Is kids music ruining your kids? Or worse, is it ruining their parents?

wired magazine mr know it all videoI am all for introducing my own music to my kids, and how. After those early months of their father screaming into my pregnant belly, “don’t listen to mommy’s Journey! I’ll rescue you soon!” the circle is complete: last week Thalia performed Don’t Stop Believin‘ at her Glee club final performance.

She knew every word.

She didn’t sing “I smell her wine and cheese perfume” like I used to.

And she was amazed I knew such a cool song.

It’s funny to look back at those toddler days, when parents debated about the potential effects of cognitive development if your kids listened to say, The Who instead of Mozart. It was also a time when we believed that plopping a kid in front of  a video backed by classical music would make them Einsteins.

Interestingly, Wired just created a video on the very topic of Todder Music. And while I agree with the overall takeaway–any tunes at all will get your kids excited about music in the long run–I find it fascinating that a mainstream publication is still associating kids’ music with The Wiggles and Elmo, and other tunes that drive the front seat crazy.

The Wiggles hit their peak in 2004. MOVE ON, PEOPLE.

Through Christina’s incredible curation of kids’ music on Cool Mom Picks and a chance to get to know a lot of the “Kindie” artists myself, I promise there is more. And it is good.

I’ve become a devotee to the kind of stuff you hear on Sirius XM Kids Place Live, which is like family music that you can listen to without wanting to stick a chisel into your eardrums and whack it with a ball-peen hammer. And let me assure you, I never thought I’d be That Mom. I was wayyy too cool for that. I thought that they would immediately take to Bowie, the Talking Heads, maybe a little Bananarama if they were feeling perky. But while I’m stupidly proud when my daughter can identify a U2 or a Bob Dylan song in a store (note: what was once our “cool” music is now oldies crap on store PA systems) it doesn’t always work that way with kids.

They like songs about themes they can understand. Heck, they like songs with words they can understand at all.

No offense, Eddie Vedder.

So we get in the car and bop along to the world music of Dan Zanes (who remembers when he was in a Bud commercial with the Del Fuegos?);we get silly to They Might Be Giants–both the kids’ and the adult stuff; we sing along easily with Justin Roberts and the Okee Dokee Brothers; we rap like pathetic, rhythm-less white folk along with Secret Agent 23 Skidoo; we laugh through the songs of Caspar Babypants (AKA Chris Ballew of the Presidents of the United States of America); and we settle down with Elizabeth Mitchell or Frances England on quiet, rainy car rides up to my mom’s house on the weekends.

chris ballew liz gumbinner and daughter

Thalia meeting Chris Ballew. She knows him as “the guy who sings Googly Eyes!”

You have probably not heard of most of these artists. And yet, they are good. I don’t hide the CD covers in my glove compartment. And yes, I enjoy them. Even if they’re singing about googly eyes or birthday party meltdowns, or learning to ride bicycles, or singing all the countries around the world in alphabetical order.

It’s not that I won’t sneak in a Bowie tune (they know him as the guy from Labyrinth at this point), or try to indoctrinate them with the Smiths the second they’re ready to bow to Morrissey’s mastery in the brooding crooner department. It’s just that I’ve made my peace with the fact that kids are allowed to have their own music too.

After all, adults get songs written about the things we care about (mostly teenage boys and dance parties, if you listen to Top 40 these days), so why shouldn’t kids be able to care about the lyrics in their own songs?

Let’s be honest, I screamed every lyric to Suffragette City in high school and still had no idea what I was singing about. Except “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am”–I got that just fine.

So okay, I hand back my hipster credentials.

My indie cred is gone, and I prepare as we speak to have my Brooklyn residency revoked.

I consider that my kids may not be worthy of the Pavement shirts their dad gave them, especially when we’re jumping on the bed together, singing their Glee repertoire of One Direction and Olly Murs.

I am hoping the Avril Lavigne song gives me a few points back, but it’s hardly enough to make up for the nights we jump on the bed together shrieking YOU DON’T KNOW YOU’RE BEAU-TI-FULLLLL…and collapsing in a heap at the end.

It’s okay. Because I like it too.

Mostly what I like though,  is that we get to experience it together.

