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