Q&A: Where Do You Draw the Musical Line with Your Kids?

Q: Recently, I received the following question in my email:

"Parenting question for you: How do you handle music with explicit lyrics of the swear word type?  While I’m pretty much anti-censorship, parenting presents some exceptions to this thinking for me.  For example, I really don’t want the kids listening to songs about abuse, rape, torture, other extreme violence, and probably some other stuff Ive not yet heard but that is out there.

Both my wife and I would like to know to what extent you’ve limited, if you’ve had to, your own children’s music listening.  What has brought this to mind is a popular song our kids want that has the sh** word multiple times – something the kids hear at school already.  There’s a kids version of this song available, sung by kids, but our kids don't like it.  If you have a few words regarding what has worked in your family, Id like to hear them."

A: Great question. 


Basic rule: If we don't use that language in our home we don't invite it in our home, either.


We don't want content (language, images, materials, etc) in our home that we don't speak, hold value to or wouldn't appreciate a guest in our home saying or doing. Just as we would expect a polite guest in our home to respect our values (even if they don't agree with those values) we expect the musicians and actors that we invite into our homes (in a virtual manner via the doors of media) to respect our "house rules". So if we don't use the sh** word in our home we ask the kids to self-censor their own music to respect our home.

Without lecturing, discuss what is appropriate in your home and why.

Generally, they do respect that rule, however, naturally kids want to try their own thing and there have been times when our teens have had inappropriate music in the home. When that happens, and when I notice it, I'll point out the inappropriate content and why it's inappropriate. Sometimes they just listen without paying attention and are genuinely surprised at the content when it's shown to them. Other times they just "say" they didn't know, when in reality they liked the edgy content. Sometimes honestly they didn't understand the reference, context, innuendo, implications or meaning of a phrase. In those cases I'll explain it to them and appeal to their sense of decency and ask what they think about listening to a song that has a great beat, is artistically done, but is conveying a violent, foul, misogynistic, overly sexualized, etc message. Either way, I point it out and re-establish the house rule (see short answer above).

Have rules that appeal to reason.

I think most kids understand and can respect the congruity and logic behind this approach, instead of the weaker, specious reason of the parental stand-by of, "Because I said so". They especially respect it when they know that's "just the way it's always been in our home" from a young age, like you're doing now. Then when they are teens the rule's not challenged that much. Why not? Teens generally don't feel a need to rebel much against rules and systems that make sense and are fair.

Music is more than music: It's exploration.

All that being said, Kara and I, like you, don't want to stifle their musical tastes and so allow a lot of lee-way with the kids choices in music as we understand the importance of music with expression and identity. So basically, pretty much anything is okay so long as it doesn't violate our basics. I believe firmly in the importance of kids, especially teens, to be able to experiment and try our different musical styles, clothes, ideas, etc as external means of exploring what resonates with them and what doesn't. As such, I keep an open mind to music and have pleasantly been exposed to several bands they like that I have come to like, too, such as Death Cab for Cutie, Mayday Parade, Arcade Fire, Weezer, Avril Lavigne, Linkin Park. In turn have been able to turn them on to some of my music such as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Wolfmother, Band of Horse, Bob Marley, Enya, Jimmy Eat World, The White Stripes, Norah Jones, George Winston, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and peaceful Zen-esque bamboo flute music. There's still plenty of their music I can't get into and vice-versa, but the message is that musical differences are encouraged and respected. Further, because musical variety is respected I think it makes it easier for them to share their favorites with them and vice-versa which expands all of our awareness. The basic message in our house is that "We love good music" meaning that it's music we enjoy, is well done/creative, speaks to us, and that abides by our basic standards. That leaves the house open to enjoy a broad range of eclectic musical tastes from classical, opera, country, alternative rock, pop, classic rock, punk, folk, funk, rockabilly, hard rock, rap, etc.

Be okay taking a stand with your standard.

Sometimes kids will say, "What's the big deal, I hear that at school all the time?" My response, "I agree, you do hear it at school. How often do you hear it here?" I want them to know that standards are standards (meaning they stand/stay) and that ours don't get watered down, blown over or become value-neutral just because other people have different or no standards.

Balance openness with boundaries.

There is definitely a balance between being open and not  having clear boundaries. I think when it comes to music we've done well in this area. They kids know they have tremendous freedom with their musical choice and expression within fair and reasonable limits. The limits are based in reasonable expectations to basically listen to music that is respectful of our home specifically and of people in general. 

Musical preference is instructive and informative.

Kids music is often diagnotist/informative to me. Not in a sense that I use their music to limit them by labeling or pigeon-holing them. But, as a means of understanding what they are drawn to and find interesting. It's also a great medium to connect and discuss what's important to them. I invite them to tell me who's playing, what they like about it, interesting facts about the band/song, etc. It's interesting to find out what they value, feel and think that I might not otherwise learn without the medium of discussing what's important to them about their music and it's meaning to them.

Here's a simple activity:

Unless it's blatantly inappropriate, take a moment to really listen to your kids music. Pick some that you generally don't enjoy. Don't limit your perception based on whether you like it or not, but consider fully why it might appeal to your child. Sit with the music for a while. Get up and dance to it. Get into the "groove" and experience it as it is. You still  might not like it, but you may find you've learned something about it and more importanly about your child. Surprise your child with, "You know I listened to (band name) that you like so much, and I have to say I really like (song name). I was surprised because I didn't think I would like it, but I did, and here's why.... What do you like about (band name)?"

Whew! That may be more than you asked, but it's a great question that I've thought about a lot and it was fun for me to be able to put the thoughts down.

Your thoughts?

This is what works in our home. Please share with us what works in your home. Readers, where do YOU draw the musical line with your kids?

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