Just please don’t tell my high school friends, the ones with the black hair and the military jackets and and the anarchy A scrawled on the toe caps of their high-top chucks. They’d totally make me give back my Doc Maartens in the most humiliating way.

Sage auditioning for the Pride Parade opening act with a little “Call Me Maybe”

What kid of music do you listen to with your kids? And do you like it?


50 thoughts on “Is kids music ruining your kids? Or worse, is it ruining their parents?”

  1. Music seems to bind us forever. My older kids have ben known to break out into Spice Girls together or with their friends, although they would deny all knowledge in public.

  2. Few things are more personal than one’s taste in music, and in my old age I’m trying very hard not be judgmental. The problem is we are often defined as much by what we claim not to like as what we do, as if it makes us superior to disdain certain things even though the distinctions may be arbitrary. I used to say I disliked country music across the board, but when I was once trying to explain to a coworker in a factory why I liked opera (dramatic stories, catchy tunes) he asked how that was any different from what he listened to. That changed how I hear things.

    In terms of kids music, whoever is driving has control. My husband and I have different taste in music, and both times he was deployed he came back to the kids humming songs he would not have picked for them. (Lots of Bare Naked Ladies, Belinda Carlisle, They Might Be Giants…) Now that he’s the one shuttling the kids around I have less influence. When they were little my kids enjoyed Laurie Berkner and The Beatles and Signing Time CDs. Most of my influence is probably along classical lines since they attend so many of my orchestra concerts. But I’m excited about what they will find for me as they venture into the world!

    1. This is such a great perspective, thank you. The music I tend not to like I don’t think is bad per se, I just don’t like it. I’m definitely not superior because I can’t listen to moaning, disillusioned, male 20-something lead singers who can’t keep a tune. In fact, their audiences are way cooler than I am. But I agree now the kids are starting to control the new iPod Shuffle. I am getting increasingly used to them belting out Taylor Swift, each with an earbud in one ear like Siamese Twins joined at the music.

      If I can’t beat them…I’m actually enjoying joining them more than I thought. That’s the weird part. But I still love on weekend mornings when they ask to stream the Spare the Rock show.

  3. I’ve noticed reading you over the years that you really do love musicians who create cool music for kids. I’m not a fan of them personally, but we did get Elizabeth Mitchell’s CD for review (because I just had to hear how Juliet from “Lost” sounded when she sang!), and it’s lovely.

    Kaitlyn, who is 7 (and a HALF, Mom), has developed a love for pop music, which she hears in Animal Jam videos on YouTube. They use clean versions of songs, and keep the music super-current. Like, Kaitlyn heard the newest song from Imagine Dragons before I did, and knows all the words to Taylor Swift’s “Mean”. I always listen when she has the videos on and it really is clean versions. I love that we like the same music!

    1. I find sometimes the videos help with kids’ love of music. Caspar Babypants does a great job with that, as does They Might Be Giants. Try it…just sayin’…

      (And Elizabeth Mitchell is wonderful…but not Juliet from Lost. Who is also wonderful.)

    2. Umm, I’m not sure if you’re joking or not, but Elizabeth Mitchell, the actress, and Elizabeth Mitchell, the singer, are 2 different people. 😉

  4. We love Kids Place Live! I’ve learned about so many new amazing family friendly artists there. Randy Kaplan is a favorite of ours, and my son has recently discovered the joys of Weird Al. But I’ve also got them listening to lots of other stuff, too. They even like Pearl Jam 🙂

    Recently, my brother got them into the blues! Check out this song:

    Confession: that IS my brother!

  5. We love Kids Place Live! I’ve learned about so many new amazing family friendly artists there. Randy Kaplan is a favorite of ours, and my son has recently discovered the joys of Weird Al. But I’ve also got them listening to lots of other stuff, too. They even like Pearl Jam 🙂

    Recently, my brother got them into the blues! Check out this song:

    Double awesome? That IS my brother! Having a musician in the family really helps!

    1. I was going to mention Randy Kaplan as well as Sunshine Collective, both we discovered on Kids Place Live. My girls also love a playlist we made of some kid friendly selects from Lenka, Yael Naim, and Katie Herzig (“Make a Noise” being a fave)!

