Messages in the music disturbed by what
it was a typical day for Asantewa Roberson, a seventh-grade science teacher at a junior high school in Hampton, Virginia. Just after homeroom, a clique of girls tumbled out of the bathroom in a ball of gyrating hips and jiggling booties, singing the chorus of R & B star Omarion's hypersexual single "O": "You sayin' O means O is hittin' it right/ooo/You can't be mad at me/I'm just aiming to please/Let me hear you scream O." But when Roberson asked what the lyrics meant, the girls wouldn't give her a straight answer. Finally another student replied that the song is about sex.
"I wish I could videotape what we see every day and let you watch it, because you wouldn't believe it," Roberson says. "These kids are absolutely taking these lyrics to heart and translating them into their everyday lives, in the way they dress, the way they talk and act. They aren't able to separate fantasy from reality, and it's destroying their innocence."
Of course, grown-ups have always had generational differences with kids over music. Our parents couldn't wrap themselves around the gangsta trappings of Biggie and Tupac. Their parents abhorred the haze-infused guitar licks of Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone. The difference with our children's music, though, is that more and more it's saturated with very sexually explicit, misogynistic and violent words and images. And too often it aims to convince young fans that there's much more value in sexing, slapping, slinging and slinking their way through life than in going to school, honoring basic social norms, and treating themselves and others with respect.
What's more, today kids can hear questionable music everywhere--from morning radio to after-school television shows to the local beauty salon and barbershop. The result is a generation of young people who are being taught to think it's cool to grow up to be somebody's bitch, ho, thug or worse, says Michael Rich, M.D., director of the Center on Media and Child Health at the Children's Hospital Boston. "We all have to recognize that kids learn from the media they see and hear," says Rich, a pediatrician and adolescent psychologist who has long studied the effects of media on kids. He explains that children, who are trying to figure out the way the world works and how they fit in it, are looking to popular music, movies and TV shows to help them figure out who they should be.
Given that many children spend more time with some form of media than they do at school or with parents, Rich says, they're more likely to be influenced by the likes of a Nelly or an Eminem. "We are fooling ourselves when we think they're not being changed by that," Rich says.
What Parents Can Do
Protecting our children from harmful images can be a tall order as we struggle to balance work schedules, relationships and time for self with child-rearing challenges. But you can make it happen. Some ideas:
Listen and learn. You may not appreciate the musical value when Snoop Dogg warbles, "Drop it like it's hot," but your child has her own reasons for liking it, and a big part of that may be because you don't. Instead of telling your child to turn it off, ask her to turn it up. Have her play some of her favorite songs for you, and ask her in a nonjudgmental way what she likes about them.
She may resist at first, but eventually she'll find it gratifying that she's "teaching" you something about the music she likes. This will open up the door to a discussion about the merits of the music's content and make her more open to hearing why it concerns you. "Kids like it when parents learn from them," Rich says.
Challenge your child to analyze the content. When Lisa Cockerham, 31, of Chicago, heard her 12-year-old daughter, Lana, singing the chorus to a popular Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz song--"To the window/To the wall/Till the sweat drop down my balls"--she turned the radio off and asked her daughter point-blank whether she knew what "balls" were. Cockerham was glad to learn that her child didn't know, but she still took the time to explain to her in an age-appropriate way why she felt the lyrics were offensive.
She also encouraged her daughter to dissect the images to determine for herself whether they're acceptable. "I know I can't shelter her from everything, but I think she understands now what I'm trying to get across to her," Cockerham says. Provide options. It's hard to deny the allure of the glamorous, well-proportioned video girl who gets to wear expensive clothes and jewelry and hang out with the rich and famous, particularly for a tween or teen with star-filled fantasies. Help your child figure out how to fulfill her dreams in other ways, says the Reverend Jesse Brown, Jr., executive director of the National Association of African Americans for Positive Imagery in Philadelphia. "If she wants to dance, for instance, teach her that there are lots of ways to dance," says Brown, a father of four. Enroll her in a jazz-dance class; take her to see an Alvin Ailey dance-troupe performance. If your son is into writing rap lyrics and creating beats, challenge him to follow the example of rappers such as Common and Talib Kweli, who rap about more than just sex, violence and the bling in their world.
Inspire change. One thing kids can't stand, Rich points out, is being manipulated. If they come to realize they are spending their money on music that disrespects them, they'll strike out against it. Encourage your child to write to record companies asking them to clean up their act. Invite them to organize a media-literacy campaign at school, so other kids can start seeing the impact of negative images on their peers. Or suggest that the next time your child hears an artist disrespecting women, she refuse to buy the music.
RELATED ARTICLE: How you can fight for better media images.
Parents don't have to wage the battle for better music, television and movie content alone. The following are some great media advocacy organizations that work on behalf of kids: The Lion & Lamb Project offers a Parent Action Kit, which helps parents understand the effects of violence in media on their kids' behavior, provides information on how parents can help reduce violence in the media, and gives advice on specific changes they can make. Log on to lionlamb.org for more information. The National Association of African Americans for Positive Imagery helps mobilize communities to end ads for unhealthy products and promote healthy self-images, specifically as they relate to children. For more details, contact the organization at (215) 225-5232 or log on to its Web site, naaapi.org.
National Institute on Media and the Family has a content-based rating system that evaluates movies, TV shows, and video and computer games from a family-friendly perspective. It also has research and statistics on the effects of media on kids and newsletters with tips on how to talk to your child about everything from violence in video games