You’re at home with your toddler. You've got your iPod on shuffle. A popular song starts to play. It's got a great beat and it's pretty catchy; it's also full of racy words and phrases you wouldn't want your young child to hear. But is that really something to worry about? Different parents take different approaches.
"My husband and I have a large music collection with a lot of different types of music, indie, rock, electronic, hip hop, R&B and pop," says Christine Fichera, a mother of two from Somerville. "I try not to let my kids listen to songs that have bad lyrics, but they are hard to avoid."
Leah Moens, who lives in Framingham with her husband and daughter Elliot, tries not to get too uptight about song lyrics. "She's not quite two so all words are new to her." The Moens typically listen to fairly safe show tunes, but every now and again, even this mom can be taken by surprise. "The expletive version of Cee Lo's "Forget You" came onto Pandora and Elliot immediately started chanting 'f*** you!' I tripped over a stool trying to get to the fast forward button."
But what if your child loves dancing to some songs with language you wouldn't use in front of your mother? Is it really a big deal? According to parenting expert Joanie Geltman, probably not. Geltman says you're not psychologically hurting your child when they hear something bad in a song. They don't understand it. It's the rhythm of pop songs, not the lyrics, that appeals to kids. But, what you are setting your child up for is the possibility of repeating something inappropriate in public. And that could lead to a negative response from a teacher or another parent.
That's what concerns Vigdis Thorvaldsdottir. Her daughter Mia, who's four, likes a lot of upbeat music. Right now, the five songs in heavy rotation are fairly innocent, but not every song the toddler has liked has been clear of some choice phrases. One of those tunes is "Laid," which talks about beds on fire. "Mia doesn't understand what the words really mean so in that sense it doesn't bother me, but I wouldn't want her to sing that song at pre-school," says Thorvaldsdottir.
That concern can be alleviated by limiting your child's exposure to music with questionable lyrics. As parents already know, kids like you to do things over and over. "The way kids learn language is through repetition and reinforcement," says Geltman. So, when something inappropriate is played, if they're just dancing to the tune and no one is reacting to them, it will just be a passing moment. This means that parents shouldn't worry so much about a dirty lyric here and there. If you hear something in a song you don't like, don't play it again.
You should also avoid inadvertently encouraging your child to repeat the bad language. If children mimic a swear word from a song or repeat an innuendo, parents will sometimes think it's cute and they might reinforce it by clapping or laughing or encouraging the child. "If it's reinforced, a kid might think people like and do it more," warns Geltman.
Once your child gets older, however, you may want to explain to them what the lyrics are and why they shouldn't repeat them. Children under four are just playing when they dance to songs with bad lyrics, so there's no point having a conversation with them about what not to repeat. Four is the age when they'll start understanding the response that an adult gives them, like getting upset when they say bad language.
The bottom line, if you don't want your child to accidentally say something, don't let them hear it. That's why Fichera has changed her tune for her two little ones. "We used to listen to our music on random shuffle, but we were coming across too many songs that weren't suitable for the kids so now we make playlists." However, that doesn't mean you need to trip over a stool to stop a song from playing, just make sure it's not on repeat!