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How to Choose the Right Music for Your Kids

If you've ever frantically switched the station when an explicit song came on the radio or blanched at the video your tween was watching on YouTube, you know how daunting it is to stay on top of all the music kids are exposed to over the air, in soundtracks, on the Internet, and via friends and siblings. And, let's face it, no matter how much you try, they still might come home singing an earworm that has profane lyrics they don't even really understand.

Many parents start by using lyric filters and playing kid-safe stations/albums at home and in the car. But pop music is everywhere, and the fact that a song doesn't have any swear words in it doesn't mean it won't bring up questions you and your kids aren't ready for. And even a clean, totally kid-safe song can have an edgy or explicit video.

There truly is a better way. It starts with understanding what content isn't only age-appropriate but also developmentally appropriate for your child. After that, you can determine what's OK based on the things that matter to you, like your kid's interests and individual temperament.

Here are some things to consider when it comes to choosing the right music for your kids:

  • What age is the music aimed at? Sometimes a song or an album's target age group is obvious -- for example, when it comes from a known kids' brand (think Disney soundtracks and Putumayo Kids albums) or a well-regarded children's artist (like folkie Laurie Berkner). But things get trickier when you dabble in catchy, bubbly pop music that's a blast to sing along with but that might have messages (or a video) on the edgy side, like Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" or even Katy Perry's "Roar." You'll need to make a judgment call based on what you think is right for your kid, taking into account many of the factors described in more detail below, as well as your own feelings about the music and lyrics. (For tunes that already have been filtered for kids, try a streaming service.)

  • Quality. Sure, taste in music is subjective, but whether your family prefers country-pop or hip-hop, look for benchmarks. Meaningful lyrical content, a compelling melody, strong production value, tight instrumentation, and innovative musical arrangements all are part of what makes up a quality piece of work. And though there can be a chasm between what your kid likes to listen to and what makes your toes tap, turning kids onto time-tested artists you've already vetted -- like the Beatles or Paul Simon -- can give you common musical ground that lasts a lifetime. Plus, lots of timeless, essential music has pushed the envelope over the years, from Madonna and the Beastie Boys to James Brown and Nirvana. Listening to these artists with your kids gives you the chance to turn potentially controversial tunes into teachable moments.
  • Educational value. As they're singing along to songs they love, kids -- especially young ones -- can learn facts and skills and gain valuable insights into friendship, teamwork, and other cultures. You can even find quality albums that are created specifically for educational purposes, like They Might Be Giants' Here Comes Science and Here Come the 123s. Older kids can learn life lessons from the music they choose, be it from the rhymes of a streetwise rapper or pensive musings on topical issues.
  • Messages and role models. Media messages really do affect kids, so it makes sense to try to steer kids toward the kind of music that reflects the values and ideals you'd like them to absorb. Younger kids are more literal and may take lyrics at face value, missing any nuances of satire and exaggeration. Use your kids' questions about what a song means as an opportunity to discuss your own views. The same goes for the artists performing the songs; kids may gravitate toward musicians whose personal lives don't jibe with their music's appeal to younger listeners (all pop stars eventually grow up!). Make sure kids understand the difference between an artist's public persona and the music she makes. Try sharing the more positive songs from an artist's catalog, and share similar music with healthier messages from the same genre.
  • Violence, sex, and language. Music made for and marketed at little kids is usually free of iffy content, but pop music and tween- and teen-targeted tunes can be full of inappropriate stuff, from four-letter words to graphic sexual and violent imagery. Common Sense Media offers expert guidelines on the level of violence, sex, and language that's developmentally appropriate for every age, but you may need to make a judgment call for your own child, based on your own values. If profanity pushes your buttons, you can try using filters on streaming services or play Internet radio stations specially curated for kids. And in general it's a good idea to keep your eye on the charts (and your ears on the radio) to know which songs are popular. You can't always keep iffy lyrics from reaching kids' ears, but you can talk to them about what they hear.
  • Consumerism. Lots of artists license their music for ad campaigns or soundtracks; it's an important revenue stream for many of them. And plenty of songs and videos have product plugs, while still others glorify a glitzy, materialistic culture. Consumerism in or surrounding a song doesn't disqualify it from being worthwhile, but it's an important aspect to keep in mind and to talk to your kids about. Make sure they understand the role of marketing in all types of media; they'll learn valuable media-literacy skills in the process.
  • Drinking, drugs and smoking. As long as there's been rock 'n' roll, there have been songs that deal with drinking and drugs. Sometimes the references are gratuitous, and sometimes they're wrapped up in meaningful messages about mistakes made and lessons learned. We offer guidelines for what's developmentally appropriate for every age, but you may need to make a call for your kids based on what you're OK with. Talk to them about the long-running battle with abuse that some artists have faced and documented in their songwriting. But make sure they also know that drinking and drugs don't go hand in hand with popular music -- tons of artists practice sobriety.
  • User reviews. Still not sure whether Lady Gaga is OK for your tween? Check out our user reviews to see what other parents -- and even kids -- are saying. Although our user community's ratings are based on personal opinion rather than developmental guidelines, they do rate music using the same tools our editors do, with icons to flag areas of concern, stars to signal overall quality, and target ages to help you decide.

The bottom line is that it's up to you to do your research, and Common Sense Media makes that easy by providing detailed written reviews so you know exactly what to expect. We've done the hard work for you -- you just have to apply it to your family and remember to give new songs a listen before hitting "play" for your kids. And don't forget: If you simply can't tolerate an artist, album, or song, it's OK to just say no.