W h e r e D i d A l l T h e O l d e r K i d s G o ?
As a kid, when anyone in my family had a thought, it would form in their head and come immediately out of their mouth. So one of the skills I’m still working on while becoming an adult is the art of reflection; chewing on one’s thoughts a bit before sharing them with others. I’ve also learned about the importance of taking action after chewing something for a while. Some people are excellent at chewing. They chew, ... and chew and chew and chew, and nothing much changes. Taking action is about finding what comes next; about not feeling helpless, about believing that there are solutions to the difficulties we face. Taking action after chewing on our thoughts is how we make effective changes in our world.
A thought I’ve been chewing on lately is something we discussed at the latest Gathering of Children’s Artists at my home in Topanga, California. The topic was “Elementary School Kids & Digital Media; Where Did All The Older Kids Go?” I noticed that the age range of my family concert audiences seemed to be dropping. There were less seven-to-eleven year olds and lots more one-to-six year olds. And it wasn’t just my audience; other performers reported experiencing the same thing. Personally I miss the seven-to-eleven year set at my concerts. Nothing’s quite as sweet as the raucous laughter of that age group when I mention underwear or boogers! Three year olds don’t laugh like that at underwear and boogers; they just look at me like, “Yeah? What’s your point?”
At the Gathering someone mentioned that an elementary school they visited was afloat with stickers distributed to advertise the Disney tween-stars Justin Bieber, Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers. Is a fun piece of kid culture being eroded away to the beat of drums and adolescent sexuality? Each year hundreds of thousands of well-meaning parents buy ipods and other personal listening and gaming devices for their kids. Some folks say that mass-marketing pop music to elementary aged kids erodes the innocence of their childhood. Hmmm? Isn’t that’s what they used to tell us when we listened to rock and roll?
Maybe corporate music for kids is more about increasing consumption and profits than it is about helping kids learn new ways to cope with life’s travails, and maybe bringing live music into schools and day-care centers is more about helping kids experience the importance of group fun and family and community than it is about making money, but if we actually listen to some of Hannah Montana’s lyrics, there are some solid messages lurking there under the huge production budgets. I’m betting that Justin Bieber’s seven year old fans will still laugh at boogers and get hooked by stories and songs about their own seven year old experiences in school. My concern is that if those fans don’t ever come to live concerts designed for kids their own age, if they never hear stories or songs on the radio that incorporate their seven year old questions and world view, then where and when will they feel affirmed and okay about their seven year selves, as they jump right into preadolescent dating behaviors and drama?
The fact exists that the virtual world of technology takes up a bigger and bigger slice of our kid’s waking hours every year. And it’s not just kids music. It’s computers and games and television, and it’s not only kids that fall into the black hole of MySpace and FaceBook and LinkedIn. Most parents today grew up with technology themselves. It gives us huge benefits, and at the same time it creates less opportunities for kids and parents to experience important skill building interactions with other real live emotional, intellectual and physical human beings, (including our relatives!)
So how do we set boundaries with this juggernaut? What kind of action can we take to make a difference? Some of us just “wish” it would all go away. My latest CD, Grow It At Home has a song called Wish that speaks to this.
Kid: Wish I could save the animals, I’d save a polar bear!
I’d keep him in my bathtub and I’d brush his hair!
Kid: Wish I could drive Dad’s car! I could drive you to the zoo!
Kid: Wish I could play guitar. I wish our wishes would come true!
Chorus Oh-oooo! I wish! (I wish!) Oh-oooo! I wish! (I wish!)
Kid: I wish God would hear us wishing, up in Heaven where He dwells
Peter: Y’know, somewhere I heard “God, helps those who help themselves”
‘Cause when we wish and wish, and we get no satisfaction
Then something needs t’change, we gotta take some action!
So when I wish for something, I take out my mirror
I can see who needs t’help me, yeah, couldn't be much clearer!
Kid: Cause sittin’ here and wishin’, it’s a really big distraction!
Peter: ‘Stead of sittin’ here and wishin’, let’s get up and take some action! C’mon!
Excerpt from Wish, on Grow It At Home by Peter Alsop, ©2010, Moose School Music (BMI)
One of the ways kid’s artists can take action is to raise the bar for ourselves; to boost the value of what we deliver to our audience. Since most of us don’t have the financial resources of a Disney company, we can make sure that the content we’re communicating has deeper value. Let’s address some of the myriad issues facing families today with our own stories or songs. How about presenting concrete examples of some practical options in a verse or two that families might find helpful? We know that one in three young women under the age of 18 and one out of five little boys experience some form of sexual abuse. We know that one out of four homes struggle with active alcohol addiction. That’s a lot of kids who need help.
Doing what we do gives us a rare opportunity to quietly and gently drop some healthy living skills into the family framework with our music and stories during a live performance. Let’s send something useful home to folks who feel stuck and overwhelmed. If we make that extra effort when we put our show together, we may help someone over one of the roadblocks that families face daily.
Mom and Dad stressed out? Of course! So I sing Pat Your Daddy On The Knee and say “kids are not responsible for taking care of grown-ups, but it sure helps to give your grown-ups a hug once in a while.” Kids afraid of going to sleep at night? I sing What If? Let’s make up some silly stuff to keep our brains from feeling frightened when there isn’t any real danger. We each have our own stories. Let’s write songs about them, so we can spread that information to others who could use the help. Your song can inform me about what you do when you’re feeling stressed, and I can try that technique out for myself. Write about what your parents did that taught you some helpful lessons. How about things you learned the hard way? Have you discovered new ways to cope with old problems and difficulties? Sing an alphabet song and make up an introduction that addresses how a little kid might feel starting out with A-B-C, but feeling unsure if they’re going to make it through to the X-Y-Z. When grown-ups sing songs with insight about the feelings that go through kids, it helps every child feel more accepted and okay. It gives their inner feelings a voice. And isn’t that the extra value we want?
This kind of work requires us to make a commitment to our own self growth. We can’t pass a skill on to others, if we don’t have that skill ourselves. We call it elementary school because kids exemplify the elements of who we all are. The more I’m in touch with my own elementary feelings, the better I’m able to relate to what goes on in a kid’s world; the better I am at helping parents understand how to show up for their kids and themselves.
If Disney’s tween-stars addressed more of this stuff in their songs, I wouldn’t be nearly as concerned about the impact of virtual media on our kids. Kids need love, understanding and lots of live human connection with loving adults. Hopefully those adults understand that music is not just a commodity to buy, it’s something we can learn to do ourselves, so we can share it with our kids.
Peter Alsop www.peteralsop.com
reprint from Children's Music Network - PIO Summer-Fall 2011 - Peter Alsop's "Thoughts To Chew" column