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What It Smelled Like To Be a Kid in the ’80s

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The other day I told my first-grader to find a book for us to read at home. He went to his bookcase and pulled out ”My Five Senses,” in which a little boy learns about each of his senses and what they do.

That night at dinner, he asked, “Mommy, did you have senses when you were a kid?” I told him I did. “What did it smell like?”

I told him that was a nonsense question and I couldn’t answer it, because being a kid doesn’t smell like anything. Smells belong to things, not ages.

But later that night I started to think, and I realized I really could answer his question. In fact, I could answer it for all of my senses. And if I did, here’s what I’d say:

Being a kid smelled like the baby powdered face of my Cabbage Patch Kid doll and the strawberry scent of My Little Pony. It smelled like a mix of Opium perfume and Brut cologne on Saturday nights as I watched my parents get ready to go out, wishing they wouldn’t leave me. It smelled like the Jean Nate after-splash I’d steal from my older sister to feel elegant after a shower and the eggy smell of the perms I got at the mall. It smelled like the plastic of my jelly shoes and the scented erasers I brought to school. Being a kid smelled like Calvin Klein’s Obsession and Love’s Baby Soft.

Being a kid felt like the cotton of my superhero Underoos. It felt like soft leg warmers and scrunch socks and the hard plastic charms on my bracelets. It felt like the loose skin on my Bubbe’s hand that I played with in her Brooklyn apartment. It felt like the vinyl flooring in my kitchen where I pretended to ice skate and the Formica furniture in my bedroom.

Being a kid sounded like Michael Jackson and Bananarama, like singing Madonna songs into a hairbrush in my bedroom. It sounded like ”Kids Incorporated” and the theme song to “Three’s Company.” Being a kid sounded like my metal lunchbox buckling closed and the prerecorded voice of Santa on the 1-900 number I’d dial throughout December.

Being a kid looked like the pink spring in my Electric Youth bottle and the shiny covers of my ”Sweet Valley Twins” books. It looked like my mother’s fancy shoulder pads and my neon shirts and the life-sized poster of Bon Jovi on my bedroom wall. It looked like the ”Facts of Life” and ”Diff’rent Strokes” on my brown square TV, like the Seavers and Huxtables and Keatons and a young Tom Hanks on ”Bosom Buddies.”

Being a kid tasted like the cholent my grandmother would cook overnight and I’d eat for a week. It tasted like Pop Rocks and Swedish Fish, like the Tab I’d sneak from the refrigerator and like sips of my mother’s coffee. Being a kid tasted like Smurf Berry Crunch cereal and all the flavors of Lip Smackers I kept on my dresser and reapplied all day.

Thinking about these sensory memories, suddenly I was overcome with emotion. I could remember it all clearly, how it felt and sounded to be a kid, how it tasted and looked. I knew what it smelled like to be a kid. I wanted to share the moment with Hudson and I wanted to know what being a kid meant for him.

I went into his room and sat on his bed, pulling him close to me. “Hey buddy. Mommy was wrong,” I said. “Being a kid can smell like a lot of things.” He looked relieved that I’d come around. “I know, Mommy. That’s why I asked you,” he replied.

Maybe my son was wiser than I thought. Maybe he was a deep thinker, an old soul. “So tell Mommy,” I said. “What does being a kid smell like to you?” Then he looked me in the eyes and smiled.

“It smells like poop.” 

Image: Jennifer Boyer

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