Why I let my tween listen to whatever music he wants

Gangsta
This isn't a teen-aged Rich or his son, but it's still awesome. Photo by Zac Zellers, used with Creative Commons license.

Growing up, my Walkman was my best friend. At the height of that relationship, circa 1984, I was way into some pretty ridiculous music. Twisted Sister's Stay Hungry, Iron Maiden's Powerslave, Van Halen's 1984 and Ratt's breakthrough masterpiece, Out of The Cellar had all come out that year, and all four albums were on heavy rotation. These albums also had questionable cover art: a smoking angel, a scantily clad chick crawling towards a glowing hole in the ground, a dude in full make-up chomping on a flesh-covered bone as big as his head, and of course, Eddie. It's probably worth mentioning that in 1984, I was eight years old. Back then you couldn't hide album art. It wasn't tucked away, thumbnail size, on some screen. It was all right there for me — and my parents — to see.

Public Enemy and NWA came a few years later, but even that didn't raise any eyebrows. (Really, guys?) Chalk it up to having a father in the entertainment industry and a mother far enough removed from Catholicism, yet still a few years away from being Born Again. Fiscally and politically, my parents were conservative. Socially, it was a different story, and music was the last thing my parents seemed to be worried about in terms of its influence on my impressionable ears.

Not too long ago, my wife and I rented The Social Network. My son saw the box when he came home from school. "It was pretty cool. Kinda confusing, though." Apparently he had watched the movie at his dad's house the previous weekend, which was news to us. I think we set a record for awkward sideways glances when we finally sat down to watch it ourselves, almost to the point of distraction. Blow jobs, bong hits, you name it. It ain't a movie for an 11-year-old.

Language isn't that big a deal to me, nor is violence. It's the drug use and the sexually suggestive material. My son knows that cursing doesn't display a broadened vocabulary. If anything, it shows a lack of it. But sex and drugs are the eternal wild cards, and you never know when life is gonna play 'em for your kids. And trust me when I tell you this: they know far more than you think.

Like me at eight, my son is never far from his headphones. Barring some seismic shift in taste, I'm not concerned with censoring his playlists.

With its teased hair, make-up and leather pants, '80s rock was almost a caricature of sexuality; something so far removed from real life that it was nearly impossible to replicate as an adult, let alone a kid. Unlike today, hip-hop was thought-provoking, dangerous and equally alien, and all Iron Maiden did was heighten my appreciation for Greek mythology, WWI, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Like me at eight, my son is never far from his headphones. Barring some seismic shift in taste, I'm not concerned with censoring his playlists. Television and movies are a different story, as is social networking. Thou shalt not tweet, and you best be putting your Face in that Book if you want me to re-up your text messaging plan. But the music doesn't concern me. Is that bad?

I know quite a few parents who dictate what their kids are and aren't allowed to download or even listen to. More often that not, it's for religious reasons, but mostly they tell me they don't want their kids "growing up too fast." Neither do I, but when your kid is in 6th grade, what Mumford & Sons, Katy Perry, and Bruno Mars can do doesn't hold a candle to the little girl who's fully prepared to push boundaries.

If anything, music can help issues. Maybe I'm being naive. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I've been a music journalist for 13 years. Maybe I'm fearful of being hypocritical. Or maybe I'm right. Maybe in the grand scheme of things, letting your kids find their own music path is the biggest little thing you can let them do.

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  1. I always think about music and my future children. I am a huge underground music fan and I cringe at the fact that my kids may listen to mainstream music one day. I know it's silly, but I couldn't imagine having a teen beat kid HAHA!

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    • That really irked me as well until I went back and catalogued what I listened to at that age: Men At Work, Van Halen…I even went through a phase where En Vogue and Wilson Phillips albums were in heavy rotation. When you're at an age when it's hard for you to go out and really discover underground music for yourself — live or otherwise — you have to go for whatever is most accessible, and unfortunately that means radio pop hits. That young, teenage emotion needs to manifest itself somehow…almost like when you're so hungry that you raid the fridge and end up putting a hot dog in a tortilla with some mustard and olives. When you get a little older, then you learn how to cook, and can start enjoying proper, nourishing musical food.

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  2. You know, my parents were pretty bad at censoring movies and I can honestly say that it did not negatively affect me. I think I saw Dirty Dancing when I was six (and my mom is conservative!) which has lots of sex and *gasp* abortion. At six, I didn't understand any of that stuff. All I cared about was the cool dancing. And the fact that Baby got to wear a super cool pink dress in the end and twirl around. Everything else pretty much went right over my head and I went on to my fairy tale make-believe six year old existance.

