Ages 2-5Media & Technology

On the Death of a Legend and a Parenting Dilemma

I’ve never been too upset about celebrity deaths. It’s sad when (almost) anyone dies, but I wasn’t terribly invested, and I knew that even if an afterlife existed, the stars wouldn’t be checking my Facebook for an “R.I.P.”

Lou Reed’s death was different. It felt like a personal loss. His music, both as a member of the Velvet Underground and as a solo artist, had been a significant portion of the soundtrack to my high school years and beyond.

Not surprisingly, after hearing the news, I spent some time listening to Reed’s music. Really listening to it. Discovering new songs, falling in love all over again with the ones I already knew. I lamented the fact that I hadn’t heard of Lou Reed until high school, even though my dad had been a fan for decades. In fact, I don’t remember hearing any music at home when I was young, other than the occasional Rick Charette and my mom’s original compositions (“I’ve Got New Shoes, and That’s My News”). I wouldn’t make that same mistake with my own son, I decided. He’d discover the Velvet Underground much earlier.

I was pretty pleased with myself. After all, few things are more satisfying than feeling superior to your own parents. A minute later, “Heroin” popped up on my playlist. Then “Walk on the Wild Side.” Then “Kill Your Sons.”

So that’s it then, I thought, deflated. The good music is going to be relegated to nap times and nighttime until the kid is “ready.”  Ugh. But, hey, people say kids’ music is getting better. There’s even some kids’ music we both enjoy. We’ll get through this.

I tried to convince myself that I’d be okay with that, but it felt insincere. I wanted to introduce my son to music that really resonated with me, and I didn’t feel like waiting for his first pimple. It was time to do some reading. Would I ruin my kid if I let him listen to “inappropriate” music?

I knew that alarmism about kids and media had been overstated before, and that violent video games don’t cause violent behavior, but that didn’t really help me. First of all, I’m aware that music and video games aren’t the same thing. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I wasn’t necessarily expecting my son to become violent (or a drug addict) by listening to music. My concerns weren’t that concrete. It was just a feeling. As the writer of this page puts it,

Music sounds different when you become a parent. Songs I’d thought were fun and cool suddenly become inappropriate when played to younger ears. Lyrics I didn’t think twice about take on much deeper meaning when I hear them coming from my children’s mouths.

When I turned to the internet to answer my question, I found a hilariously awful thread on a parenting forum discussing whether or not it was okay for kids to listen to secular music. I found a lot about pre-teens and teenagers, like this bleak policy statement (PDF) by the American Academy of Pediatrics. I found a ton of articles and studies about preschoolers and music performance, but very little about the simple act of listening among young children.

According to Common Sense Media,

Studies have repeatedly shown that kids are impacted by the music they listen to. Given the power of music and its potent messages, parents need to decide what their kids are ready for – and help them decode what they hear.

In case you were wondering, no, they don’t cite any of the studies they mention. Meanwhile, an author who still believes that violent video games contribute to real life violence (so, not someone who brushes off the talk of children and media) had this to say about the effect of lyrics on kids:

 Claims that song lyrics pose a danger implicitly assume that young people interpret songs in much the same way that adult critics do. That is, for violent lyrics to promote youth violence, or for substance use portrayals to encourage experimentation with illicit drugs, young audiences presumably must find violent or substance-related messages in the songs. Indeed, to be truly “influenced,” young people may need to go a step farther and connect such messages to their own lives. The problem with such assumptions is that several decades of communication research shows quite clearly that lyric interpretation is as much a process of construction as of recognition or discovery. Thus, what young people make of popular songs depends not only on what the lyric brings to them, but also on what they bring to the lyric.

In other words, a lot of it goes right over their heads.

It turns out that while there are concerns about kids’ exposure to adult music, there are actually arguments to be made against children’s music, too, and not just related to parental sanity.  Many albums aimed at children are either too condescending or too complex.

“Kids’ CDs that are geared toward children are not necessarily very healthy music for children to be listening to,” Rasmussen says. “They are often poorly produced, sung by children singing as if they are adults, and in major keys only,” he says. Follow this rule: If you think it’s bad, it probably is. (PBS.org)

So what music should kids listen to? The PBS.org page linked above recommends exposing them to a “buffet” of music, including music the parents like, sticking to songs no longer than four to five minutes. Common Sense Media suggests “Why not share your oldies but goodies and start them off with the classics?” (Guess they haven’t heard Lou Reed’s songs lately.) This blogger sums it up pretty well:

You may not care if your children absorb Tchaikovsky (shame on you, though). But if you want your kids to grow up knowing and appreciating jazz, or Prince, or Leo Kottke, or Pink Floyd, they’re not going to pick it up at elementary school. It’s absolutely your job to insert it into their heads.

It all comes down to this statement, in which Common Sense Media finally lives up to the name:

“Make sure you choose songs with lyrics you won’t mind your child repeating if you aren’t around.”

It seems obvious, right? I mean, it’s the same reason I try not to swear around my son; I don’t object to the words themselves, but I think I’d be in for a headache if he swore around other people. For some reason, I thought music exposure might be more complicated. Maybe it is, and someday there will be studies to support that. In the absence of evidence, though, it seems reasonable to do whatever allows me to avoid headaches—both the kind caused by kids swearing (or singing about drugs, or sex, or violence) in public and the kind caused by bad children’s music.

