As a latchkey kid of the ’80s, I enjoyed summers that were far from over-scheduled. I watched soap operas, fried my skin with friends at the beach and never, ever missed $2 Tuesday movie night at the local theater.
We’d pay for the 6 p.m. show, sneak into the 8 p.m. show and eat popcorn for dinner while watching “The Goonies,” “Teen Wolf,” “Weird Science,” “Rocky IV,” “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
Now, I’m a parent living her own soap opera with a heightened awareness of skin cancer.
In summers past, my kids Hadley and Tyler, 7 and 9, have done camps, activities and play dates until school started. But after a harried spring semester of baseball, softball, gymnastics, piano lessons, cooking class, chess class, magic class, Cub Scouts and Daisy Scouts, they begged me for more free time. Despite my desperate case of FOMO on their behalf, I only signed them up for a couple of weeks of half-day summer camps this time.
This leaves a lot of free time in the afternoons, when boredom and temperatures are high. So, before we hop on the back-to-school hamster wheel of drop-offs, pick-ups and homework, I thought their childhood could use a bit of my childhood.
I popped some popcorn, ensured everyone had gone potty and cued up some classic ’80s movies.
‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’
I started with Ferris, which blew my pre-teen mind. When Ferris broke the fourth wall and talked directly to the camera, I felt like we were best friends.
I remembered this as one of John Hughes’ more benign flicks, but my mom ears heard it differently. Multiple characters say “shit” in the first 10 minutes. Then Ferris draws a picture of a naked woman on his computer.
When I quickly pressed pause, my children stared at me, oblivious. My 7-year-old still thinks the s-word is “stupid” and my 9-year-old thinks that the “f” word is “freaking.” I’d like to preserve this phase for as long as possible.
Danke schoen, Ferris. See you in about five years.
‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’
Two minutes in …
Hadley: Mommy, is this movie cartoon or real-life?
Me: [pressing pause] It’s real-life, Honey. Except for E.T. He’s animatronic.
Hadley: Anima-what? You mean he’s not real?
Uh oh. Are we drifting into Tooth Fairy/Easter Bunny/Santa Claus territory here? Is it OK to tell her how movies work?
Luckily, she drops the subject. But still there are questions. So many questions.
Five minutes in …
Hadley: Why does E.T. only have two fingers?
Me: [pressing pause] I don’t know. He’s an alien. They’re different than humans.
Hadley: Who are those men? Are they bad guys? Why don’t they show their faces?
Me: [pressing pause] I think they’re scientists.
Hadley: Is E.T. going to make it back to the ship?
My husband Erik: [sighing] Let’s watch the movie and find out!
Tyler: Why are they playing that music? I don’t like it, it’s scary!
Back-to-school lesson: “E.T.” is about not judging others by how they look, but taking the time to go deeper and really get to know them. It’s also about helping someone in need. The film explores the value of family and the heartbreak of divorce. E.T. and Elliot are connected and can feel each other’s feelings. This is a wonderful example of empathy and of what it means to be a good friend.
Parent perspective: There was much less parenting pressure in the ’80s. Elliot, Mike and Gertie put together their own Halloween costumes with no help from their mom, and she had zero guilt about it. There was also much less supervision. Elliot is left home alone all day when he pretends to be sick. He’s 10!
The kids from “E.T.” have way more responsibility than my kids do. In one scene, the family is finishing dinner and their mom asks, “Whose turn is it to clear and rinse?” All three kids get up and do the dinner dishes. Damn. I need to reinstate the chore chart.
Whoa! moment: I couldn’t help but feel protective of the adorable Drew Barrymore. I kept flashing on a famous picture of Drew taken around this time. She’s sitting at Studio 54 (can’t be more than 6 or 7) and she’s got her head in her hands, looking so depressed. I just want to scoop her up and say, “Drew, eventually you’re going to be fine. You’ll have your own production company, beautiful babies, a clothing line and a CoverGirl contract.”
What the kids loved: When the mom (played by the wonderful Dee Wallace) puts away groceries and doesn’t see E.T. walking around the kitchen. When Gertie dresses E.T. up like a lady with a blonde wig and pearls. And, of course, when the bicycles fly.
