When my kids were little, I made a couple of parenting rules for myself. Mostly they had to do with things I would not inflict upon my children before they were ready and willing, including cooked vegetables, swimming lessons, and piano scales. Call it the "I'll not repeat my parents' mistakes" school of child rearing.
In the category of "things I want to replicate from my childhood," however, and with a nod to my parents' good musical sense, I made one rule that I've enforced for more than a decade: No purple singing dinosaurs, no "Old MacDonald," no Raffi tapes at our house. My sons will have no dumbed-down music.
From the beginning, Ian and Eric listened to what I liked listening to: Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, classical music, jazz, and the really good music that came out of my own formative years. Claude Bolling, the Beatles, Yo-Yo Ma. Joni Mitchell. John Coltrane. Lyle Lovett. No do-re-mi pablum, no corny kiddie sing-alongs.
If there were sing-alongs to be sung at our house, they would be show tunes. Why? Partly by habit, mostly by tradition. It began when I was little. My dad would come home from a business convention in Boston or Philadelphia and always, always, there would be a new LP in his luggage. It was a souvenir from whatever show he and my mom had seen on stage.
A new record was by far my favorite business-trip prize. Before my parents could even finish unpacking, I would slip the record out of its paper sleeve, gently place it on the turntable, and then let the needle drop down, just so. From there I would be transported by the first strains of a brand-new overture, a musical adventure.
I spent hours lying on the carpet in our front hall, my ear next to the fuzzy weave of the hi-fi speaker. I memorized the words to "South Pacific" and "Annie Get Your Gun" and, one of my odd and enduring favorites, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." Whatever show was being revived in Boston or Philadelphia, or was new and exciting on Broadway, that was what I listened to. It was the best gift I could ask for.
And that was the musical gift I wanted to be sure my children got. So when we sang on the road, my boys from their car seats in the back, me up front at the wheel, it was show tunes. No wheels on the bus going round and round, no John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. We listened to Rogers and Hart, Lerner and Lowe. The good stuff.
Oh, there were concessions that had to be made. Occasionally entire tracks needed to be skipped. Marvin Hamlisch's ode to plastic surgery in "A Chorus Line" - "got myself a fancy pair, tightened up the derrière." I am still obliged to fast-forward through it, although I knew my kids would hear worse by the time they reached fourth grade.
More often, though, it wasn't just the bad word choices. There are an awful lot of show tunes out there that are full of the kind of outdated messages you don't want your kid to take to grammar school. Like why Ado Annie "cain't say no," for instance, or what do they mean by that last line in "Gee Officer Krupke"? What's a social disease, by the way? And why, exactly, do those Dolls make all those Guys act the way they do? Some questions were simply left unanswered.
I could get away with that, back then.
But now my boys have entered a new realm. At 9-1/2 and almost 12, they know of music from sources other than my playlist, my CD collection. They have their own opinions about what's musically worthy. They want to hear and learn the words and sing along with the songs that their friends listen to and talk about. The Cole Porter songbook, it turns out, is not high on their classmates' greatest hits lists.
Compounding my musical misfortune has come a growth spurt on the part of my firstborn. Now that Ian is about to leave me in his vertical dust, the jig is entirely up. He's big enough to sit in front - close to the stereo controls. Suddenly, sadly I am no longer the sole arbiter of our drive-time listening pleasure.
And if that weren't bad enough, Ian has started to develop that endearing middle-schooler's capacity to argue a point to death. I should have seen it coming, but I didn't, so now I'm getting "West Side Story" debated back at me. Why, for instance, is it OK for the Jets and Sharks to swear, but not rappers? How can gang wars be an acceptable subject for a song if it was written in the 1950s but not in 2002? No amount of arguing - that it's based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet"; that there's a message and a moral; that it's a tragedy, not just words or images used to shock or titillate - makes a dent in his logic.
That's because, unfortunately for me, Ian has a point. Or two or three.
So while my son was busily solidifying his argument for acquiring music that makes me nervous, I performed the parenting equivalent of shooting myself in the foot:
With a long car ride ahead of us, I popped a new "Sweeney Todd" CD into the player.
Do I even need to say what came next? For the benefit of those who don't know the story, Ian's argument went something like this: "So - the guy pretends to be a barber, but actually he gets people into his chair, slits their throats, and then has them ground up and cooked into pies. For people to eat? What's wrong with this picture?" Ian was sure I had just handed him the trump card that would make all hip-hop selections tolerable by comparison.
He's right. It doesn't get much more gruesome than Ms. Lovett's Meat Pies. Just because PBS shows it on prime time doesn't make it morally more acceptable than your average rap song.
And what do I know, anyway? Which of the musical groups that Ian so loves - whose song lyrics I am so quick to search for on the Web - will be the Beatles of his generation? Which songwriter will be as reviled for having fouled up the notion of musical entertainment as the Gershwins were, decades ago? How can I judge today the music my boys will be insisting that their kids listen to, and learn to appreciate, a generation from now?
I can't. All I can do is muddle through.
So we go to the library and take out sanitized CDs, the ones with the expletives deleted. We listen together, and we decide which tracks are acceptable. Ian knows he has left me not only in his growth-spurt dust, but also in the hinterlands of technology. I have no idea how to burn a CD, but he does. I am trusting him to be doing what he tells me he's doing. I am trusting that his judgment is sound, that his moral compass has already been set.
Most important, I'm trusting that my kids are doing what kids need to do - grow up, move on, strike out on their own. Choosing the CD or the radio station is just a stop along the way.
And every now and then, my boys will humor me, and we'll sing, "This Was a Real Nice Clambake" together, just for old times' sake.