The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Music is a language my teen daughter and I can both speak

(iStock)
Placeholder while article actions load

Sometimes being a parent feels like being in a country where you don’t speak the language. My daughter Violet’s tales from seventh grade are peppered with words like mid, sus, vibey, and aesthetic. When she tried to define emo for me, it was like a scene from an indie movie: exasperated teenager, out-of-touch mom. Even at 45, I remember being on the other side of that dynamic with my own mother.

Still, while we aren’t always using the same vocabulary, Violet and I talk — a lot. We’re close, and we’re similar in many ways, both introverted, creative, curious, and sarcastic. But the one thing we connect over more than anything else? Our love of music.

I’ve been sharing music with both of my kids since before they were born; it’s part of how I show love. I made a mix CD to take to the hospital for Violet’s birth that included Ray LaMontagne’s “You Are the Best Thing,” Band of Horses’ “No One’s Gonna Love You,” Wilco’s “My Darling.” Rhett’s playlist had John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy,” The The’s “This Is the Day,” and the Innocence Mission’s cover of “What a Wonderful World.”

As my children grew, I put a CD case in our hallway, marked “Little Free Music Library,” where they could borrow my CDs. Some they took to immediately — Bowie, Prince, Queen — but not all. Violet still hasn’t warmed up to Andrew Bird; something about the whistling gets under her skin. Rhett wasn’t a fan of the Beastie Boys at first: “Mom, I know this does it for you, but it doesn’t really do it for me.” But one road trip with “Paul’s Boutique” turned up loud in the car later, he’s a convert.

Sharing music with them came naturally, since that’s one of the ways I’ve bonded with my own parents. When I was Violet’s age, 13, it was 1990. If you turned on the radio, you’d hear Wilson Phillips or Poison, but my walls were covered in Beatles posters. I have my mom and dad to thank for that. We’d put on a record from their extensive collection — 1970s, ’80s rock, pop, folk, Motown — and sing along while my mom cooked or we did housework. My dad took me to National Record Mart to buy my first tape. He couldn’t decide whether “Rubber Soul” or “Revolver” was the more seminal album, so I came home with both.

The soundtrack of my childhood was my parents’ record collection. In 2020, my dad packed up the whole collection in plastic crates and gave it to me, so now I have all the albums we listened to when I was a kid — not just the songs, but the actual, physical records our hands touched back then. Some of them are too scratched to play anymore, but others we listen to while I cook or we do housework.

Violet, already well beyond my old CD library, has an iPhone now, and she is becoming a master playlist maker. She draws or collages in her room (her lair, as I call it) with her airpods in, gathering songs the way a magpie gathers shiny things. Violet has playlists for different vibes (cue my daughter rolling her eyes at me for using that word here), different times of year, different people, and her love shines through in those playlists.

Last summer she made one with her brother’s favorite songs: “Seat 16B” by Hello Emerson, “Chinatown” by Luna, “Scared of the Dark” by Lil Wayne, from the “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” soundtrack. It touched me to see “Rhett loves these songs” pop up in her list of playlists.

Then this year, she gave me a gift I’ve treasured every day since: a playlist she made called “Hey Mom.” It began as 4 hours and 47 minutes of my favorite songs or songs that mean something to the two of us, and she’s continually adding to it. It’s now more than seven hours long. I play it on shuffle when I walk the dog or run errands in the car, always happy to hear The National, Nada Surf, Fruit Bats, Rhett Miller and Teenage Fanclub — songs I love, yes, but more important, songs she noticed I love. It’s the audio equivalent of a hug from my daughter.

Reader, I must confess: I was afraid to have a teenage daughter. I was afraid to have a teenage girl in my house because I was a teenage girl, and I was mouthy, rebellious, and sneaky. There was plenty of eye-rolling, back-talking, and door slamming. I did not make mix tapes for my younger siblings. Since Violet was young, maybe 7 or 8 years old, we’ve been talking about the teenage years and what can happen between mothers and daughters. I just want you to keep talking to me, I told her. If you think I’m being too strict, or if I think you’re pushing things too far, let’s just talk. I tell her the same thing now: Let’s always keep the lines of communication open, no matter what.

Here’s the thing about my teenage daughter: I love her, but I also like her. A lot.

A few weeks ago we watched the original Muppet Movie, the kids and I all snuggled up together with the dog on the couch, and of course I teared up when Kermit sang “Rainbow Connection,” as I always do. The opening banjo music gets me every single time. A few days later, when we were in the car together, I cued up the “Hey Mom” playlist on shuffle as I usually do. “Rainbow Connection” started up. I looked at Violet in the passenger seat, and she smiled at me. “I just added it,” she said.

I swallowed the lump in my throat, and we both sang along.

Maggie Smith is the author of several books, including “Goldenrod,” “Good Bones,” “Keep Moving,” and “Keep Moving: The Journal.”

Have a question about parenting? Ask The Post.

Loading...