  6. So, there used to be this awesome blog, well before I had kids that just posted really great music for kids that adults could listent o without their ears bleeding. It’s still up, and you can run through the archives. I miss it.

    1. Chara, There are a number of blogs that have carried the Small Ages torch, shining light on the best kid’s music that will never drive you nuts as a parent.

  7. Great piece. My family and I live in Seattle so we are privy to a wide variety of great kindie music. My 6 year old son’s favorite band happens to be The Not-Its!. They are super fun guitar driven pop punk. And yes, there is no hiding these cd covers. thanks

    1. We LOVE the not-its (and Danny gives me a good run for my money on Words With Friends regularly). If you’re in Seattle make sure you catch Recess Monkey too. They’re fab.

  8. Great article! Just this weekend I performed at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, VA for their Tot Rock series, and one of the mothers told me, “We checked out the music online, and it wasn’t annoying so we came to the show.” Thanks for spreading the word!

    AndyRoo and the AndyRooniverse:

    “This is children’s music that will not make you want to put your head under a truck tire.”
    -Shea Serrano, Houston Press

  9. We do a mix of adult and tolerable children’s music. My kids have come to love Apples in Stereo, Beck, Muse, Outkast, and others. We also have a lot of the music from Yo Gabba Gabba (both the stuff sung by the cast and the songs by indie artists.) My husband and I actually enjoy that.

    Recently my boy got interested in Spider-Man. I remembered that I still had a CD called Saturday Morning that I got working at my college radio station. It was all covers of cartoon theme songs. The Spider-Man version is by The Ramones, so that’s the one we listen to every morning.

    I fear when my children are old enough to discover music more than what we’ve allowed them to discover. I fear whatever follows One Direction and the like. I fear them because I know they are inevitable.

    1. If your kids like the Ramones, they’ll love a Chicago-based band called The Boogers. They do classic kids songs inna Ramones style and have branched out into some clever originals. As a parent (and a Ramones purist) I was skeptical but they deliver the goods. We are lucky to have a festival in Ann Arbor featuring top kindie bands flown in from all over, including Seattle (Board of Education, Recess Monkey).

  10. Hey Liz,

    Thank you for continuing to be vocal about the quality that exists in modern family music. It is appreciated more than you probably know, and not only by the bands getting shout-outs here.

    I am hesitant to name some of the adult music we enjoy as a family, because it too often seems like a coolness peeing contest, but in addition to the buffet of tasty kindie rock, my girls and I love Brandi Carlile, BOY, Dala, Jess Penner, (four female acts that EVERY tween girl should be listening to), Jukebox the Ghost, Josh Ritter, Langhorn Slim, some of the new Vampire Weekend record, and the songs by Frank Turner with minimal cursing and without obvious drinking references.

    Sharing my own musical passions, affinity for close listening, and long-term fandom (beyond the PR cycle) has been terrific but I owe just a massive debt to the kindie community for giving us brilliant music to enjoy together that honors their experiences as children, as well as mine as a parent.

    1. Thanks Jeff…marking them all down for the next spotify playlist.

      Any other ideas from other readers, I’m always open!

  11. We didn’t get into the baby/kid genre, except for a very short period of Lori Berkner. We’ve always gone heavy with what we like at the time. Green Day, Springsteen, Snow Patrol and the Counting Crows have become THEIR favorites. And tonight we are taking them (7 & 10) to their first concert, The Counting Crows at the Count Basie Theatre! Excited for them.

  12. We get a lot of mail on this exact subject as it’s where we live. Here’s what we’ve learned;
    Kids these days grow up more quickly. That’s probably why they’re so attracted by lyrics full of meaning that give them useful hints about life. Any parent who comes up with cool music full of depth, wisdom, humor for the family van is an instant hero.
    Just saying. We get mail. Dads tell us. Moms tell us. Kids tell us.
    Bring on the depth. Kids LOVE something to ponder and how great for entire families to ponder together!

