Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Lost Art of Listening

Kate Tigue is the Assistant Children's Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library. Read her column in the August 3, 2017 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Screen time.  It’s the new buzzword in parental anxiety. Parents are constantly bombarded with advice and warnings regarding how much time their kids spend in front of the TV, computer, tablet, and phone.  To be sure, our lives definitely revolve around screens.  Even adults spend most of our working lives and leisure time (and all those “in between” times like waiting in line or at a doctor’s office) are spent in front of screens.

I think we can all appeal to common sense when it comes to limiting screen time.  Rather than giving into hysteria or the latest trend, let’s acknowledge we all live in the 21st century and technology is deeply enmeshed in our individual lives and society at large.  But we all know when enough is enough.  Kids who are staring blankly at a TV or phone like zombies or refuse to go outside on a sunny day need a break.  Adults who are constantly posting on social media or teens who can’t let go of the phone at the dinner table need a break. Even just feeling anxious can be a sign that a digital detox is a must.

To be sure, reading is a great antidote to an excess of screen time.  Books fire the imagination, provide an escape from our realities, and stimulate our minds. We certainly encourage all families to come to the library to check out books for kids.  But there are times as a parent when you need a break but don’t want to turn to screen for some much needed sanity.  Maybe you have a child who talks non-stop in the car or a set of siblings who can't stop arguing.  Perhaps you have an only child who relies on you for interaction and you need a parental timeout!  Whatever the situation, there other solutions than just toughing it out or calling in TV babysitter.  We need to cultivate the lost art of listening.

My sanity as a mother relies on two very important types of media: music and podcasts.  To be fair, we watch plenty of TV.  At age 4, my daughter can already operate most iPhone apps better than I can.  In order to get away from screens, music is my go-to.   Even as a baby, my daughter has always gravitated towards music.  Her first hand gesture involved waving her hand like a conductor in order to compel a willing grandparent to sing to her.  We started off with kid’s classics like Raffi’s Singable Songs for the Very Young, Elizabeth Mitchell’s Little Seed, and Cedarmont Kids’ 100 Singalongs for Kids.  All three of these albums contain wonderful kids’ music but you can only hear “The Wheels on the Bus” so many times before you start to lose your mind.

Wading into the world of pop music can be a minefield for parents but it’s necessary to expand kids’ musical horizons. Many parents test the waters with ubiquitous Kidz Bop compilations. The Kidz Bop brand touts that their music is “sung by kids for kids” and features up-to-the-minute, clean versions of current pop songs.  Parents can listen to Top 40 hits without the worry of their children hearing explicit words or content.  Library patrons can either borrow Kidz Bop CDs from the Children’s Room collection or stream various Kidz Bop compilations from Hoopla, the library’s digital streaming service.  

Another route to listening to decent music with kids are soundtracks to popular children’s movies. Most parents know their children are obsessed with the Minions from the Despicable Me and Minions movie franchises.  Those little yellow melodious henchmen will forever have a place in my heart for getting my daughter to listen to “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” by The Doors.  I’m sure Jim Morrison never thought his music would reach a new audience via an animated film.  Watching the film Sing also introduced us to the Beatles via Jennifer Hudson’s amazing performance of “Golden Slumber/Carry That Weight” as Meena, the elephant.  We’ve since gone to explore the art of “the cover” by playing Lennon and McCartney’s original song, then listening to Jennifer Hudson’s version and then comparing them both to Ben Folds’ rendition of the Beatles’ classic from Abbey Road.

Podcasts for kids are also an option to keep up kids’ listening skills.  Podcasts are downloadable audio files, usually on a particular topic or in a series.  Adults have been obsessing over them ever since Serial but there are now tons of podcasts geared for children and family listening.  My personal favorite is the simply titled Stories Podcast which features artfully narrated renditions of classic fairytales and new stories, often peppered with original songs.  It’s another great way to sneak in some literature into your kids’ media diets and could keep the whole family happy for a car ride or a rainy afternoon.  Kids with a love of science might enjoy Brains On!, a podcast that features scientific exploration about the topics kids think about.  Each episode is co-hosted by the child who poses the question for that week. If your family likes to ruminate about big ideas, Short & Curly might be a great listen.  Each week poses real life ethical dilemmas for kids to consider and presents evidence from all sides of an issue.  Similarly, there’s But Why?, a series devoted to answering kids’ favorite question.

Clearly, when we need a break from screens, listening to various types of media can provide great entertainment and information for children and families.  Kids can learn new things and explore different subjects while parents get to keep their sanity while feeling good about expanding their family's horizons and honing their listening skills.  Sounds like a win-win for everyone!