s, you probably remember calling a phone number to get the time and temperature. My folks thought it was cutting edge to call a phone number at the bank to get their checking account balance.  

And can anyone imagine having a landline telephone — not to mention having no idea who was calling you when it rang??? This was an era before call waiting, so I remember not using the phone for hours because my Dad was expecting an important phone call. 

The whole idea of phone books or calling directory assistance to get someone’s number is totally lame to my kids. They saw a phone booth in a movie and nearly died laughing. 

4. There Was No Such Thing as a Play Date

When I was a kid, you played outside 99% of the time. There were only three channels — four if you count PBS, so nobody sat in front of the TV all day. On the weekends, you woke up, did your chores, and after that, you played outside.

Unlike today, you played with any darn kid that showed up. It didn’t matter who they were. There were kids I played with all the time — for years — and never met a mom or a dad. And my parents didn’t care.

Speaking of adults, any grownup could discipline you whether they knew you or not. I remember getting in a fight after school once, and some random guy jumped out of his car, broke the scuffle up, and spanked both of us.

5. Almost everything you owned could kill you

You had to keep your wits about you to grow up back then. Cars, even the expensive ones, had no seat belts. There was no such thing as a child car seat. When we went on vacation, we traveled hundreds of miles with nobody strapped in. My poor baby brother sat upfront in my Mom’s lap. You could probably go to jail for that now.

Our toys were unbelievably dangerous. One Christmas, I got an Atomic Reactor toy that was supposed to generate steam or light up or something. It came with a bunch of corrosive-looking chemicals that probably could burn a hole through your hand. 

I was pretty excited to play with my nuclear toy, but Mom wasn’t having it. I suspect she didn’t like the toy because I was only six years old at the time. All I know is the Atomic Reactor toy mysteriously disappeared before I ever played with it.

My brothers and I had this ‘toy’ called a Creepy Crawler Thing Maker supposedly made fake bugs and monster-looking shapes. It came with a bucket of goop you poured into a little device that was essentially a heating element. Seriously, you could cook a steak in it.

We played with the Thing Maker all the time, even when Mom and Dad were at work (back then, parents left little kids home alone all day). Although it truly sucked, we got a kick out of filling it up with whatever we could find that melted.

That’s right, four little kids, one still in diapers, at home alone, melting down crayons with an electrical device. It’s a miracle we didn’t burn our house down.

The more I think about it; I’m surprised I made it to adulthood.

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Marlon Weems is a writer and storyteller focused on the intersection of politics, the economy, and racial inequality. He spent more than a decade on Wall Street, where he managed several automated trading businesses. He began his writing career as a capital markets subject-matter expert, providing insights on capital markets to global investment banking clients. Most days you can find him writing from his home on a small North Carolina island with his wife, two of his four children, and two cats.

Surf City, NC

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