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27 Things '60s Kids Did That Would Horrify Us Now
It's a miracle that any of us survived childhood in the 1960s!
By Laurie Sue Brockway
Mar 27, 2021
It's pretty much a miracle that any of us survived childhood in the 1960s! Parents exposed kids to secondhand smoke and let them run wild in the streets. Sugar was in everything and hazards lurked everywhere. Given today's hands-on style of parenting, it's hard to believe some of the things that were "normal" for kids in the '60s.
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Pregnant Women Smoking and Drinking
Mothers everywhere may have been decreasing your oxygen and brewing fetal alcohol conditions while you were still in the womb. If you made it out in one piece, you probably later found yourself sitting on mom's lap or crawling around under the table while she was having an afternoon swig and a smoke with a friend, while pregnant with your little brother. Of course, our mothers weren't trying to hurt us, but no one really knew the damages these things could cause.
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Crummy Car Seats and Seat Belts
Little kids would sit in the passenger seat without a seatbelt. The "safety method" was this: Mom or Dad would fling an arm in front of you if they had to stop short. Infants rode sometimes in unattached baby seats. They were kept up front in the seat next to Mom—or in someone's lap! Bigger babies or toddlers rode in in shoddy car seats. Seat belts just went across the lap. Serious seat belts and appropriate car seat regulations did not arrive until the '70s and airbags in the '80s.
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Smoking Was Emulated and Encouraged
Cigarettes hung from adult lips everywhere—in stores, on planes, on television, and at the kitchen table. Aside from being constantly exposed to secondhand smoke , it was modeled as healthy. Cigarette ads featured babies and parents together. Mom and Dad thought it was adorable to pose toddlers with unlit cigarettes or pipes in cutesy photos. Teen smoking was sometimes considered a sign of maturity. Kids were routinely sent to the store to buy cigarettes for their parents, and no questions were asked.
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In the '60s, pediatricians encouraged moms to let babies sleep on their stomachs―which we now know is not a great idea . Plus, cribs had few of the safety measures in place today. Dangerous drop rails, slats so wide an infant's head could get stuck, places where tiny fingers could get caught, and choking hazards were just a few of the problems. Sadly, it took infant tragedies to lead to more manufacturing regulations.
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Trampolines without Nets
It seemed like a free and easy way to have fun, but without nets, there was a risk of many different injuries , including sprains, breaks and falling on your head when one of the neighboring kids jumped hard enough to bounce you off of the trampoline. Of course, the things kids climbed over and played on in parks were also questionable and were not always built with safety standards in mind.
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Parents would childproof by taking a baby out of his crib and sticking him in a playpen. Or maybe a larger gated area. But once he got on all fours and crawled around, everything was fair game. Mom let little ones play with pots and pans while she cooked, but she didn't worry too much about the chemicals under the sink where you played. There was no such thing as childproof medicine bottle lids , or special latches for every cabinet, drawer, and door. Electrical outlets were there for stabbing with a fork, and small choking hazards abounded .
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Walking to and from School Alone
There was no carpool. Even first graders were sent off to school on their own once they learned the way. Sometimes you tagged along with a sibling or a neighborhood kid who walked the same route so that you weren't totally by yourself, but parents did not worry about bad people lurking along the way. Dawdling on the way home was allowed, so you could stop off for a snack after school of course.
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Going to a Friend's House Unescorted
These days it takes a whole lot of planning to get a child to a play date (and a detective to check out if a location or home is safe). But in the '60s, you just called out to Mom: "I'm going to so-and-so's" and then walked to your friend's house alone, or hopped on your bike. Closest pals lived in fairly close proximity and you did not have to have an appointment to see them. You showed up, hung out, and sometimes stayed for dinner, too.
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Chewing Sugary Bubble Gum
Sugary gum and candy were a '60s childhood staple. And blowing bubbles so big they break over your nose was a big thing. Sometimes kids had bubble blowing contests. The bubble would break and you'd start on a new piece. Gum was not allowed in school but you'd sneak it in anyway, and if you brought enough for other kids you'd make new friends for life. Cavities ensued!
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Cereal with Lots of Sugar
Cereal was breakfast. It came in multiple forms of wheat, corn, or oats. Some cereal was pre-sugared, like Trix and Cap'n Crunch. Others, like unsweetened corn flakes, needed vast amounts of spooned sugar to taste good. The sugar bowl sat on the table and you could probably spoon in four tablespoons before Mom warned you about getting a bellyache.
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Nuns Who Smacked
If you went to Catholic school, you were generally exposed to several discipline techniques . The classic was having a ruler smacked against your knuckles if you spoke out loud, rough-housed, or did not have your homework. Another favorite was pulling you out of the room by your ear. These punishments today would likely result in an irate mother in the principal's office, but back then they were just business as usual.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
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Hanging Out in the Candy Stores
At local candy stores, you could go and, for pennies, buy all the sweets your mom didn't allow you to eat at home. You could sneak it home in small paper bags. You could also hang out and get an ice cream soda, malted, and egg cream, or soda loaded with sugar, and sit at a counter and drink the way adults straddled up to a bar. Kids often went in packs after school and no one worried too much where you'd been as long as it didn't spoil your appetite.