  13. I love Sage’s picture seeing Call Me Maybe! I’ll admit, I didn’t listen to Journey, but I listened to a lot of Ke$ha when I was pregnant (I know! Awful!) soon, Ke$ha was the only music DD would sleep to when se was born.horrifying! Try to explain that to family members! I’ve since fixed it and we listen to a lot of Disney tunes, but I sneak in bad pop now and again 😉

  14. My 7 year old son has always liked They Might be Giants, and we’ve even seen them in concert a few times. We also went to a KidRockers concert (and drove all the way to Brooklyn for it, which is a lot for us) to take him to see one of our favorite artists, Rhett Miller. It’s a really cool forum where they have regular musicians come and perform in the daytime for kids, but not kids music – it’s regular music but just slightly tailored to kids, rather than pandering to them.

    Now, my son has his own playlist on my ipod (so we can listen in the car and switch back and forth), and it has a lot of TMBG on it, plus some Star Wars music, a little Jay Z, Coldplay, and a few top 40 standards like Dynomite and whatnot. He also picks and chooses from my music, probably just because he’s exposed to it a lot so it’s what he knows. He likes Brandi Carlisle and Airborne Toxic Event and Dawes, but he also likes One Direction and Katy Perry because he hears that stuff at school and camp. I try very hard not to push my opinions on him but I admit, I’m not sure how much I succeed – I’m a giant music snob.

    I think we’re doing something right because he wants desperately to go to a concert (he’s been to a few already but I think he doesn’t remember). We’re going to a local music festival in a few weeks so maybe that will satisfy him!

  15. We are big TMBG fans (plus, they live right near us in Lincoln, MA!) BareNaked Ladies has a hilarious album called “snacktime” that my husband and I really love, though it’s explicitly kid-music. My kids – especially my daughter – like anything they can sing to. So we also do “Glee” soundtracks (my six-year old son does a great version of “Raise Your Glass”). Unfortunately my kids have learned to like what is on my ipod, which contains some lyrics that are maybe a bit much for kids (Bad Romance and Poker Face by Lady GaGa, the Season’s Upon Us by Dropkick Murphys). Ah well. At least I’m there to explain…

  16. It would be easier to mention what we do NOT listen too, which is anything I wouldn’t allow them to say in a conversation, well, within reason. I let some stuff slide. They love the sound of Darius Rucker’s brand of country, and they love his rendition of “Wagon Wheel”, which hurts a little. (Sorry Bob).

    They love all kinds of music, and I love how they interpret it. I’ll play classical stuff and ask them to tell me what story they imagined or what they saw in their mind. It’s awesome. And the way we can get music now rocks. No more saving up for records, tapes and CDs. Now we stream anything we want once we have spent our music budget for the month. Friggin amazing!

    1. My children call classical music, “ballet music.” I’ve always loved that.

      And yay for Spotify!

  17. After being subjected to the sing-songy voice of the Baby Einstein lady, and then having to listen to Wiggles AND Lazytown music with Girl Child, I took back the radio.

    Laurie Berkner, Trout Fishing In America, the Phineas & Ferb Soundtrack were the kid music we listened to.

    We’re in a fun new phase where Girl (tween) likes a song and her friends at school are singing along, looks up the lyrics, and then comes to me, all wide-eyed, “Mom. There’s *bad* words in that song.” (For example: Thrift Shop.)

    They knows all the words to Don’t Stop Believin’ and I’m dang proud of them for it.

  18. Thank you for letting me know that I am not alone. Daily, I find myself still listening to Kids Place Live even after I have dropped my child off. I love that fact that my child loves her Kiddie Rock has been the concerts like Jack Johnson and They Might Be Giants (I really think bands like TMBG are brilliant because they are still getting my money). But at the same time I love that my kid can sing all the words to many Julie Andrews or often request to hear Pearl Jam sing Crazy Mary.

  19. You left off Lisa Loeb’s Silly Sing-Along! The Disappointing Pancake is one of my favorite songs 🙂

  20. As someone who went to see the wiggles not once but twice LIVE, I am so jealous that they are out of style. I hope way out for new parents sake.

    I could never be one of those parents with kids music in the car….but, we did love us some laurie berkner at home.
    NOW – it is one explicit lyric after another with a wafting of teenage BO coming from the room full of adolescent boys and my youngest playing Beastie Boys on the drums.
    I just keep reminding myself how I used to dance on my bed listening to Madoona’s Like a Virgin cassette…..