‘Back to the Future’
Released in 1985 and directed by Robert Zemekis, “Back to the Future” has an underlying theme of the road not taken and how seemingly small choices made repeatedly add up to a life. It’s smart, heartfelt and still holds up – for the most part.
Back-to-school lesson: When Marty is about to audition for battle of the bands at the beginning of the movie, he asks his girlfriend, “What if they don’t like me? What if they tell me I’m no good? I don’t think I could handle that kind of rejection.”
Marty hears these fears echoed back to him when he meets his father, George, in 1955. George says these exact same words about his own science-fiction writing. This was a good opportunity to talk to my kids about the importance of making choices from a place of courage instead of fear.
Parent perspective: I felt very uncomfortable in the scene where Biff is assaulting Lorraine in the car and George McFly comes to “save” her. It’s interesting how I never even thought about this scene when I saw it as an adolescent, but now, in the age of #MeToo, it feels invasive and wrong.
What the kids loved: When Marty skateboards behind the truck in the town square and maneuvers Biff and his gang into a dump truck filled with manure. The scene on the clock tower when Doc Brown slides down the cable and reattaches the plug just in time.
‘The Karate Kid’ (The 1984 original, of course)
Seven minutes in …
Hadley: Mommy, do the bullies’ mommies know that they are being so mean to Daniel?
Me: [pressing pause] That’s a good question, Sweetie. I don’t know.
Tyler: Why is Daniel wearing sunglasses in his house?
Me: [pressing pause] He doesn’t want his mom to know that he has a black eye.
Hadley: But why? I would tell you.
Me: I’m glad you would tell me.
Hadley: Mommy, do the bullies turn good? I hope they turn good or go to jail.
Erik: [pressing pause] Let’s watch the movie and find out.
Hadley: Why do all the movies we watch have a teenage boy in them?
I make a mental note to find an ’80s movie with a female protagonist.
Back-to-school lessons: My daughter asked, “Mommy, why does Mr. Miyagi leave out words when he talks?” This led to a wonderful conversation about what it means to speak English as a second language.
Parent perspective: Mr. Miyagi answers all of life’s biggest questions. He tells Daniel to picture the perfect tree as he is trimming the bonsai.
Daniel: But how do I know if my picture’s the right one?
Mr. Miyagi: If it come from inside you? Always the right one.
In another scene, Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel, “It’s OK to lose to opponent. It’s never OK to lose to fear.” Referring to the bullies, Mr. Miyagi says, “No such thing as bad student. Only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do.”
Mr. Miyagi also tells Daniel, as they are entering the karate match, “Never put passion in front of principle. Even if you win, you lose.”
My husband pointed out that every ’80s movie has to have an over-the-top villain, and he’s totally right. Played by Martin Kove, the sensei of Cobra Kai is a sociopath who should be put in prison – or at least be mandated to take an anger management course.
Elizabeth Shue looks like an actual teenage girl with a healthy, curvy body. It’s rare to see that in current movies.
What the kids loved: When Daniel dresses up as a shower for Halloween. The final scene at the tournament when Daniel kicks the bully in the face by doing the crane pose. Not only did they love it, they stood up and cheered.
Revisiting the films of my youth brought back waves of emotions and filled me with a comforting nostalgia. There are still so many we didn’t cover yet, including “Princess Bride,” “Lucas,” “Willow,” “WarGames,” “Ghostbusters” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I may have to institute a weekly family movie night once school starts.
I was thrilled that my kids went along for the ride, because some kids won’t. My 12-year-old niece loves ’80s movies, but a lot of her friends won’t watch them. They say, “Why are you watching that? It’s so old!” They prefer the updated remakes to the originals.
Or maybe kids don’t trust anything they can’t find on Netflix. Most ’80s movies are just a $4 click away on Amazon Prime, but you only have 48 hours to view them. We ended up going old school and borrowing DVDs from the library. It was, like, totally ’80s of us. Megan Dolan has written for Expressing Motherhood, Listen to Your Mother and TEDxPasadenaWomen. She just finished a sold out run of her new solo show Lemur Mom (Because we can’t all be Tiger Moms). She lives in Long Beach.