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Riding Bikes without Helmets
Since moms did not chauffeur kids around, you had to make an older sibling drive you places or you rode your bicycle. One of the first rites of passage was the day your father taught you to ride a bike. Parents expected you to fall and made you get back on and stop whining about scraped knees and elbows. Once you got the hang of it, you could leave the house and meet up with other kids on bikes and ride around together. No one ever thought of wearing a helmet―including our crazy big brothers who rode motorcycles―but now it's a law.
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Hitching was a popular mode of transport and people in the '60s didn't worry about the kinds of scary things that have since made many give hitchhiking a thumbs down. Young adults, hippies, and transients hitched long distances. And kids used their thumbs to get free rides too. Sometimes it was to school, or to run away from home. Other times it was to get to somewhere a parent refused to take you, or didn't want you to go. Kids also hitched rides for entertainment and to meet new people.
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Playing Outside Unsupervised All Day
It seemed like mothers couldn't wait to kick their kids out of the house in the morning so they could get on with their chores or socialize with friends. They called you in when dinner was ready and let you back out, telling you to come inside when the street lights come on. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, "We were like wild dogs." Kids wandered around in packs, looking for stuff to do. Adults often had no idea of their kid's whereabouts for long stretches of time.
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Playing at the Beach On Your Own
The '60s were all about teens having fun in beach movies. The whole family would go to the ocean together. Kids were water babies. As your parents were setting up beach umbrella and chairs, you would immediately beg to go to the water. And they let you, with the command, "stay where I can see you." But really, the lifeguards were like babysitters.
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The '60s was the golden age of the tan–and no UV protection. Mom may have slathered you with suntan lotion, but to help your tan along not to protect your skin from harmful rays. Older kids would use baby oil with iodine in it to prevent burns and would use a reflector to bake themselves in the sun.
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Stick Ball and Games in the Streets
Big cities were not filled with parks and green spaces like they are now. Stickball, street hockey, Ringolevio, Marco Polo, and hide-and-seek were just a few of the games that kids played on high-trafficked streets in the '60s. They also played with marbles and aimed them into the small holes in manhole covers, and there were hopscotch boards written with chalk on the asphalt. Everyone moved out of the way when cars came and when the cars drove off, games resumed.
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Drinking from Garden Hoses
Bottled water wasn't even a thing in the '60s unless you had a canteen. The hose, yours or a neighbor's, was how children stayed hydrated while playing outside. Hoses were not regulated the way drinking water inside the home was, but no one ever dreamed that unsafe levels of lead were coming through. (Also, the brass nozzle was a danger because it could leach lead.) It was also common to drink from public water fountains, which were later determined to be more of a health hazard.
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Cooling Off with a Fire Hydrant
There was a time when officials opened hydrants for kids to cool off in the summer and they knew how to turn the water pressure down lower or put on a sprinkler feature. But that never stopped someone's clever older brother from opening it full force. Aside from wasting water, it had such powerful force it could easily knock down small children.
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Becoming Blood Brothers and Sisters
Kids would promise loyalty and friendship―or to keep a secret about something bad they did together―by making a small cut on their fingers and pressing them together. In the spirit of the ancient practice of blood oaths, it was considered a cool way to be friends forever. No one had any clue they could be exchanging bacteria and diseases .
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Sleeping in the Back Window of the Car On Road Trips
There were no cell phones or devices of any kind to entertain kids on road trips. It was boring. You had to read a book, if your eyes could tolerate it while in a moving car, or sing. A favorite was "A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall." Kids would take turns sleeping in the back window of the car while it was moving, since above the seats in the back window was a place small bodies could stretch out.
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Coming Home to an Empty House
The '60s introduced a generation of latchkey kids, as more mothers entered the workforce. Helicopter parents were a thing of the '50s. Kids came home and had to fend for themselves—and if had an older sibling to watch you, your parents probably weren't in any rush to get home.
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Spanking and Hitting
Back in the day, parents hit you because that's what parents did when you angered them. It may have been just a smack on the head, or literally being put over dad's knee for a spanking. Sometimes it was getting chased around the house and hit with a belt. Parents raised with that kind of discipline tended to continue the pattern. In many homes a common threat was: "Just wait until your father gets home." It took a while for people to recognize that physical punishment was abuse. It landed many traumatized baby boomers in therapy , years later.
Justin Henry/Flickr Creative Commons
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This dark pink, over the counter antiseptic went on every boo-boo. It stung, it smelled, and it stained. It was in every medicine cabinet until FDA started looking more closely and figured out that drugs containing mercury can be harmful and if you use enough of it could affect the brain, kidneys, and babies in utero .
Courtesy MGM/UA Entertainment Co.
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Of course, Monopoly and Candy Land weren't harmful, but there were a slew of toys in the '60s that were super dangerous . There was Swing Wing , which was basically a hula hoop attached to a helmet that you had to swing around and round with whiplash-like head movements. And Jarts , a dart with a dangerous hook attached that would fly through the air and could land on other kids. There were also plenty of BB guns and also cap guns ―the caps would explode and make scary shooting noises.
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Chasing Trucks Emitting Poisonous Vapors
There was no warning that pesticide sprays were coming, just the delight of kids who found it fun to run behind the truck that sprayed poison to kill mosquitoes or other hazardous chemicals. The fog it made was enticing and it smelled good too. Running and chasing the trucks was fun, not to mention that jumping on the back of moving cars and running along with them was also a sport in those days.