My then-14-year-old and I were in the car, driving after one of those stifling hot travel baseball tournaments that drain the doubleheaders out of you.
A few minutes into our trek on I-95 north, as my son was attempting to de-baseball after roughly 12 hours of sun and grounders at shortstop, Journey came on the classic rock station, and this ’80s chick blasted it. “Steve Perry had the best voice of that era,” I remarked. Then Foreigner came on and I turned that higher. “Lou Gramm might’ve been the third best vocalist then. I’d put Dennis DeYoung of Styx at number two.”
“Mom,” he said, balking at my memories of Foreigner’s ‘4.’ “We always listen to your music. Can we listen to something from the last 30 years?”
It hit me like a line drive that I didn’t know what this Sweet Child O Mine’s favorite song was these days, as he’d always been on headphones. So, I handed over the DJ duties. He played a song from his phone, which I liked. “Arctic Monkeys,” he said, before I could ask. And then he played “Imagine Dragons.” (“Imagine all the people,” I said.)
As we talked all the way home about our musical eras, I felt goose bumps that my middle child and I were relating, carving out our own space. Had I stumbled onto a way to connect with my son that didn’t involve school or sports?
I asked one of my best friends, Christine Barckhoff, a psychotherapist in Knoxville. (Full disclosure: we spent many Glory Days in college dancing to the “Born in the USA”, “Faith” and INXS’ “Kick” CDs.)
“The challenge during the teen years is to find connection with your adolescent. This is hard to do when their developmental task is to pull away,” she said. “Sharing music is a fantastic way to connect. It’s an opportunity to be accepting of your child while reminding them that you are a human with likes and dislikes of our own. It teaches an openness to others.”
I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slide into second, like the discarded remains of the Endless Summer Nights with my Richard Marx cassette. I approached him with an idea.
“How about I text you a classic each day, and you send me a new song you like?” I asked him. He nodded. (He was belted in so was forced to listen to my ideas.)
And so it went: I sent him Born to Run. I got back Drake and Kid Cudi.
Little by little, as only teenagers can do — when they want you around (but not really) — we texted more. They let you see their world line by line, lyric by lyric.
He said he liked my Hotel California clip after Glen Frey’s death. “He and Henley will go down in music history as one of the best songwriting teams of all time,” I say. He agreed, and then sent me David Bowie’s last video, Lazarus. Which led into a short discussion about life, death and art. Did we just have a round of true teenage communication?
On the anniversary of The Day the Music Died, I sent him American Pie. Which led me to tell him a story about a date I had in the ’90s to see “The Buddy Holly Story” with a guy with a dinosaur cling-on sticker on his car. He laughed, then sent back Heartless by Kanye West. I told him I liked the chorus, and asked him what he liked about it.
Later I reached out to Kimberly Sena Moore, a music therapist at the University of Miami who blogs for Psychology Today. Is this a parenting tip, I asked? Up to now, I had just played my music. And he did the same. (With headphones, never the two shall meet.)
“Sharing your music with someone else can be a vulnerable experience. We have strong personal connections to our music and it can be emotionally risky to be open and share that with another. You are sharing a part of your identity,” she said.
She pointed to the unique relationship between teens, parents and music: Elvis in the ’50s, “hippie” music and Woodstock in the ’60s and ’70s, and Madonna in the ’80s. Papa Don’t Preach?
“Talk to any parent from any decade and you will hear how their parent could hardly stand the raucous noise his or her child blasted. For teenagers, though, musical preference is strongly associated to a budding sense of personal and social identity. The stage, then, is set for a potential conflict based on musical choice and preference.”
I contemplate the times I banned music that degrades women — or worse. And no explicit lyrics in their earphones. (I stand by my boundaries.)
“Sharing music can be a bridge,” says Sena Moore. “Particularly if parents maintain an open, non-judgmental mind. Sharing music together can help each generation share a part of them, if the recipient is open to listening and understanding.”
Until then, I’d been just turning up my music in the car — in what had become a one-way jam down I-95 —without hearing why he liked hip hop. In doing so, I had missed a chance to connect.
Now, he can’t escape my text every day. Don’t You Forget About Me, kid! But you know what? He always texts one back. And for now, a 16-year-old and I are speaking. When I run out of song ideas, I crowd-source from friends more classics for future YouTube texts.
We connect, if only for a moment, like a… Total Eclipse of the Heart?
“Mom, what’s this song again?” he said one recent evening, when I texted a friend’s suggestion, Rumble, from the ’50s. “It was one of the few instrumentals to actually be banned from the radio,” I said. He laughed. “Like when you ban songs, thinking they’re going to desensitize me?” And then we started talking about bans, generations…and other teen stuff.
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This.)
4 tips from music therapist Sena Moore for sharing music with your child:
- Listen to your child’s song with an open mind. Don’t judge or talk negatively about song choice. Use the song to understand more about your child, his social circle and the man he is becoming.
- Ask questions. Ask her when she first heard the song, or what it reminds her of. What do you like about this song or artist?
- Let this experience happen organically. Sena Moore tells the story of a colleague who had left a song on the radio per her son’s request, despite its angry-sounding message. She non-judgmentally asked him what he liked about it, and he opened up about some challenges she had only suspected until that conversation.
- Remember there is no one “right” thing to say. Just have a genuine interest in learning more about your child. Focus on what they resonate with, or stories about how they came to know that artist.
Kristine Meldrum Denholm is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia who writes about health and sports, psychology and family issues. You can find more of her work at www.KristineMeldrumDenholm.com. She tweets @writerKMD.