My latest worry as a parent is headphones: they’ve become a tool in the generation wars in my house | Sisonke Msimang


like all parents, I’m concerned about screen time, but that is a column for another day. And like most parents, I’m worried about how the algorithm spoon-feeds my kids. But that too is for another day. My latest anxiety is the humble headphone, which has been around for ever, but has – in my house at least – become a sinister tool in the generation wars.

The hyper-individual mode of accessing music started with the Walkman. When I was a kid, I remember turning up my music so I could ignore my folks when they were irritating me. It felt fantastic. But I was limited by the relatively short battery life of the device, and the length of a long cassette tape – which was never more than 90 minutes.

This has changed dramatically. An average iPhone’s battery lasts between 10 and 17 hours on full charge. Additionally, the internet is virtually infinite. So, a kid could ostensibly tune their parents out for hours on end and never run out of content. Even if you have rules around a screen time regime (as we do) the implications are profound.

When my kids were younger, when we had long car rides, and in between what felt like a thousand toilet stops and a few irrational tantrums, there would be the joy of all of us singing “very superstitious, writing’s on the wall,” at the top of our voices along with Stevie Wonder. For a while Joe Cocker, Mad Dog and Englishmen’s Space Captain was their favorite road trip song and I remember them squealing in delight whenever it played.

These days, when we get out of the city, there’s some banter about what we’re going to do when we get to our hotel, and the places we want to see, but then everyone settles into their electronic world. I’ll read or listen to a podcast, the kids, who are now in their teens, have their headsets on, and my partner who is usually driving, listens to his own playlist through the loudspeaker in the car. Technology is changing how we all listen to music and interact with audio.

I’m realizing as the kids get older, how much is lost as a result of that. I grew up listening to whatever my parents were listening to. On weekends my father would play jazz on the record player. There would be Miles Davis, Abdullah Ibrahim, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone – all the greats.

It wasn’t just music. My parents and I generally shared catchphrases and early memes because we watched TV together as a family. We loved Different Strokes, and knew what it meant when someone said, “Whatchu talkin bout Willis?” because the television was a communal piece of technology.

My kids are on personal devices that are linked to billions of other kids on personal devices. They are influenced by influencers; by their peers far more than their elsewhere.

At breakfast, my kids make references to TikTok sounds that make no sense to me, ie, “I’m thirsty. Refreshment.” Often, when they try to explain the reference, I still don’t get it.

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It feels like a chasm has opened up between us, widened by the fact that when it comes to technology, Gen Alpha are like apex predators and their Gen X parents are like impala grazing in the grass cluelessly unaware of what’s coming up behind them. Since the turn of the century I have been adapting to technology, whereas my kids were born knowing it all.

My kids’ ease with technology means that they teach me a lot about navigating the internet and apps that is incredibly helpful. But it has also meant they’ve been faster to adopt technology and introduce it to the house in ways that I haven’t always anticipated.

So, I’ve unwittingly ceded ground to them. And yet, a crucial role of parents is to expose their children to new ideas and to expand their tastes. They would never know if they liked olives if I hadn’t offered them some. Offering them the musical equivalent feels important.

It matters because being part of a family involves a shared memory bank. Even if our tastes diverge, we have a family culture that is in part fostered by what we ate and did together and the soundtrack that accompanied it.

More importantly perhaps, in a pop culture landscape in which memes are stripped of their original meaning as quickly as they emerge, I want my kids to understand why I love the music I love, why the movies I watch matter to me – because the why is important.

The effect of my father’s taste on my sense of what is beautiful and complex isn’t just aesthetic. He has helped me to understand jazz to be a musical form and a way of being. And as I encounter music today, I carry that sensibility with me, a way of understanding what Lauryn Hill was doing with her music; of seeing the relationship between Kendrick Lamar and Marvin Gaye.

I always assumed I’d transmit the same lessons to my kids.

A few days ago, I was yelling at my 14-year-old about having her earphones in. As usual, she was tuning me out. But as we got in the car she smiled sweetly, commandeered the music system and plugged in her phone so her music could play out loud. She had made a playlist, and – to my delight – she had popped a few songs on there that she knew I liked.

Sisonke Msimang is a Guardian Australia columnist. She is the author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home (2017) and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela (2018)

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