    Among many other "bad" movies, I saw Animal House at like 10 or 11. Lots of sex and drugs and alcohol. Guess what? Despite enjoying the movie, I ended up a totally goody-two-shoes in high school and college who barely touched alcohol until very late in college- and never drugs. You would never have guessed that from all of the Animal-House type college movies I saw in my tweens. I watched a lot of films most parents would never have allowed. AND I even stumbled upon my dad's porn (unknown to my parents)

    At the end of the day, I am an individual with several influencing factors in my life……and movies were honestly at the bottom of the list when it came to things that really impacted what I did later on in life………..parents, peers, teachers, friends, the culture I was surrounded in……that's what influenced me…..not a bunch of wild movies……..

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    • Same with me. I found myself exposed to a bunch of 'suspect' films for my age. Quest For Fire and An Officer And A Gentleman are the two that pop into my head. But I still think that should be the exception and not the rule when it comes to tweens. You also have to "adjust for inflation," as I put it. Take weed, for instance. The stuff making the rounds these days would put the weed of 30-40 years ago to shame. Same with movies and kids and peer groups. Everything is just more acute compared to when we were kids, and I think that's something to keep in mind.

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    • I was the same – dad raised me on books and movies that were beyond my years. Many things, particularly in the movies, didn't actually click with me until now anyway. With the original Mash movie, for example, I was quite shocked the first time I heard the words to the theme song. Dad had to explain to me that it was irony.

      However, I do think I'd have issues with younger kids watching something like The Hangover, because to me those types of movies that really seem to glorify irresponsible behaviour. That and those types of movies irritate the hell out of me!

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    • My mum tried to shelter me, but I watched everything I wasn't allowed to when she wasn't around when it was available, and it was fine. I think things disturb me more now as an adult because I take a deeper meaning from them, but as a kid most of it went over my head and I was a goody-two-shoes despite my morbid curiosity about everything that was censored.

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  3. I think you're absolutely right that kids should just find their own path. I've not censored anything I listen to around my kids and I have no intention of preventing them from exploring stuff on their own even if I don't like it. My parents listened to a lot of progressive rock and folk around me, and that played a huge role in forming my musical tastes. I certainly did my share of grooving to Madonna and Janet Jackson as a child as well, and even went through a mercifully short NKOTB stage, but I think a grounding in the music my parents listened to ultimately kept me from getting too absorbed into what was popular at the time.

    As far as objectionable content goes, I think music lyrics are really low on the worry list for me as well. Seriously, it took me until I was almost out of my teens before I realized why my mother got squirmy every time "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood came on. I just don't think my kids are going to get swept away into a life of dysfunction based on the music they listen to alone.

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  4. "you best be putting your Face in that Book if you want me to re-up your text messaging plan"

    LOVE IT!!!

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  5. My parents were insanely supportive of my music and art choices and they even would sit and listen to my favorites with me (they had been waking me up with pink floyd for years!) i think it was one of the most beneficial things they could have done because they accepted what i liked and trusted me. Also, i think censorship can breed rebellion and i did not do half the things my friends did when their parents were confiscating cds and drawing books (naked people oh my!)

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  6. Exactly! I remember watching dirty dancing at about 8 or 9. And then again at about 16 and going "Ohhhhh abortion?" I had no clue what the hell was going on.

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  7. The only thing I censor is explict sex scenes in movies. At 7 & 10, my boys just aren't ready for that. However, their music or movies aren't censored in any other ways. My 10 yo likes pop girl voices and my 7 yo likes heavy metal.

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  8. My 2 yr old has my old no-longer-used iPhone loaded with everything from Yo Gabba Gabba to They Might Be Giants to Linkin Park to The Ramones. He recently heard me playing the new Beastie Boys album and can recognize it when I have it on in the car. Are some of the lyrics and themes inappropriate? Probably. D I sincerely hope that, after listening to Fight for Your Right he doesn't yell "porno mag!" in his Baptist daycare? Sure. Do I love watching him play with different music and listen to it and decide whether he likes it or not? Yes. Some days, he'll ask for "hey hey song" (Train's Suoul Sister) and some days "ay o song" (Blitzkrieg Bop) and some days nothing but Gabba will do. It's sensory exploration. It's a chance to be independent and discover likes and dislikes in a safe way. I spend time with him explaining music videos if we have them on ("well, the mommies and daddies of the guys in this one should have given them time sways for breaking things right?") but in the greater scope of things, music is such an important outlet that so long as I can help him negotiate what he likes, why would I want to cramp his sense of individuality and creativity?

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    • My eight year old son's favorite band right now is Beastie Boys, and now he wants to learn how to play the flute because of Sure Shot (luckily I have mine still)

  9. When I was a tween, I started getting into death metal. My mother was quite offended by the gory album covers, but realized I wasn't going to end up being a serial killer by listening to blast beats. I turned out quite ok, and I apply the same logic to my teenage stepdaughter. She will not become a stripper by listening to pop music.

