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Ear buds made my teens tune me out, so I changed how we listen to music


I’m not quite sure when ear buds took over our kids' lives, but they did — and I wasn’t happy about it. I also wasn’t surprised. I remember listening to Michael Jackson, Prince, David Bowie, Hall & Oates, Run-DMC, and tons of other ’80s music on my Walkman when I was their age.

Back then, headphones were not that comfortable (and the sound coming from them wasn’t that great), cassette tapes got easily mangled, CDs skipped, batteries died quickly and albums were pricey. But today’s combination of low-cost streaming services, playlists courtesy of algorithms and endless music options make it much easier for kids to escape into their ear buds for hours at a time.

So when my husband and I noticed our teens increasingly tuning us out as they washed dishes, hung out in their rooms or traveled in the car, we became curious about what they were listening to and how they were interpreting the lyrics they were hearing. We decided to try an experiment: Every time we were driving together, each person would take turns playing DJ by connecting their device to our dashboard stereo. We would listen together and talk about the artist, the music, the lyrics and why our kid liked the song. Our teens selected songs, as did my husband and I. And it gave us an opportunity to share our thoughts on some of the iffy content in our kids' music.

Daily car rides were filled with a diverse mix of songs from the likes of Rihanna, Stevie Wonder, the Weeknd, Curtis Mayfield, Drake, Erykah Badu, Steel Pulse, Logic, Nina Simone, Kehlani and more. My husband and I got a better understanding of our kids' expanding tastes, as well as a chance to share stories about our own teen years. Some great conversations emerged, and as an added bonus, we came across a handful of artists we agreed on (beyond Michael Jackson).

Now it’s become a family ritual. As soon as we get in the car, everyone scrambles to be the first one to connect to the stereo. And while it isn’t always easy sitting through some of the songs my teens select (or even some of my husband’s choices), I’m happy we’ve discovered another way to share media and memories.

If you’re looking for ways to talk to your kids about their music, here are some conversation starters:

Talk about creativity. Every generation has a different sensibility about music. I remember my parents raising a skeptical brow at my selections. So discussing music as an art form can be enlightening. Ask: How does music change through different time periods? What types of things inform an artist’s lyrics? How do different genres help an artist convey his or her ideas? Why did this artist choose certain instrumentation? And, even: Why do you like this song?

Talk about the iffy stuff. If a song includes strong language or explicit lyrics, use it as an opportunity to share your values and talk about whether they’re appropriate — either in a song or real life. Ask: Why did the artist use these lyrics? Does explicit language make the song better? Could the song have been as effective without it? Why, or why not?

Talk about marketing in the music industry. Help kids understand that an artist’s performance, persona and presentation are about selling albums — not necessarily how they conduct themselves in the real world. Ask: What makes music sell? Does popular always means good? And: How does the software created by media and tech companies keep us plugged in?

Nicole Atkinson Roach is a two-time Emmy Award-winning producer, director and writer, and the vice president of video at Common Sense Media. This post originally appeared on Common Sense Media.

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