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Children and Media

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Young Ears: What to Say When a Song Has Said Too Much

by Katherine Shrader

Girl with iPodRihanna is singing about sadomasochism. Pitbull says he wants “everything tonight.” Katy Perry's Friday night was much wilder than yours, and certainly your eight-year-old's. Singers and songwriters are using sex even more to get attention, and sometimes just starting up your car—and your radio—can cue a catchy song that leads to questions you didn't plan on answering on the way to the store. What's a parent to do with the blush-worthy inquiry?

Even with young children, the key is to be serious and direct, no matter how anxious the question makes you, says Myrna Shure, author of "Thinking Parent, Thinking Child." "You don't want him getting information from his peers or other adults," she says. "Be truthful, very brief, but honest." She says children pick up on even subtle cues from their parents—like a blush, smirk or change in tone—so she recommends being as nonchalant as possible. "If you are open to the child and make it safe for the child to talk to you about it, he is much less likely to get out of whack over it."

When Rihanna sings about whips and chains, that may be frightening, and if your child is asking about it, you don't want to be dismissive. "If he says, 'It makes me scared,' you can ask him, 'Can you think of something so you won't be scared about this?'" Shure says. She and Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media, both recommend asking children what they are thinking before answering what may seem like a tough question. "We often overthink it as parents," Knorr says. "It's a heightened sensitivity to these issues. 'Oh, it's a song about love,' might be all they want to hear. End of story."

When a child is particularly young, Knorr says that they probably will mishear or not understand the lyrics. "They are so innocent," she says. Around eight years old, they start "aging up" and becoming interested in music that is not age-appropriate. Then, Knorr says, parents can find themselves in binds. Her advice: kids enjoy the beat and the rhythm, so emphasize the sound and the experience. "Dance with them. Then they will remember the bonding moment of it," she says. If something does come up, let them direct the conversation, she stresses.

Parents have been dealing with this issue as long as there have been radios. In 1985, the Recording Industry Association of America started labeling recordings that had explicit lyrics and content, under pressure from the National Parent Teacher Association and four prominent Washington mothers. (One of them, Tipper Gore, got involved after hearing Prince's "Darling Nikki" with her daughter.)

With the vast number of media sources available today, parents have to be even more vigilant, but they can also zero in on a few media sources and use technology to avoid troublesome content, particularly when children are still so young that parents can control what they hear. Here are a few tips to help parents avoid tricky topics altogether:

  1. Make your own playlists for your iPod or MP3 player. You can plug the devices into your car with some relatively inexpensive accessories that let you connect through your stereo.
  2. Understand the parental controls that are available to you from media providers. The iTunes store—the country's largest music store—allows you to block content that's explicit. While that won't eliminate everything that's too mature for a preschooler or an early elementary student, it's a way to start sifting.
  3. When listening to CDs, pay attention to the Recording Industry Association of America's labels—those "Tipper Stickers"—that are on albums. They are always signs that some of the content may be too much for a child.
  4. Read online reviews from organizations that study music and media with an eye toward children, such as Common Sense Media, which breaks down why a song might be inappropriate for young ears
  5. If you have satellite radio, pick your channels carefully. SiriusXM has made a commitment to playing songs as the artist intended them, and the FCC doesn't control these broadcasts.
  6. Enjoy music with your kids. If you find yourself in a sticky spot, change the lyrics yourself and just keep singing (and, if you can, reach for the dial).

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Katherine Shrader is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, a mom and a music lover.

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