“Dad, can I download Down?”
That’s what my 14-year-old asked me this week, hoping to download the song from iTunes onto her iPod. If you’re a parent, you may have experienced a situation similar to this, seeing that 76% of 8-18 year-olds now own these mobile music devices (KFF, Generation M2, page 29).
During lunch that day, Alyssa had heard Jay Sean’s song “Down” play over the school’s PA system (because that’s what our public schools often do in CA). There’s little wonder why my daughter heard this song at school. Though it’s currently ranked #23 on Billboard’s Hot 100, this song by Jay Sean and Lil Wayne has been on the charts for 30 weeks and it peaked at #1. In other words, this tune has gotten some serious air time! I heard it in the airport last weekend.
My kids have an agreement with my wife Lori and me that they must review the lyrics before downloading any song. We’ve been trying to teach them to use discernment with what they listen to because we all know that music truly affects actions. (Just last week David’s Youth Culture Window article cited the unique study performed by the University of Sussex about the affect of music on teenagers. That study made me want to “knock some pencils off the table” in my house to see what happens!)
So when Alyssa asked me if she could download the song, I offered her the same response I always give. “Did you look at the lyrics?”
She answered honestly, “Yeah, but I couldn’t tell if they were bad.”
You gotta love this situation! Here’s my daughter being a normal teenager who likes the sound of a song. She knows the process in our house and she comes to me genuinely seeking an answer of what’s right… or just hoping I’d say yes!
Here lies the struggle. In moments like these I can’t help but second guess myself. Alyssa is a great kid. Am I monitoring her too much? Should I back off and let her just download what she wants? After all, my rules seem a little more stringent than many other parents I know…even some of those in my church.
Do you ever wonder what to do in these situations?
Sally and Shirley
I’ve met two extremes when it comes to making these kinds of decisions as parents. The first extreme is the parent I call Sally SoWhat. Sally doesn’t monitor what her kids watch or listen to at all. Despite the many reports from experts like the American Academy of Pediatrics about the effect that music has on our kids, and regardless of the fact that secular researchers who study the media consumption of teenagers all recommend that parents “need to understand how it’s affecting them” … Sally simply responds, “They’re gonna hear it at school anyway.” So Sally lets them listen to anything they want, and if you saw the sample of popular lyrics David provided in last week’s Youth Culture Window article, you see what music Sally is allowing her kids to feed their minds with for an average of 2 hours and 19 minutes a day. (More here on “Do the Lyrics Really Affect Our Kids?”)
The other extreme is the parent I call Shirley Shoebox. Shirley surprisingly doesn’t look up any lyrics or research any music at all. To Shirley, it’s all evil! She has banned all secular media from the house completely and tries to shelter her teenagers from any secular influence. Secular music is all bad in Shirley’s mind; she even has her own Christian version of the song “Happy Birthday,” not bowing to any societal conformities.
The Shirleys of this world think that their kids don’t ever hear any of the music because they are usually homeschooled or attend private schools (note: I’m not slamming homeschooling or private schools- I actually homeschooled my own girls during middle school. I’m just noting that Shirley thinks that this protects her kids). But the reality is, unless Shirley lives in Amish country in Pennsylvania, her kids do hear the music every time they walk through Wal Mart or go to a friend’s house. And for those “Shirleys” who actually let their kids on the internet (complete with CyberNanny installed, hoping to block all bad content), those kids hear the music on iTunes and see videos on YouTube without Shirley knowing. I know this, because I regularly speak at Christian camps around the country and talk with Shirley’s kids from coast to coast. They know many of the current songs and are familiar with the same artists as Sally’s kids. Often, Shirley’s kids aren’t taught to use Biblical values to make good choices, the choice is already made for them. Usually, they can’t wait to escape the “shoebox” that Shirley keeps them in, venture out in the real world at age 18, and experience everything they’ve missed while living in the shoebox.
I don’t want to be Sally.
I don’t want to be Shirley.
Meanwhile… Alyssa is patiently waiting for me to help her decide if the lyrics of Down are good or bad.
Alyssa hands me the lyrics to the song. “Are these bad?” she asked. “I can’t tell.”
Here’s a snippet of what she handed me:
You oughta know
Tonight is the night to let it go
Put on a show
I wanna see how you lose control
Aside from the lyrics themselves, one of the first things I noticed was that this song also featured the artist Lil Wayne. This made me flinch. The guy is a “playa.” His lyrics are always filthy and degrading to women.
This is one of those songs that often might be considered “clean” by most. After all, no cuss words. No obvious descriptions of lewd sexual acts. (Not bad for a song by Lil Wayne.)
But it’s not always easy to tell what a song is about just by reading or listening to its lyrics. Believe it or not…some artists try to sneak hidden meanings into songs.
Shocking, I know.