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  10. "Language isn't that big a deal to me, nor is violence. It's the drug use and the sexually suggestive material."

    This statement actually bothers me a bit. The language can politely ignored, and I understand the drug use and sexually suggestive material, especially to a 11-year-old. However, I think the sexual material pales in comparison to violence.

    I'm not sure why, but Americans seem to turn a blind eye to violence in movies. A movie can be horribly violent, but typically ends up being ignored by parents unless you see a flash of lady nipple.

    I am more alarmed at violence than sexual material. Sexual material, unless it's rape, which I consider to be violence, not sexual, might be uncomfortable, but that's just a part of kids growing up into adulthood. An 11-year-old may see a couple (hetero or same-sex, it really doesn't matter), going at it, and the worst it does it makes them look at *you* with a perplexed look on their face. Embarrassing yes, but hardly destructive.

    Violence, however, is just that: violence. Rape, murder, torture, beating someone: these are far more destructive to a young child's mind than accidentally seeing someone getting a blow job.

    But, again, it seems like many Americans seem to chalk violence up as a way of life, while sexual material (again, I count rape as violence), is considered a taboo and too hush-hush to discuss.

    I think the author and many Americans need to seriously rethink what is really destructive to children, and what isn't. Sex is sex, and actually *is* a part of life. Violence, however, should not be, regardless of how the Hollywood machine has tried to brow-beat us into believing violence is.

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    • This is exactly what I wanted to say. Especially this: "Sex is sex, and actually *is* a part of life. Violence, however, should not be, regardless of how the Hollywood machine has tried to brow-beat us into believing violence is".

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    • Thanks for making this comment. I find myself questioning my attitudes very much in this way. Somehow I understand that my child is aware of things happening on TV versus things that she is actually allowed to do, and so do not worry about violence or language, and yet feel VERY squeamish as soon as anything sexual is on the screen. I've been trying to conciously work on this attitude, but I'm amazed at how ingrained it is!

      The only thing I can think of how this could be explained is that sexual behaviour is something she has the equipment to try, as opposed to a gun fight, but if I'm being honest, I think that's just a rationalization.

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    • Heidi …

      First off, I really appreciate you taking the time to compose such a well thought out reply, and I agree with a lot of what you're saying. In hindsight, "violence" is too important of a word to paint with such a broad brush, and like murder is classified in the court system, there are different levels of violence I'm willing to expose my son to.

      Let's call the first "fantastical violence." I'd put most sci-fi in this category, along with disaster movies like Armageddon, 2012, Day After Tomorrow, etc. "Scenes of intense peril" I think the MPAA refers to it as. I don't have any problems with this. Then you've got your "mid-level violence," which would include general adult-themed, over-the-top slapstick'iness as depicted in Sandler/Ferrell comedies and some other action films that toe the PG-13 line. Then you've got, as I like to call it, "next level shit." Movies like Fight Club, The Hurt Locker, and the Jackass franchise depict a level of violence completely inappropriate for young kids, and I don't condone their viewing in my house at this time.

      But I think you need to have a little perspective here. Let's re-read your statement: "Rape, murder, torture, beating someone: these are far more destructive to a young child's mind than accidentally seeing someone getting a blow job."

      Well, of course. Myself, and I'm sure the overwhelming majority of parents commenting on this post, don't sit 'round the TV on Sunday night watching I Spit On Your Grave, and while I agree that the desensitization to violence isn't that wonderful of a trend in our culture — I think mine started with Tom & Jerry, Looney Toons and AFV, to be honest — I think you're reaching a bit in your analysis of my comment. Hopefully I've clarified things.

      I also agree, in principal, with your statement that sex is a part of life, but much in the same way Hollywood browbeats us with violence, they also sell us a bill of goods with sex. It's either hyper-romanticized or just glossed over like it's no big deal, which, to me, IS a big deal because it trivializes the act for teens. But yes, sex is a part of life. Sadly, though, so is violence. Humans, for the most part, are a violent class of animal. Not saying I think it's right, but I think it's accurate.