(In case you’re wondering, I did find some Lou Reed and Velvet Underground songs that I would feel comfortable playing even around other people’s children, including a Lou Reed children’s song— it’s not an original, but it’s worth a listen.)

Featured image credit: “Prince de la nuit et des angoisses” by Thierry Ehrmann

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Chelsea

Chelsea

Young mom raising a bilingual child (N) with her boyfriend (B) and trying desperately to avoid all the Woo down in Wooville.

8 Comments

  1. December 21, 2013 at 3:58 pm —

    My five-year old daughter LOVES the Black Eyed Peas, and gets an enormous amount of joy from their music. Initially, I wasn’t too concerned about the lyrics, she was too young to have a clue what they were saying, but recently she has started to sing along more accurately (although the meaning still eludes her). I don’t care too much myself if she swears, even though neither of us do, but I’m afraid we are going to be *those parents* at pre-school. Where possible I am finding the radio-friendly versions, so that helps a bit. But the sexually loaded lyrics are totally inappropriate. Unfortunately it feels rather too late to backtrack now. I guess we are going to be encountering a lot of teaching moments as she starts to question what the songs mean.

    • December 21, 2013 at 4:11 pm —

      I wasn’t paying attention the other day and let my son listen to “Dance With Me” by Adam Green. The song says something like “ooh, baby’s in mint condition, man I’m doing some dirty wishing” but instead of noticing that part, he was highly offended by the mention of a TV station in the song. “Why did he say ‘TV station’?! That’s not nice!”

      I don’t understand it, but I won’t complain.

      I probably wouldn’t be as concerned about what he repeats around other people except that as a 24-year-old mother of a 3.75-year-old, many people are already suspicious of me. I don’t want to give those people anything else to make life more difficult for my son.

      I really hope they don’t find this blog 😉

  2. December 21, 2013 at 5:22 pm —

    My kids’ favorite songs are “What the Fox Say,” “Royals,” and “Teenage Dirtbag.” I also swear around them a whole lot. So far, it’s caused surprisingly little trouble. My youngest went through a brief “oh shit” phase, but for whatever reason they have a good intuitive sense of what’s appropriate in different settings.

  3. Staceyjw
    December 21, 2013 at 5:25 pm —

    When I was in 3rd grade, I was allowed to pick out my very first cassette tape (Im old). I wanted Michael Jackson, but it was sold out, so I bought Prince instead.
    Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain.
    I loved it, and played it everyday. One afternoon, my babysitter asked my mom “Is she suppose to be listening to this? There are some very bad, dirty, lyrics!”. Mom didn’t know, didn’t care I guess.
    Hearing this, my interest was piqued. I HAD to hear these dirty words!
    So, I put it on, and listened, and listened, and listened, ears tuned, up close, but couldn’t find the dirty words. I thought my baby sitter was just wring, and that was it.
    Fast forward a decade and a half, Im now an adult, going through my childhood stuff in preparation for my parents selling the house. I found that old tape! Excited, I popped it in, and the first song up was “Darling Nikki”.
    After a few minutes, the conversation between the babysitter and my mom came to mind. I realized all of a sudden what that baby sitter had been talking about. The lyrics were very sexual, and explicit. But I never knew, why was this?
    In 3rd grade, my perception of “dirty words” was limited to a handful of swears. While I sat listening for cursing, maybe even a chance to heat the f word (!), the sex stuff went wholly unnoticed. I didn’t know what those words were, or what they meant, so it didn’t even get a chance to influence me. It was truly in one ear, out the other.
    I think of this anytime I listen to music with questionable lyrics in the car. I also remember that our kids will think we are dorks, and anything we like will be suspect, until they are 25. When I play what I want, I don’t expect them to like it, I play it because, well, it’s my car and I get to pick!

    • December 21, 2013 at 5:35 pm —

      I do think it’s strange to worry about this, because my parents are masters of swearing, yet I didn’t swear until I was in high school. I thought “stupid” was a swear, and in third grade, I argued with my classmates because I was convinced that “crap” was a swear and that they shouldn’t be saying it. Oh, and not only did my parents swear, but my sister, who is thirteen years older than I am, once calmed me down after a frightening episode of Salute Your Shorts by letting me watch Beavis and Butthead.
      I guess I don’t exactly worry about this, but I think about it, and after digging through not only Google results, but also academic databases that turned up nothing in the way of evidence of harm, I do feel reassured. I embarrass myself around other people. My child embarrasses me around other people. Soon enough, I’ll embarrass him around other people. I guess I just like to minimize embarrassment where possible.

    • December 22, 2013 at 2:29 am —

      You get to pick what gets played in the car ??? I wish!

  4. December 22, 2013 at 6:02 am —

    There are definetly PERKS when you live in a non-English speaking country with English dominating the media. 😉
    That’s something I really don’t have to give a fuck about. By the time their English is good enough to understand the lyrics, they’re old enough for the content.
    But I rmemeber that for some things in my childhood I simply listened over the adult content without noticing.

    • December 23, 2013 at 6:33 pm —

      I can relate– I speak Portuguese with my son, and I’m definitely much less picky about the Portuguese music he listens to, since nobody in our area would understand him even if he did repeat something that could be considered inappropriate 😀

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