Kids should learn with headphones on

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.

12 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Kids learn more effectively with music on in the background? Then I should be a bloody genius, because I had music on all the time when I was a kid.

    And: YouTube and imgur both have introduced my kids to some coarse things that frankly I might have limited had I known they were seeing it at first. Yet…somehow…none of them is damaged by it, none of them has become a potty mouth, none of them has gone on to a life of debauchery. I dunno, I think we parents often think our kids can’t handle stuff they actually can.

  2. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I’ve been mulling over this point since yesterday.

    Experience has informed me that I am a terrible teacher but I found myself on a Friday night being asked to teach a guy the basics of dance. And here’s where I panicked a bit because I don’t want to ever make anyone feel stupid and inadequate when trying out salsa dancing for the first time. Kinda like sex. But I digress.

    So managed to show him a couple of things and we danced and I said “that felt good! in dance, if it feels good you know you’re doing it right.”

    We are so taught that doing the right thing is so against our nature. That we are hedonist that will choose the easy path always and that won’t do the right thing if we are led by what feels good.

    But that’s so betraying your intuition.

    I am trying more things that feel right. Hoping to slide my way into accomplishing my goals.

    Music and intense focus and other things are just approaches to learning. And unschooling gives us the chance to grab the approach that feels right to us to the same common goal: learning and becoming some level of independently functioning members of society.

    I think that’s the goal?
    I haven’t fully figured out what’s the goal.
    And that’s probably why I am so blah! about engaging in things that feel like too much work for a reward I am not convinced I want.

  3. HomeschoolDad
    HomeschoolDad says:

    Huge fan of auditory learning: podcasts, audio books, YouTube,….especially when walking, traveling, eating meals, etc…..BUT the hearing loss statistics among young people is trending pretty scary. Have to be very on top of how loud the volume is pumping into their ears.

  4. Kristy
    Kristy says:

    I clicked on the Family Audio Adventures link – this has to be a sponsored post!

    Christian audio books….really….?

    How are you immune to the rules around declaring sponsored content?

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I don’t learn more effectively with music playing in the background. It turns out to be more of a distraction than anything else. However, I do like it as a way to relax or change my mood to transition into another activity. If I’m wearing headphones, I’m not expecting to listen to someone or have them listen to me. Consequently, it may result in a missed opportunity. Someone who has something to share or just wants to talk is not likely to approach someone with headphones on unless they think it’s important or just can’t wait. Also, listening is not always initiated by the person who wants to be listened to. A good listener can sense and is always attuned to the people around them so they can give their undivided attention when necessary. The good listener always tries to make themselves available with sufficient time regardless of how busy they may be. Many times these unexpected, spur of the moment listening sessions are best heard the first time around rather than being scheduled at a later time when they’re not fresh and don’t seem to be as important. I don’t have any problem with someone using headphones. That’s their choice. However, they don’t seem very accessible to me.

  6. Alyson Homeschool Group Hug
    Alyson Homeschool Group Hug says:

    How my mother used to nag me to switch off the music while I was studying for exams or even doing homework.”How can you concentrate with that noise on!” She drove me nuts. When I left for university and could finally study to music it was great. I KNOW my elder son can concentrate more with music and in the days when we were first homeschooling ( long time ago!) we’d do better if we had music playing. Totally agree.

  7. Akshay
    Akshay says:

    I agree with your point here. This gen kids can easily handle it, and they are like being wired from birth. They are extreme fast-pace-learner especially getting used to digital stuff.

    That’s a great idea. :-)

  8. Joseph
    Joseph says:

    Great post. YouTube and imgur both have acquainted my children with some coarse things that honestly I may have constrained had I known they were seeing it at first. However… by one means or another… none of them is harmed by it, none of them has turned into a potty mouth, none of them has gone ahead to an existence of intemperance. I dunno, I think we guardians regularly think our children can’t deal with stuff they really can.

  9. Basstep
    Basstep says:

    This generation is not what our parents think it is. Kid’s nowadays can handle a lot of stuff together by listening to music with headphones on. Hell, they don’t even bother what’s happening in the outer world.

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