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We Stopped Letting Our Kid Listen to Digital Music. You Should Too

Sometimes you have to go old-school.

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We live in an age of endless distraction. From our phone to our smart speaker, to tablet games for children and kid-friendly YouTube our world is defined by attention-grabbing devices and streaming shows, podcasts, movies, and interactive thingamabobs. It’s anxiety-inducing, sure, but for the most part, adults are used to it. Kids, though? Not so much. Their brains are growing and choosing between 101 TV shows just causes overload. Teaching kids the concepts of depth and focus isn’t something kids can learn in the outside world; they need to learn it within the safety of their home.

This lesson came to a head at my house over a great battle that occurred between our 19-month-old and a Bluetooth enabled smart speaker. Music, a medium that once required patience and focus, now, in digital form, allows all of us to just skip a track whenever we feel like it. And it’s enough to drive kids and parents insane.

For months after our daughter learned the word “change”, she started saying it hundreds of times a day. And she wasn’t talking about needing her diaper changed (that would have been helpful). Instead, she was asking for us to skip whatever song happened to be playing. At this time, our 18-month-old toddler got her music two ways: holding our phones — which were streaming Apple Music on my phone and Spotify on my wife’s — or listening to it off of a kid-friendly MP3 player which we called a “boombox.” On either device, she quickly learned about the diminishing returns of having endless choices. Just like adults, this freedom made her super-cranky.

At first, the digital music push in our house was fruitful — or at least cute. She’d say “Wheels!” in reference to a version “Wheels On the Bus” she’d been hooked on. Or “Raffi!” when she wanted to hear “Baby Beluga.” Perhaps the most adorable — and hard to deny — was when she requested “Oh — Shakka!!” which meant she wanted to listen to Blue Sway’s “Hooked On a Feeling”; mostly because her nerdy dad often had the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack queued up on his iPhone. In fact, some of this adorableness is part of what made my daughter’s digital music addiction worse. After I played Blur’s iconic “Song 2” for her on my iPhone, she was frequently asking for it again by saying “WHOOO-HOO!” doing her best impression of Damon Albarn circa 1997.

But, all this phone holding and requesting songs created a demanding monster, which led us to purchase the bright orange MP3 boombox. The logic here was simple: if she was going to be obsessed with holding a musical device, let’s allow her to have her very own. Best of all, this sucker allowed you to load songs onto it permanently, or toggle to the Bluetooth feature.

Everything about this boombox was a total disaster.

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The boombox burned through batteries faster than my daughter went through diapers. When she got sick of the pre-loaded songs, we immediately kowtowed and played her favorites via Bluetooth from our phones, out of the speakers of her boombox. This process became transparent to her quickly. One of my kid’s favorite board books is a simplified version of The Hounds of the Baskervilles. I’m not saying she’s a miniature Sherlock, but she can say “the game’s afoot!’ and “I figured it out!” She deduced that the phone and the boombox were the same thing rapidly and wanted to control both as quickly as possible. This led to more tantrums. More demands. The boombox only created a new problem, a kind of extra stopgap between our phones and the digital music she wanted to listen to for an instant, and then instantly skip.

This behavior wasn’t just limited to certain times of the day. Soon, she became obsessed wanting to either hear music out of the phone or the boombox, all the time. In the middle of a meal. While she was drawing. Right before nap time. On days that we were particularly exhausted, my wife and I would just hand our daughter our phones again. Fuck the boombox. It wasn’t helping anyway.

There seemed to be no end in sight. Then my wife and I remembered that we have a pretty good vinyl record collection. Now, if I tell you that before we bought a house in Portland, Maine, that my wife and I lived in Brooklyn, you might start to make assumptions about us. But, we’re really not hip nor do we try to be cool or edgy. Most of our records are just things we happen to like —  a few Paul McCartney’s Wings albums, Rod Stewart, that Casey Musgraves Christmas Album that came out a few years ago. A Francois Hardy repressing I got my wife for Christmas a few years back before we were married. The 1979 score to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It’s an eclectic collection, but it’s hardly in good shape because we’re not really the kind of folks who need our stuff to be perfect.

So, because we weren’t worried about the condition of the records, we realized we could share them with our now 19-month-old. We went cold turkey, too. These days iPhones are (mostly) out of sight, and the MP3 boombox is permanently hidden. For the past month, our daughter has only listened to music in the house that is played on our turntable in the living room. When she requests “Wheels” or “Raffi,” we re-direct her to the records and tell her she can pick one. The rule is simple: We have to listen to at least one whole song on the record player before she can pick another one.

Overnight — and I do mean in like 12 hours — my toddler became a happier, less-demanding person. Part of it was that she suddenly has a new hobby, a process in which she can be engrossed. The act of picking out a record, taking it out of its sleeve, putting it on the deck, watching the needle drop is mesmerizing to a child. Does this mean we have to hear Casey Musgraves’s “I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas” a lot? Sure. But my kid also now knows the following words: “Beatles,” “Wings,” “Mozart,” Peter and Gordon,” “Lionel Ritchie,” “Dolly Parton,” “Monkeys,” and perhaps most hilariously, the word “America,” which refers not to the country, but to the 1970 rock band produced by George Martin.

Of all of these new choices though, one record stands supreme, Kate Bush’s 1986 greatest hits collection, The Whole Story. My daughter doesn’t just like this record, she adores it. I’m not sure why, but her mom is a big Kate Bush fan, and there’s something about Bush’s voice that just makes my kid come alive. The inside of the sleeve is fun, too, replete with pictures of Bush in kooky outfits making funny faces. My daughter loves looking at this person’s face, but she likes the music even more. Instead of saying “change” a hundred times a day now, the phrase my almost 20-month old says these days is mostly “Kate Bush.” She’s even learned one lyric which she repeats often. The second track on The Whole Story is Bush’s excellent song “Cloudbusting,” which features the line “I just know that something good is gonna happen.”

Now, when my daughter is listening to music or flipping through vinyl records, she isn’t impatient. There is a small, but, important lesson she’s learned, or perhaps, we’ve learned because of her. Being able to listen to a Wings album all the way through is better for her focus than knowing all the words and motions to ten varieties of “Wheels on the Bus.” For parents haunted by neverending earworm of “Baby Shark,” I submit that not only is “Baby Shark” annoying, it might also not be great for your kid’s mindset.

Because these days, there’s one simple sentiment from “Cloudbusting,” that sums up my daughter’s mood while listening to – or selecting — music. While listening to Bush, or the Hippo song or Paul McCartney, she’ll turn to my wife or me and say with a huge grin: “something good!”