So, one of the things my co-worker David and I do is refer to the song’s music video. Often, they’re available for free viewing on sites like YouTube or Vevo. The music video for “Down” provides some enlightening insights into the song’s meaning. (This isn’t always the case, but today’s young people often watch the videos of their favorite songs anyway.) I asked Alyssa if she had seen the video. She responded, “Yeah, a bunch of times at Carly’s house.”
So I pulled up the video to take a peek for myself. To be fair, I’m happy to say that this video breaks rank with most of the Hip/Hop videos that feature hundreds of scantily clad girls writhing sexually while the singer calls them all kinds of foul names. However, it does retain enough elements of this genre of music to cause me concern.
For example, there’s the presence of Lil Wayne. I make no apologies for my stance on his art: it’s tasteless. In this video, his opening line (in verse 3) is “…down like she supposed to be, she get down low for me….” It doesn’t take too much interpretation to figure out what he’s talking about. Further, every online video that I researched has part of this line muted because even they know what he’s talking about. Then there’s the fact that Sean promises a girl “you are my only,” yet he seems to enjoy dancing with several other ladies.
Again, it’s not the filth that usually accompanies Hip/Hop music, but are these elements the kind I want my child exposed to?
So I decided to look at the big picture for a moment. I was honest and real with Alyssa.
“So what we have here is a song that seems to be from a guy who wants to get ‘down’ with a girl, whatever that might mean. Maybe the writer of the song is keeping that vague for a reason. The only hints we have to what that means are in the lines, “I wanna see how you lose control” and “Come on and bring your body next to me.” I don’t think this guy just wants to play Duck-duck-goose.
We talked a little bit about the Lil Wayne lyrics and what those meant. But then I ventured a little further in my reasoning to Alyssa. ”Sex is a great thing,” I told her candidly. “I really hope that you enjoy sex with your husband some day. You two probably will even listen to romantic music together or read poetry together. Heck, Song of Solomon is pretty graphic, and that’s in the Bible. The author is pretty excited about God’s creation. Some day you’re going to experience that sexual joy… and it’s good stuff.
“But the question you have to ask yourself right now is, ‘Do I, a 14-year-old girl need to be constantly replaying a song in my head about this subject matter? Do I need to be thinking about this continually?’”
I actually did something I don’t normally do, I quoted some research. “A few years ago, a medical publication called Pediatrics did a study and concluded that ‘teenagers whose iPods are full of music with raunchy, sexual lyrics start having sex sooner than those who prefer other songs.’ The report goes on to say, ‘teens who said they listened to lots of music with degrading sexual messages were almost twice as likely to start having intercourse or other sexual activities within the following two years as were teens who listened to little or no sexually degrading music.’ The research is solid. The music does affect you.”
Alyssa sighed. “Dang. I really like the song!”
I agreed with her. “I know. It’s really got a good sound, and it’s catchy. I kinda like it too. But should we only judge a song by whether we like the sound, or by what we know is right?”
She thought about that for a moment, stirring the carpet fibers with her foot, then looking up at me with her big blue eyes. “By what’s right.”
Then I did something that was difficult, but necessary as my kids get older. Something that not all parents should do with their 14-year-old, but something I thought Alyssa was ready for. I took a lesson from my buddy Walt Mueller in our THE SOURCE Podcast #30, who says parents have to move from “thinking for our kids” to “helping them think Christianly for themselves.” I kicked it back to her.
Bottom line: I gave her the power to make the choice.
I told her. “Then you know what to do—not what you think sounds cool—but what you think is right.”
Alyssa decided not to download the song.
Teaching Our Kids to Discern
I realize not all kids are as easy as Alyssa. If I would have given my 12-year-old Ashley the choice, she probably would have said, “The words don’t affect me! I’ll go ahead and download it!”
Parenting is a process that embarks with us making decisions for our children when they are young, and eventually arrives at the point where we completely release them to their own decisions when they are out on their own. The time in between is a segue from one point to the other. In my house, Ashley, a middle school kid, needs more guidance from us as to what is acceptable and what isn’t. Alyssa, a freshman in high school, needs less.
The difficult task is daily balancing exactly how much guidance our kids need… and when to just back off. The important truth we must realize is that if we neglect to give our kids opportunities to make decisions for themselves and face the consequences for those decisions, then they’ll never learn from their failures. Think about this for a moment. Do you want your kids’ first experience with natural consequences and failure to be when they are out of the house or with you at their side?
Teach your kids values and then give them opportunities to make decisions using those values. That doesn’t mean becoming Sally SoWhat. It means equipping them to think Biblically about decisions and still allowing them to experience failure in your shadow.
As a parent, I struggle with this balance every day.
This article is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Jonathan McKee's popular parenting book, Candid Confessions of an Imperfect Parent, the book that Dr. Kevin Lehman says "will show you how to truly connect with your kid."
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