listeningtomusicI once heard someone say that a singing child is a happy child. When children throw tantrums, they don’t sing. They sing when they’re playing with toys or splashing in the tub. As a father and a researcher, I’ve learned that music and children are inseparable. And this relationship is so powerful that music can change how children think.

Our relationship with music begins at a young age. We sing lullabies to infants to help them sleep. Children learn the alphabet by singing it. Research shows that one-year-olds listen to music for about 30 minutes each day. Teenagers listen to music for nearly two and a half hours every day. By the time we graduate from high school, we have spent about 15 percent of our waking hours listening to music. There is a reason we see teenagers with earbuds attached to their ears all the time — kids love music. And just as we are affected by the food we put into our bodies, we are affected by the music we put into our brains.

Music affects kids in many ways
When we talk of the ability of music to influence kids, we don’t need to talk about how playing the piano improves children’s vocabulary (which it does) or how music lessons can help improve math skills (which they do). We need only talk about the music that most kids listen to — popular music found on the radio, music that ultimately ends up on parents’ and children’s playlists. And when we talk about popular music, what we’re really talking about is music lyrics.

Researchers who study media effects often divide media content into two categories: prosocial and anti-social content. Prosocial music lyrics talk about positive things like kindness, cooperation and helping — qualities we want our kids to develop. Antisocial music lyrics are aggressive, violent and sexual — qualities of concern to many parents.

Researchers have discovered that individuals who listen to prosocial music:

  • Have more prosocial thoughts
  • Have increased empathy toward others
  • Are more likely to help others in need

On the other hand, those who listen to anti-social music:

  • Have more aggressive thoughts
  • Are more likely to judge others based on their sexual desirability
  • Are more likely to behave aggressively

How parents can help kids make good music choices
Unfortunately, most of today’s popular music is full of anti-social lyrics. But parents, especially those of young children, can help their kids make good music choices and ensure that they get the most out of the good music they listen to. Here’s what you can do now to make such a difference:

  1. Listen to the lyrics of popular music before your kids do. I’ve learned that hoping songs are good — even from musicians I trust — is not a good strategy.
  2. Don’t be afraid to turn the station, skip a track or make up “replacement” words. My kids love to listen to Taylor Swift in the car. Because my wife and I are not afraid to skip an inappropriate track, our kids know which tracks to skip to the point that if we forget, they’ll remind us to skip them. For songs they really like that contain questionable language, we’ve developed code words that we yell together to replace the less-than-appropriate ones.
  3. Talk with your kids about music lyrics. There is perhaps nothing more powerful than talking to your kids about media content, including music lyrics. You won’t always be able to control what your kids listen to. Thankfully, research shows that the lessons you teach your kids about media now can have an effect on their future media choices.
  4. Show interest in your children’s music choices. I know it may be hard. We’re becoming the fuddy-duddy parents we always promised we’d never be. Research shows, however, that showing interest in kids’ media choices can help create stronger family bonds. Learn the words. Sing together. And sing some more.

As your children grow, popular music will become an increasingly important part of their lives. Small efforts here and there by concerned parents can help make that part of their lives an enjoyable and productive experience.

About Eric Rasmussen, PhD

Eric Rasmussen, PhD, is a husband, father of four, professor of communication, and children and media researcher. He is the author of ChildrenAndMediaMan.com, and his mission is to get research about children and media off the academic shelves and into the hands of those who need it most—parents.

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