“Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure.”
I missed growing up in the ‘80s by a decade, but Netflix’s summer smash hit Stranger Things, has a sort of timeless nostalgia that has everyone looking back, especially at what it meant to be a kid years ago.
No show in recent memory allows, so pointedly, the heroes to be three middle school boys, and by doing so Stranger Things perfectly proves, “often it’s only when the parents aren’t watching that a child can become a hero.”
A not-so-subtle nod to classics like E.T., Alien, and even The Breakfast Club, Winona Ryder leads its stellar cast in the search for her missing son in this sci-fi horror spectacular.
As Winona searches for her son, Will, in sleepy Hawkins, Indiana, his friends band together to form their own search party.
They ride their bikes miles around town, hide a mysterious bald girl they encounter in Mike’s basement for days without his parents noticing a thing, and disappear from home for hours without thought.
What might now be deemed negligence or bad-parenting, was simply the norm back then, and Stranger Things, beyond being a great show, is an important look back on a time when children were allowed their own freedom.
As one critic noted of Stranger Things, “though the parents are loving and generally responsible, this is the ’80s, and they just aren’t watching their son that closely.”
And frankly, that’s fine.
In an ironic turn of events, the modern era, one full of cell-phones, satellite maps at our fingertips and tracking devices – arguably the safest generation ever for children – has seen the complete end of unsupervised adventures.
Parents govern youngsters at every turn. Playdates are made with the consent of both parents, with agreed upon pick-up and drop-off times.
No more wandering around the neighborhood, knocking on doors or making new friends on the street.
This, “door-to-door, all-encompassing escort service that we adults have contrived to provide for our children,” is a sad departure from the ‘80s and earlier years, where kids didn’t just read about adventures in bedtime stories – they actually went out and lived them.
Movies like Now and Then, The Goonies, Chronicles of Narnia, or Bridge to Terabithia, follow a pair or group of children navigating life without the constant supervision of parents. They were trusted to be home when the street lights came on and though mishaps were always a possibility of being left to their own devices, adults of the past knew these were stepping stones to independence and growing up.
While watching The Goonies with his son, writer Clint Edwards was inspired to reminisce on such times, after his 8 year old son asked him where everyone’s parents were.
“That’s just how it was back then.”
Growing up meant going off on your own, as far as your bike could peddle you.
“In fact, learning how to ride a bike was a rite of passage. It felt like my parents were saying, ‘You can now travel without me, so go on and do it.’”
Michael Chabon, who commented on a similar shift in parenting, talks of the joys of wandering woods, streams and reservoirs as a child alone by bike only to have his own daughter learn to ride one and have, “her joy at her achievement rapidly followed by a creeping sense of puzzlement and disappointment as it became clear to both of us that there was nowhere for her to ride it—nowhere that I was willing to let her go.”
Stranger Things doesn’t center around or give much comment on the undisputed freedom the three young boys are allowed, but it’s, “a reminder of a kind of unstructured childhood wandering that seems less possible than it once was.”
The world certainly isn’t a pile of roses right now, and while Stranger Things, “doesn’t tell us that the world is safe, because it isn’t, it’s a reminder that bravery needs its own space to grow.”
Stranger Things, an ode to simpler times, should be a reminder to all of us how important it is for kids to make their own stories on their own.