Music to Your Ears

By Jill Hudson Neal
Special to
Tuesday, December 19, 2006; 10:36 AM

There are days when the thing I dread most in the world is the commute home after picking up my two kids from preschool. The trip should take less than a half hour, but traffic sees to it that we're often captive for 40 minutes or more. I'm tired, they're hungry, books and pacifiers are flying in every direction -- if I were a careless, stupid woman, I'd pour a dirty Grey Goose martini into the morning's Starbucks cup and sip my nerves away.

Music, as many moms know, can make time spent in the car with kids a quality-time windfall. OK, good music. Hearing a three-year-old shout the chorus of the Beatles' "She Loves You" or "Day-O" by Harry Belafonte makes that c-section scar almost worth it. This is so great, I think as I cue up their "Kiddies in the Car" iPod playlist. We're so totally going to bond over this amazing music. But look out if I turn on the radio -- there's no telling what might spill forth to scald the kids' ears.

Interestingly, many of the moms I know tend to fall into two camps when it comes to choosing music for their children. Team A is all for shielding children from most of what's trendy, especially what's currently played on many popular radio stations. Team B figures the kids will probably come into contact with the objectionable stuff sooner or later. Learn to roll with it and use the songs -- or videos -- as a teaching exercise.

But what to do about music that your kids just love but makes you crazy? It's a common complaint and one of the things I hear most from mothers who really love music, consider it a vital part of their lives and well-being, and have always found pride in staying abreast what's new and relevant. I have nothing against the Wiggles or Barney per se, they all say, but God help me if I have to listen to "Fruit Salad" or "I Love You" one more time.

The good news, says Kenny Curtis, on-air personality and program director of XM Radio's XM Kids channel, is that quality children's music is a huge and growing niche in the music industry. Mainstream artists like Jack Johnson, They Might Be Giants, Bowling For Soup and Dan Zanes (formerly of the Del Fuegos) are hugely popular with children and their parents. And due to their ubiquitous presence on kids-oriented cable channels like Noggin, Nick Jr., and the Disney Channel, recording artists like Laurie Berkner, Tom Chapin and the Imagination Movers are becoming household names.

Spurred by curiosity and a healthy dose of technological savvy, Gen X parents are seeking out quality music that suits the entire family, says Curtis, a 37-year-old father of six. "You've also got artists that have kids of their own (making kids music), artists who're sharing in your parenting experience. Suddenly it legitimizes this genre and encourages parents to find more music like it and not necessarily just give in to something that's pre-packaged."

Families tend to respond to music that's "positive and encouraging, songs that have a good vibe about them," Curtis notes. "Some of these universal themes resonate with everybody, like loving and sharing. That's why people gravitate toward Beatles music when they have children, for example."

Reggae also comes out on top with parents for some of the same reasons, says Dan Storper, CEO of Putumayo music, which has since 1999 released several "Putumayo Kids" CDs, showcasing recording artists from around the world. "The spirit of Bob Marley has become so universally appealing that artist from many different cultures have incorporated reggae into their repertoire," he says. "Kids tend to love that repetitive hooky, catchy melody in reggae."

Children are also a perfect audience for music from such diverse musical cultures as Morocco, Brazil, Senegal and Ireland, among others. "Music is a great way to introduce kids to art from other cultures," Storper says. "Unfortunately, we have a tendency to focus only on what's in our backyard. Or we focus on the more negative aspects of the world poverty, civil war or disease. But there are rich cultures out there and kids respond very well to different genres."

Unless you're talking about hip-hop, which is often a showcase for obscene language and truly vile misogyny. Not the best music for children, which pains many parents who grew up with old-school rap. Sandra Hanna, a 34-year-old married lawyer who's pregnant with her second daughter, admits that being a parent forced her to reexamine her relationship with hip hop.

Hanna says she's had to break out a few of her old reggae, classic rock and pop CDs from storage. Now downloaded onto her iPod, Hanna plays songs by Steel Pulse, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac and the Police for her toddler while they're in the car or making dinner.

"I recently had the horrifying realization that I'm turning into that girl who only listens to music that was made in the '80s and '90s," Hanna admits. "I never thought I'd be that girl. Between becoming a K Street lawyer and moving to the suburbs, I have finally let go of all the vestiges of being a cool New Yorker.

"But as a mother of girls," she continues, "I realized that I have to be really careful about the messages that most current music is sending. And if that means having my hip-hop card revoked, so be it. I'd rather have a corny child than have her listen to some of the stuff that's out there now.

"And really, who am I missing? Lil' Wayne? It's not that crucial since most of the new stuff is clearly crap. "

So as much as it pains her to do it, Hanna easily relents to her 18-month-old daughter's pleas to listen to "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" on a continuous loop in the family car CD player. "Obviously," she says, "we'll let her listen to it, but I'm not all that happy about it. I've changed the music that I listen to out of necessity.

"Just another in a long line of sacrifices when you're a mom," she says, laughing.

The best track to saving your sanity and finding enjoyable music for the family, Curtis advises, is to take it on a song-by-song basis. "You have to listen to every song all the way through. And listen with an open ear. You might find something new that you never thought you'd like."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company