      Then there's video games, but I'm not even gonna go there. 🙂

  11. I was and am still more religious than my secular parents. When I bought my first Cherry Poppin' Daddies CD at 14, I hid it for five months, listened to it only on the bus, and took the headphones off my ears every time there was a swear word. When the situation became desperate (I NEEEEEEDED to see them in concert) I finally came clean. My mom wasn't impressed by the language, but wasn't all that phased either. CDs with parental advisory stickers on them were still off limits.
    I grew up using my parents' record player and LPs more than they did, so they really didn't worry about my music choices all that much. :p

  12. i still remember going on a trip with my dad when i was 15 and being stuck in the car for 12 hours with him and listening to nine inch nails over and over again. he hated it! i think music is okay to a certain level. there is, however, some songs or bands i would not let my kids listen to. if they are too graphic or violent or talk about sex way to much (like that stupid new song that goes whips and chains excite me sex in the air i can smell it or something like that…) i put a limit down. i also don't allow my kids to watch movies like saw or anything super violent or has murder or that has nude sex scenes in it. they are kids after all and i don't want them to grow up too fast or think that stuff is normal at an early age. i don't think dirty dancing is a bad movie. it does talk about abortion and that is okay. but i don't have naked people going at it like crazy or anything. it just brings up good issues. i remember being 12 watching clock work orange and it still haunts me even now.

  13. My brothers and I grew up listening to everything – gospel, folk, metal, punk, funk, classical, jazz, and I'm sure others I don't remember offhand. No lyrics were censored. Rick James and Prince were on frequent rotation. My oldest brother's favorite album at age 5 was Quiet Riot's Metal Health (a little unusual for a black kid in Memphis, TN).

    We were taught to listen critically. When my mother would hear us singing lyrics that she thought were inappropriate, she would ask us, what does that mean? And it would force us to think them through. We all actually HEAR the lyrics of songs nowadays, and that shapes our music collections.

    We grew up pretty well. I went to a Seven Sister college, have worked as a health education professional, and am looking into teaching English as a foreign language. My oldest brother still loves metal, and has worked at the same company for over ten years, and owns a house. My middle brother is finishing his masters degree in computer engineering. My youngest brother is studying to be a firefighter. All of us are decent members of society.

    A strong family, a strong sense of self, and learning to value ourselves and others, made a much bigger difference than the lyrics of the music we listened to.

  14. my mom likes eminem. my dad is in a rock band. i grew up with 80's rock, punk and metal. my taste is incredibly eclectic. i like rock, punk, metal, rap, techno, classical, world and instrumental music. honestly i never wanted to listen to sexually explicit lyrics. its nasty and makes sex seem dirty to me when sex is a beautiful thing. i know when i have children i dont want them listening to certain songs, but other than extremely explicit sexual lyrics, i could care less what they like. i will say if my kid ends up liking justin bieber or miley cyrus im gonna cry.

  15. my mom took this route: we all know edited cds still get the message across that there is a "bad word" or theme imbedded in the music. so she took the opportunity to describe the "theory of theater" as she called it. most music cultures have an image they are projecting, be it the '80s super caricatured rocker to the thug rapper. just knowing the themes behind the music can help a kid separate reality and appropriate behaviour from the "cop killer" (yep- totally listened to ice-t when i was 9)

    my mom just used the controversial bits in the music as a means to teach me to find my own path, regardless of the messages of the severe norweigian deathmetal i discovered and loved at 14 (good stuff, that)

    it is mostly important that parents teach that music is a lens into different lifestyles, but doesnt necesssarily mean that everything said should be emulated.
    and, tangentially but still important, some "explicit" themes are probably good for kids to hear. how many young gay teens have been inspired by lady gagas "born this way" when super conservatives would prefer that the song not be played?

    so i guess that is a really long way of me saying "dont censor, please"

  16. I don't think there's anything at all wrong with letting kids choose their own music. The truth is that I heard plenty of "inappropriate" songs as a kid. The ones that were really out of my depth I didn't understand. The ones I did I usually just thought were entertaining. I agree that it's all about teaching kids that just because someone sings about something doesn't mean the singer does it and it doesn't mean they should either. As long as you're teaching them some morals in other contexts, they're learning the lessons they need to have a framework to deal with violent games, movies, sexually explicit songs… whatever. The world isn't going to change because they're too precious to be exposed to things. It's important for them to know how to handle the dark stuff too.

  17. I don't censor what my children (12, 14 and 16) listen to or watch really either. When I cringe the most though is not over the sex it's over the violence. My thought was always sex is natural, violence not so much.

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  18. I'm for sure a few years from having kids of my own. However, I think my criteria is less content and more treatment. There are songs that talk about mature subject matter without being gratuitous about it. I've loved hip hop since I was a preteen. However, at a certain point I stopped listening to the radio, because some hiphop songs made me sick– especially 50 Cent. I think I stopped listening when "Candy Shop" and "Magic Stick" came out, because I realized that his attitude towards sex was "Bitch luvvs to make me cum", and I was not okay with that. I wouldn't want my kids listening to that, but only because I wouldn't want ANYONE listening to it. But then there are hiphop artists like Dessa and K'naan who write about serious shit (child prostitution, for one) in a way that's honest, informative, and poetic. And I would want everyone listening to that.

    3 agree

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