It’s the little things.

It’s the little things. . .

Many largescale changes must be made to the juvenile justice system.  From limiting law enforcement’s jurisdiction over children to diverting funds to community resources to shutting down detention facilities, there is much that can be done at a high level.  These measures recognize the growing body of science emphasizing the difference between criminal and adolescent behavior while recommending family-oriented and least restrictive models of discipline.  If that is the purpose, what can stakeholders who have direct and immediate contact with children in conflict with the law do now while we wait for legislation to catch up with science?  Could something as simple as access to a radio help?

It seems hard to overstate the importance of music to an adolescent.  Listening to music at a given moment changes the situation, which is an extremely powerful tool, particularly for a young person with limited control over their lives.  Listening to “music (in its different genres, behaviors, and contexts…) [allows adolescents] to capitalize, exercise, and regain a sense of agency.”[1]  When so much of a child’s life is dictated by schedules imposed on them by parents, school administrators, state officials, and others who are generally not accountable to the child, there is precious little with which an adolescent can experiment in their “trajectory toward their empowerment as agents who can create and control several aspects of their own world.”[2] And so, in listening to music, an adolescent can explore their own identity, connect with peers, and regulate mood by building a world “in which they can shout and be silly, [be] fragile and in search of themselves, and make their own, personal, choices.”[3]

When I started teaching Street Law to students in a residential probation facility, one of the first exercises we engaged in was developing class rules and incentives together.  Though I intended the exercise to encourage a spirited back and forth of negotiation, I was surprised by the enthusiasm.  They seemed genuinely excited to have the opportunity to exercise some agency over their environment and the thing they advocated for most was playing music at the beginning of class.  When I asked them to justify getting to listen to music before class as opposed to afterward as a reward, they explained listening to music can help process emotions, reduce anxiety, and improve performance in school.  They even self-imposed limits on the music videos to avoid gratuitous sexual or violent imagery.  Commending them on a job well done, I collected requested songs for approval by probation staff.  It was at that point that a student asked me why it needed to get approved, why they couldn’t just listen to the music they wanted to listen to.  It was striking that of all the highly restricted conditions they were subject to, limitations on music might have been among the most immediately hurtful.  Eventually, the music was approved (so long as it was a radio edit) and the students bought into the class.  But the fear of being judged on their musical tastes and having it censored was an emotionally fraught experience.

That interaction was among the most impactful of my teaching experience so far and it’s been the hardest to relate.  People seem, generally, to accept the idea that the content children consume ought to be regulated.  But, when it comes to music and the teenager, I’m not so certain.  It feels too much like reading a diary or otherwise depriving them of judgment-free self-exploration.  This seems especially cruel and counterproductive when, for better or worse, so many other restrictions on expression and experimentation apply.

Science suggests when a listener has so little control over their external environment, “the music itself becomes important to them; they feel the need for the ‘auditory bubble.’. . . to cope . . . [and] to improve their internal mood to deal with their lack of control over the external situation.”[4] One researcher calls it the “musically extended mind” that enhances internal abilities and affords possibilities for action at the affective, physical, and social levels.[5] Nevertheless, some would argue that kids these days aren’t listening to music with good moral values and with bad language.  Music just isn’t the same as when we were kids.  Of course not!  Music is ephemeral.  But that might be why it is so crucial, particularly for children who are learning how to navigate their time and place.  Furthermore, I’d like to share a point raised by my students.  They knew some words might be “inappropriate” and shouldn’t be said in polite company, but “that’s not the point,” they said.  The songs are about “flexing” or “telling it like it is.” In other words, it’s about “misery sharing”[6] or building confidence by listening to lyrics about overcoming significant obstacles.  To say that their music is inappropriate might sound to them like “your feelings are inappropriate” or otherwise discouraging having confidence, pride, or optimism.

But what about those kids that committed troubling acts of violence, those kids that our system would have removed from their communities to be rehabilitated?  Should they be allowed to listen to music that some may perceive as problematic?  Perhaps a level of censorship is appropriate in certain circumstances.  But music, like anything else, is uniquely understood through the listener’s context and history that influences their ability to identify and understand the musical, social, and political elements contained within.[7]  And so, I am less inclined to censor music based on sensibilities.  Perhaps, instead, it is more appropriate to encourage dialogue through sharing music while permitting solitary listening.  I would speculate that these small gestures of empathy and understanding might make the discipline that much more effective and rehabilitation more likely.[8]



[1] Saarikallio SH, Randall WM and Baltazar M (2020) Music Listening for Supporting Adolescents’ Sense of Agency in Daily Life. Front. Psychol. 10:2911. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02911

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Krueger, J. (2018). “Music as affective scaffolding,” in Music and Consciousness II: Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives, eds D. Clarke, R. Herbert, and E. Clarke, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[6] Skånland, M. S. (2013). Everyday music listening and affect regulation: the role of MP3 players. Int. J. Qual. Stud. Health Well-Being 8:20595. doi: 10.3402/qhw.v8i0.20595

[7] Christopher M. Ortivez, Understanding Rap Music from the Listener’s Perspective (1997) (M.A. Theses, University of Colorado Denver) (Auraria Library).

[8] P Nieman, S Shea, Canadian Paediatric Society, Community Paediatrics Committee, Effective discipline for children, Paediatrics & Child Health, Volume 9, Issue 1, January 2004, Pages 37–41, (“To be effective, discipline needs to be: 1) given by an adult with an affective bond to the child; 2) consistent, close to the behaviour needing change; 3) perceived as “fair” by the child; 4) developmentally and temperamentally appropriate; and 5) self-enhancing, i.e., ultimately leading to self-discipline.”)


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