We were in Aspen a few weeks ago and I stayed in the wrong part of town for where we needed to be every day, so we spent a lot of time on the bus and in cabs. I took a lot of pictures, including this one from the Aspen Art Museum (which was a great place for kids) but I don’t have any pictures of the kids with headphones on, even though they probably had their headphones on for most of the trip.

The image of a kid with headphones on triggers all kinds of anxiety for parents: Are the kids playing too many video games? Is YouTube a cesspool for young kids who normalize cursing? Will this generation be deaf when they’re 40? But mostly, am I irresponsible for not making the kids experience the world how I did when I was a kid?

When I think about this topic I usually have to remind myself about how I learned to regard video games. Yes, your kids should play video games, and MMO games are especially beneficial because of their intensity. (Csikszentmihalyi’s research shows that the more intense you are about what you do, the more you grow and learn.)

But there’s another aspect to the ubiquitous image of kids with headphones, and it’s that kids learn more effectively with music playing in the background. And, if you take the approach that everything a kid chooses to do is, in effect, learning, then a kid with headphones on all day is doing just fine. (And that music might even improve a kid’s mood.)

It’s interesting to me that Family Audio Adventures publishes audio books with Emmy Award winning music, composed specifically for the stories. And The Voice Arts Awards are focusing more on the quality of an audio-only experience. When kids listen rather than watch or play, they get the experience of learning in a different way, because music primes our brain for more learning in a way that non-audio stimulants cannot.

Interestingly, good listening is not a skill we build by listening to audio. In fact, we don’t learn to listen by listening. Good listeners engage with the content, so we learn to listen better by engaging. Most of you probably think you’re good listeners. Listening is like driving in that most people think they are better than most people.

So it seems that we should use headphones, audio books, and video games as a way to learn to relax and focus. And we should use conversation as a way to become a better listener. The best listeners are very focused on building up the other person’s self-esteem. (So then it’s for certain that I am not listening when I am fighting with my husband and telling him I’m listening.) And we need to be relaxed and focused in order to be a good listener. So ideally people should put on headphones for a while, and then take them off and start listening.

The next time you see a roomful of kids with headphones on, think to yourself that they are getting primed for meaningful, connected listening to each other. And I guess this means we can stop accusing the younger generation of not learning how to interact with real people; headphones are the first step.