“The Wonder Years” is an American TV comedy-drama that ran from 1988-1993 on ABC. The show focused on the life of an adolescent Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), living in a suburban, middle-class home. Taking place in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the show highlights key historical moments of the era, such as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the hippie movement and the Space Race. From the perspective of his older mid-30s self (Daniel Stern), Arnold reflects back on the time in his life that was chaotic and that he didn’t always comprehend.
Even 30 years later, many of the issues and elements that the show grapples with still resonate today. As the show tackles the difficulties in growing up during a strenuous social climate, you can take away larger lessons about adolescence and family, but also from what is happening with the world at large.
Here are five life lessons that anyone can take away from “The Wonder Years.”
1. Generational Gaps
“The Wonder Years” shows that generational gaps are not simply a modern issue, but rather, something that almost every generation deals with. According to Susan Addox’s article, one of the most disruptive generational divides happened over the Vietnam War, which spawned the idea of Jack Weinberg’s “don’t trust anyone over 30.”
Generational gaps are one of the major causes of dysfunction in society, and often lead to arguments and polarizing viewpoints. The show utilizes a brush of understanding in the moments where the generational divide pops up, reminding viewers that there are two sides to everything.
In the show, Arnold’s older sister, Karen (Olivia d’Abo), makes her entrance on the show as a radical fighting against the war in Vietnam. Karen questions the way the world works around her, which causes issues in her family dynamic, mainly with her father (Dan Lauria). In Episode 4, Karen brings home her new anti-war boyfriend, Louis, leading to immediate tension among the Arnold family. A comment on the war leads to a heated conversation between Louis (John Corbett) and Jack (the father), which is filled with pain on both ends. Jack even snaps, “What do you know about it? Who the hell are you to say that?” which highlights the two differing views of the generations of this time.
The themes of reflection and nostalgia are essential within “The Wonder Years,” especially through Arnold’s voice-over as an adult. However, Arnold’s future reflections reveal his naivety as a child. Older Arnold admits that he didn’t always understand what was happening around him at times, that he acted out just for the hell of it and was not prepared for all of life’s challenges.
Everyone was an Arnold once, young, carefree and not at all prepared for what life is pitching. Life has its challenges that often lead to letting go of the past and accepting what is right in front of you, even when it brings pain.
3. Friendships and Love
“The Wonder Years” shows how messy friendship and love are growing. The show encapsulates what it is like to have a first love, friendships — both real and fake — and what it is like to lose both.
Arnold and Winnie Cooper’s (Danica McKellar) relationship is chock-full of complexity throughout the running of the show. At a young age, around 12, the pair found each other and began to grow together. However, like most relationships, theirs is not perfect. Cooper refuses to live her life constricted to within a box, as her honesty to herself opens up Arnold’s eyes to many things he’d overlooked, such as women’s rights.
4. Grasping Your Own Identity
Adolescence is a crucial time for discovering one’s own identity and beliefs. The entire show focuses on Arnold as he ages from 12 to 17, with each year posing different challenges to overcome. Adolescence also marks a lonely, confusing and awkward time in one’s life, and the show reminds viewers it’s okay to feel this way.
All of this is exemplified by the Arnold quote: “There are a lot of things about junior high life that might seem simple to an outsider … but they’re not. Take the fifteen minutes before homeroom every morning. What you do with those fifteen minutes says pretty much everything there is to say about you as a human being.”
5. Growing Pains
“When you’re a little kid you’re a bit of everything: scientist, philosopher, artist. Sometimes it seems like growing up is giving these things up one at a time,” Arnold said in one episode. To Arnold, growing up poses difficulties that never seem like they are going to stop, but eventually they do get easier to navigate.
“The Wonder Years” highlights the good, bad and ugly of growing up. The show includes both lighthearted moments, coupled with the dark moments that people try to hide away from. Growing up comes with a lot of pain because kids learn that life comes with challenges they are experiencing for the first time in their lives.