  21. Another one for Snack Time, though I have to say it weirds me out that there’s a children’s group called Bare Naked Ladies. Seems inappropriate. (Although, of course it took me a long time to realize that Bare Naked Ladies still meant nude women because I’d associated the name with the band for so many years it had ceased to relate to nude women in my mind… one day it kind of hit me.)

    1. It’s not a children’s band – they are most popular for singing “If I had A Million Dollars.” They just happened to also put out album for kids. I think it’s a funny word for kids – barenaked, farts, underpants…

  22. I’ve gotta say, there is NO kids music in the car. Sorry. Can’t do it. They do have control at home though. While they often opt for ‘my’ music — it’s really become theirs. I love that my little guys specifically requests Cadillac Ranch by Springsteen, but falls asleep to Miles Davis. Very cool. My princess will sing (or pretend to sing) to anything that has a good beat. They also ask for classical music — but they call it ‘sleepy’ music.
    I will say though (through gritted teeth) there is one ‘kid music’ guy that we genuinely fell in love with. He’s super smart, his kid music makes you not want to kill yourself and he’s super nice: Ralph, from Ralph’s World. We’ve seen him live and have all of his CD’s. I think my favorite song contains the lyric, “M-O-M-M-Y needs C-O-F-F-E-E.” He gets it . . .which makes it waaaaay more tolerable. And the kids get some sweet little messages and geography lessons along the way.

    1. If you like Ralph’s world, check out some of the other people I linked to. I think there’s some sort of perception that “kids music” means an awful chorus of little kids singing Beatles tunes or worse, Wheels on the Bus.

  23. I knew I was losing the plot when I found myself singing along to the Wiggles tape in the car one day AND I HAD NO CHILDREN WITH ME. At that point I ditched the Wiggles tapes, the Sesame Street singalongs and athor kiddy crap, and put my kids on a strict diet of Old-School Classics – Beatles, Stones, Doors, Kinks, Janis Joplin, Van Morrison, Velvet Underground. Best thing I ever did, my kids now have great musical tastes, not a single Belieber or Directioner among them!

  24. I’m super late to this party but am planning on bookmarking this page for the future. My husband and I were just talking about how much worse than “Music Together” it’s going to get. (MT is not all that bad, actually.) But yeah, I much prefer TMBG – kids or adults version.

    Do you think the fact that we don’t have cable will help? Like maybe, maybe, maybe we can control it a little?

    Also, if we listen to fun. all the time, will my toddler eventually like it or hate it? 🙂

  25. At some point, my kids just got bored with the kid music. And my daughter entered public school where at some point or another she heard Top 40 radio music. Now, we go through spells where we ask them to just give the music we have on our iPods a listen, especially on long car rides. Our only rule is they don’t get to hear anything with profanity or is overtly suggestive. My kids are lyric junkies like I’ve always been and they constantly ask me, “What is that song about?” I don’t want to lie, therefore, if it’s a song about something I don’t want to get into with a 5 and 7 year old…we skip it. For their ages, they have pretty diverse musical tastes…from hard rock to country (not my fault), angry chick music, ballads, and goofy pop music. One of their favorites is La Copa de la Vida by Ricky Martin and it’s hilarious to hear them try to sing the lyrics which are mostly all in Spanish. I barely speak it and they are basically making stuff up that may or may not actually BE Spanish, but I have no way of actually knowing if the are or aren’t hitting it on the mark!

  26. Barenaked Ladies…. their children’s album, Snacktime, is fantastic and my five-year-old son likes their regular music too! We listen to a lot of folk type music with him- Pete Seeger, etc. He also loves the Beatles. 🙂

  27. Another vote for the Ramones. Caught my five-year old singing to himself yesterday, “Ay Oh Let’s Go!” Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke is also a favorite, as are the Beatles. I just play what I like and some of it clicks and some of it doesn’t. It’s fun to discover what they like.

  28. I really need to work on the kid music in the car. Right now it’s jake and the neverland pirates and choo choo soul mixed in with Seether, Evanescence and other rock.

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