One of the main ideas in my book The Philosophical Parent is that children are second selves but separate. This may seem like a dubious, dangerous, narcissistic view, but I don’t think so. Loving another as yourself doesn’t have to lead to imposition and domination. It can even make us receptive. I’ve particularly seen this in our family’s history when it comes to music. (I discuss the view with respect to more consequential matters in the book.)
Here goes, from the earliest days onward:
At first there were certainly impositions. A friend suggested Burl Ives as a much better alternative to Raffi, the “Bananaphone” guy. And so we were able to cut back a bit on Raffi and listen to great songs like “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” On the other hand, my tastes did change in response to theirs. Our kids (boy-girl twins) were obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, playing with the trains and watching the videos. The theme song sounded to me—no, not annoying, but like the uplifting soundtrack to their childhood.
By the time our kids were five, we parents decided we’d allowed our kids take over the airwaves long enough—this was before people plugged into their own private devices—and wrested back control with a lot of Beatles music. After that, there was a parting of the ways. Our kids expressed a mysterious hatred for the Fleet Foxes, cared little for Arcade Fire. Old loves of ours, like Leonard Cohen, were anathema.*
Meanwhile the two of them had discovered radio Disney and various now unmentionable and relentlessly cheerful hit-makers. By age 10, we could meet on the same ground by listening to Coldplay but on the whole there was our music and there was their music.
Then, when they became teenagers, things started to change. “Love the Way You Lie”, the Eminem song (featuring Rihanna), reverberated through our house in 2010—with lyrics that are an affront to feminism and ethics. I analyzed it, criticized it, condemned it … and loved it! Just as surprisingly, Kanye West’s egomania was not a barrier to my becoming enthralled with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which my son played constantly for the next year.
A year later, my daughter started playing what at first sounded like sheer cacophony to me: lots of Animal Collective (example: “For Reverend Green”) and Neutral Milk Hotel. What my kids liked, I listened to differently, and very often liked too. Later on, my tastes expanded still more—to Bjork, Sigur Ros, Sufjan Stevens, and on and on. And then, briefly, there was a period of perfect convergence—with Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, and an occasional Leonard Cohen song on the household playlist.
Once my children left home for college two years ago, I wondered what would become of my musical tastes. Had they been permanently transformed? I find I still love the music they got me to listen to. But my pre-parenthood musical tastes are reasserting themselves. Yes, we are all going to see Sigur Ros and the Fleet Foxes this summer, but I’m listening to more opera, more classical music, more of my beloved female singer-songwriters, like Aimee Mann.
If children are like second selves to their parents, that doesn’t mean we tyrannically control every inch of their lives. It means we easily put ourselves in their place, and are therefore open to experiencing their cares, concerns, and preferences. We try to see through their eyes, hear through their ears, but we keep our own eyes and ears as well. We are influencers, at least for a while, but out of identification, we are also influenced.
*My son can still recite this haunting lyric: “And just when I was sure that his teachings were pure, He drowned himself in the pool, His body is gone but back here on the lawn, His spirit continues to drool” (One of Us Cannot be Wrong) Thanks a lot!