Browse all articles

Earbuds Made My Teens Tune Me Out, So I Changed How We Listen to Music

How my husband and I turned the tables on our teens and got them to unplug and open up about their favorite musical artists.

I'm not quite sure when earbuds took over our kids' lives, but eventually they did -- and I wasn't happy about it. I also wasn't surprised when my teens became more plugged in. After all, I remember listening to Michael Jackson, Prince, David Bowie, Hall and Oates, Run-DMC, and tons of '80s music on my Walkman when I was their age.

Back then, headphones were not that comfortable (nor was the sound coming from them that great), cassette tapes got easily mangled, CDs skipped, batteries died quickly, and albums were pricey. But today's combination of low-cost streaming services, algorithmically driven playlists, and endless music options make it much easier for kids to escape into their earbuds for hours.

So when my husband and I noticed our teens increasingly tuning us out as they washed dishes, hung out in their rooms, or traveled in the car, we became curious about what they were listening to and how they were interpreting the lyrics they were hearing. We decided to try an experiment: Every time we were driving together, each person would take turns DJing by connecting their device to our dashboard stereo. We would listen together and talk about the artist, the music, the lyrics, and why our kid liked the song. What that meant was not only did our teens select songs, but my husband and I also shared our picks, as well as our thoughts on some of the iffy content in our kids' music.

Daily car rides were filled with a diverse mix of songs from the likes of Rihanna, Stevie Wonder, The Weeknd, Curtis Mayfield, Drake, Erykah Badu, Steel Pulse, Logic, Nina Simone, Kehlani, and more. My husband and I got a better understanding of our kids' expanding tastes, as well as a chance to share stories about our own teen years. Believe it or not, some great conversations emerged, and as an added bonus, we came across a handful of artists we agreed on (beyond Michael Jackson).

Now it's become a family ritual as we drive to dinner, on errands, or on road trips. As soon as we get in the car, everyone scrambles to be the first one to connect to the stereo. And while it isn't always easy sitting through some of the songs my teens (or even my husband) selects, I'm happy we've discovered another way to share media and memories together.

If you're looking for ways to talk to your kids about their music, here are some conversation starters to get you going:

Talk about creativity. Every generation has a different sensibility about music. I remember my parents raising a skeptical brow at my selections. So discussing music as an art form can be very enlightening. Ask: How does music change through different time periods? What types of things inform an artist's lyrics? How do different genres help an artist convey his or her ideas? Why did this artist choose certain instrumentation? And, even: Why do you like this song?

Talk about the iffy stuff.strong language or explicit lyrics, use it as an opportunity to share your values about whether they're appropriate -- either in a song or real life. Ask: Why did the artist use these lyrics? Does explicit language make the song better? Could the song have been as effective without it? Why, or why not?

Talk about marketing in the music industry. Help kids understand that an artist's performance, persona, and presentation are about selling albums -- not necessarily how they conduct themselves in the real world. Ask: What makes music sell? Does popular always means good? And: How does the software created by media and tech companies keep us plugged in?

Nicole Atkinson-Roach
Nicole Atkinson Roach is a two-time Emmy Award-winning producer, director, and writer and the VP of video at Common Sense. She executive-produces a variety of videos, including parent tips as well as movie, game, and TV reviews. Her background includes stints at KQED, the Los Angeles Times, the Oakland Tribune, CBS, Fox, and NBC affiliates. She taught video production at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of San Francisco, and Academy of Art University. Nicole has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in mass communications from the University of California at Los Angeles. She is the proud mother of two media-savvy teens and listens to rap and pop music, watches reality TV, and sometimes binge-watches select Netflix and HBO series.