We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the solicitations disguised as tax refunds is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, what role parents can and should play in teaching their kids about classic albums.
Mike Liderbach writes: "What responsibility do I have, as a parent, to introduce my kids to 'the classics?' What foundational music is required listening?"
While a well-rounded education should include a basic understanding of cultural precedents — and part of that learning process can and should happen at home — "foundational music" and "required listening" are, let's face it, most likely stand-ins for "music that we, as parents, think is awesome." A rock 'n' roll fan raised in the '50s and a rock 'n' roll fan raised in the '80s are going to, more than likely, have drastically different definitions of what constitutes "classic" music — which is saying nothing of jazz fans, classical fans, hip-hop fans, Latin Alternative fans, world-music fans, and so forth.
Yes, the Library of Congress has its National Recording Registry, which strives for cross-genre preservation of historically important works. Rolling Stone has its "500 Greatest Albums of All Time," tilted heavily toward men playing rock 'n' roll in decades past. Heck, Johnny Cash had his list of the 100 country songs he wanted his daughter Rosanne to hear when she announced, at 18, that she wished to become a singer. You could choose the classics based on any metric you like, but really, you're Johnny Cash in this scenario: You want your kids to hear what you heard and love what you loved. That's your foundational music, right there.
Now, many parents reading this are no doubt waiting for me to lower the boom and remind everyone that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him think you aren't a hopeless dinosaur. For many parents and kids — not all of them, obviously, but many — there's an inverse relationship between a parent's passion for a piece of music and a child's likelihood of sharing that enthusiasm.
Which is why I recommend a two-pronged approach to getting your kids into the classics, whatever they may be: 1) Step gently; and 2) Start 'em when they're young enough to still think you're reasonably smart. Let that foundational music roll in the background, on car trips and during family barbecues, and see what sticks. My kids flipped for Michael Jackson's Thriller that way, from a very early age — around the time Jackson's death made his music culturally ubiquitous again — and would never think of his records as something I've foisted on them.
More to the point, make the good stuff available and accessible, but don't tease or lecture; you may think your kids are out of their damn minds for preferring One Direction's Up All Night to The Beatles' Revolver, and understandably so, but what they like isn't your call. What endures from generation to generation is the choice of people in the future, not the past — and remember that kids have a way of coming around as they get older. Even yours.