My 1990s childhood was one of flashiness and neon, of sugary packaged foods and regrettable attire, and a whole bunch of good, wholesome fun.
As kids, we elder Millennials fawned over our dolls, but not just any dolls: there were Cabbage Patch Dolls and Water Babies, Polly Pockets and American Girls (for those few friends whose parents caved to the exorbitant ticket price), Glo Worms and Popples, Teddy Ruxpins and Trolls (so terrifying!), Care Bears and Beanie Babies, and Suzie Dolls that actually ate and peed. I had them—and loved them—all (except the American Girls. . . I’m still waiting for my very own Kirsten). There were also Barbie dolls and My Little Ponies, and the best houses to play at were the ones that had all the extra accessories, dream homes, and various other bells and whistles. We pined after those toys on every visit to Toys “R” Us and hoped they might show up under our own Christmas Trees one year.
Without devices, we filled our time playing jump rope and Skip-It, hopscotch and four square, handball and tetherball. We rode imaginary horses across the playground, roamed the neighborhood on our bikes and roller blades, dangled from monkey bars, and occasionally bounced on a pogo stick or toddled along on some stilts. We collected Lisa Frank stickers and coveted our friends’ Sanrio stationery, and we played and traded pogs. Birthday parties were pizza-and-cake sleepovers, where we played pranks and giggled through Truth or Dare.
The bookworms among us read through every Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins book (and Nancy Drew and Boxcar Children, too, though those weren’t as cool). Occasionally we dipped our toes into “serious books” by Judy Bloom or Laura Ingalls Wilder or Beverly Cleary, but those books assigned by our teachers were never quite as fun as the ones we chose ourselves at the quarterly Scholastic book fair.
That’s not to say we never plopped ourselves in front of screens; afternoons, we rushed home from school to catch Tailspin and Rescue Rangers, Carmen San Diego and Square One, and in the evenings we gathered with our families to watch Touched by an Angel, Nick-at-Night, and the occasional Murder, She Wrote rerun. And oh, the Disney movies! The classics were viewed on VHS tapes (picked up at Blockbuster when they emerged from The Vault) or on tv those few times a year when the Disney Channel did a free “promo weekend.” But there were current films, too: Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Lion King and Pocahontas, and Beauty and the Beast—all fantastic, to our pre-Pixar sensibilities. Those live-action films, though—they were a marvel: The Parent Trap and Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken and The Sandlot, just to name a few!
Our fashion sense was questionable: too much neon and nylon, with high tops and graphic T’s worn unironically over fluorescent bike shorts. We donned our high-waisted jeans and fanny packs that weren’t cool then (and still aren’t now) and we layered on as many colored socks as we could to go along with our stylin’ side ponytails or crimped hair. Slap bracelets and wrist coin pouches decorated our wrists, mood rings our fingers, friendship bracelets our ankles, and stick-on gems our earlobes.
Then there were the snacks, begged for on grocery trips with our moms, and traded over the schoolroom lunch tables: Fruit by the Foot and Gushers and Dunkaroos, Cheez Balls and Cool Ranch Doritos, and Handi-Snacks Crackers and Cheese. We dined on Kid Cuisine freezer meals on babysitter nights, and sucked down Hi-C and Yoo-hoo and Squeeze-Its at Girl Scout Meetings and after-school sports. In the summer we raced to the ice cream truck for our Flinstone-themed Push-Ups, or to our own freezers for Bonbons or slices of Vienetta.
Social life was innocent and uncomplicated (though never drama-free): notes passed beneath desks, prank calls made (once we could find our crushes’ home numbers in the phone book!), and playdates set up with friends by picking up the phone and dialing memorized numbers, then making small talk with someone’s mom or dad before politely asking to please speak with our BFF.
Home life was simple, too. There were activities nearly every evening—sports or handbell practice, Bible study or rehearsals for the church play—but even when family dinners were done on the road, they were eaten together—baked potatoes and frosty’s at Wendy’s, bean burritos at Taco Bell, Yoshinoya rice bowls from the mall food court, or hot pockets eaten on picnics outside of the gymnastics gym. Breakfast was always consumed as a unit, our family gathering over bowls of Malt-o-Meal before we each headed our separate ways for the day. And of course there were after-church Sunday lunches at Sizzler or Soup Plantation or Home Town Buffet—spots where we could eat our fill so that a cereal Sunday dinner would be plenty.
Road trips were frequent and memorable. Las Vegas, Zion National Park, Yosemite, and weekend camping trips with scouts were just a few of our excursions, the time in the car spent bonding over the latest Adventures in Odyssey albums on cassette tape. To tie us over between vacations, there were frequent visits to Disneyland and Knott’s, car shows and church festivals, summertime movies and concerts in the park, and afternoons lounging at the pool with our noodles and our diving rings. And of course there was church camp—in summer AND winter—where chaos was cool, lanyards were cooler, and Jesus was very best of all.
These are the sights and flavors and diversions that come to mind when I lie awake at night, reminiscing over my childhood and wishing I could offer something so marvelous for my own children.
There was more that made it great, of course: a stable and cohesive family, fueled by love and adventure and informed by faith. High-quality schools, a safe neighborhood, a flourishing church. Not all kids of the 90s had these things; their childhoods were not so great, and maybe mine wasn’t either. I’m sure my parents and others of their generation would view the 1990s quite differently. But in my mind those were simpler, more carefree times, and I miss them—I miss being a kid, and I regret that kids today will never know life without social media, virtual school, celebrated virtuousness, or parties where most of the snacks are not allergen-free.
I won’t live in the nostalgia. Looking back has its upsides, but remaining there is a mistake I can’t afford to make. The world is different now, and denying those realities is an exercise in futility. Still, it never hurts to visit every once in a while.
What about you? What do you remember from YOUR childhood? What would you love to go back to, just for a day?