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Unplug Your Ears and Let The Music Play


First I must admit that I have been occasionally grateful for ear buds, earphones, headphones and all those other terms that identify some sort of gadget that allows you to listen to music and be isolated from the outside world. My gratitude is exhibited both as a user -- when I'm exercising and need some good thumping bass to keep my feet moving -- and as a parent when I'm happy to have a few minutes of quiet while my kids can still listen to music.

Yet, for the most part, I encourage my kids to unplug their iPods and other gadgets in favor of being a part of the social world around them. I am convinced that music players have contributed greatly to the disconnect that has increased between adults and teens. While I understand that the 16-year-old on the morning train would probably rather listen to their music than chat with me, within our own family I like to have ears open so we can talk and discuss the issues of the day.

At the same time, I probably love music just as much as my kids. In fact when my first child was born, I made a point of "indoctrinating" them with music I liked, with the hopes that by the time they were teens, they would seek similar styles. While I can't speak for other parents, for the most part, this has worked. My four kids are fairly happy with hits from the 60s, 70s and 80s and I have learned to enjoy many of the new bands they have discovered that suit my tastes.

This sharing hasn't happened accidentally. I have made it a personal goal to create "public" music areas within our home in convenient places with the hopes that I would have a better idea of what music my family was listening to and that we could foster an environment where we can talk and have fun while enjoying music together.

If you're interested in trying something similar in your home, first let me tell you this doesn't need to cost a whole lot of money. Chances are your kids already have music players. No matter if they are iPods, cell phones with songs on them, or another type of portable player, virtually anything you can plug ear buds into can work to become a shared experience.

First I looked at the places where our family gathered most often. The kitchen was certainly the number one spot -- we all love to eat! It was also an area where we often do chores together (the polite word for dishes and cleaning up). I had an old set of speakers and a stereo amplifier that were gathering dust in the basement, so I put those on top of the kitchen cabinets and ran a cord down to the countertop where anyone could plug in their music player. (Memo to the guys -- putting your old stereo equipment to good use also scores bonus points with your wife!)

Now whoever has their hands in the dishwater (that's considered the yuckiest job in our kitchen) gets to plug in their player and choose the tunes. We also sometimes listen to music in the background while making dinner or eating supper. We keep the volume down enough so discussion can still take place, but it allows everyone to have a turn sharing their favorite music.

Another area we identified was the family room. Here we also have a plug in cord that connects to the sound system and easily allows people to "plug in" and listen. Finally, I also ensured we have a way of connecting portable music players to our minivan's sound system -- although I must admit to encouraging a little "plugs in the ear" time during long road trips.

As I mentioned earlier, making this happen doesn't require a huge outlay of cash. If you're a real tightwad (which I certainly am) you may even be able to use some castoff items that are lying around your home. Aside from putting my old stereo system to use, I have also used computer speakers to amplify sound from music players. They all have the same size plug, so instead of plugging it into a computer, plug it into an iPod. And speaking of iPods, there is a huge selection of docks and items that fit the special charging port on the bottom of these devices. A quick check on eBay and you'll find a massive selection of docks and chargers that will allow your kids to plug in and recharge at the same time. Many of these can be had for under $10 and will connect to sound systems you already own.

If your basement isn't full of quality used electronics (sometimes referred to as junk by some members of my home) you may want to go and buy something new. You can purchase mini stereo systems at fairly inexpensive prices and they have surprisingly good sound. Again, if you have iPods in your home, many of these have built-in iPod cradles that will recharge while you listen to music.

One other cool item that came across my desk is a tiny little speaker called a "chicBoom". It's a flashy little box about an inch square that plugs into any music player with a headphone jack and allows you to share your music. Admittedly the design is geared for girls but the company (ChicBlvd Inc.) also has tiny speaker balls that are more likely to be acceptable to the males in your home. These little speakers are small enough that they are intended to be keychain items, yet they have impressive sound that sure beats the built-in speaker in my iPhone.

After all this, you may very well be thinking that there is no way on Earth you can stand to listen to the same music your kids listen to. If that's the case I offer two suggestions: First, try to spend the time to dig through their collection and look for any shred of commonality in music taste. Even if it's only one or two artists, that's a good place to start. Next, explore other artists together. You may be surprised to find new music that you didn't know existed. YouTube has many songs that people have uploaded that allow you to sample different tastes. Many other sites, like Amazon or iTunes, allow you listen to snippets of songs and purchase them if you choose to do so.

Now with a new selection of tunes loaded on those tiny players, hopefully the members of your family will find a new way "band" together and discover new harmonious opportunities.

Rod Gustafson


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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