My 9 year old is imitating Michael Jackson's dance moves, how can I talk to him about it?

Michael RichMedia expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, answers your questions about media use. Last week, he discussed telenovelas and toddlers.

Here’s this week’s question:

Q: I have two kids, ages 6 and 9, and they are both big Michael Jackson fans. I don’t think the music is a problem, though some of the lyrics are, so I don’t let them listen to just any old song. But my question is about the dance moves in videos. The kids know they can get MJ on YouTube (my son simply presses the letter M, and Michael Jackson is the first suggestion), but I always insist on watching with them. My nine year old has recently started imitating the dance moves (crotch grabbing and all!). I am concerned that he doesn’t fully understand the implications of what he’s doing, but I would like to explain it in a sensitive way, without embarrassing him. How should I handle that? Should I cut Michael Jackson out of the rotation?
Dad of a Dancer in Toronto, Ontario

A: Dear Dad of a Dancer,

Your impulse to address this in a sensitive way is a good one. And you are right that he probably does not yet understand the implications of what he’s doing, otherwise he likely would not do it in front of you. Though you might wish that your son had never seen that particular dance move, this situation actually presents an opportunity for you to have a matter-of-fact, unembarrassed discussion about provocative behaviors. And it is far better to address such behaviors within the safety of your own home than to have your child be embarrassed or punished in school for imitating them.

To get the conversation going, I recommend focusing on MJ’s performance—not on your son’s. Talk very specifically about dance moves, asking questions like, “What do you think the moon walk is all about? What do you think the crotch grabbing is all about?” Ask your son what he thinks MJ is trying to communicate and what he likes about those moves. Once you’ve listened to his thoughts, ask him what he thinks he communicates when he does those same moves.

At the age of 9, your son knows that people have private parts and that it is not socially acceptable to display or touch or otherwise highlight them in public. You can explain that when he imitates the crotch grabbing, people may interpret that differently than he intends it. For example, he might think it’s just part of a cool dance, but because it draws attention to his crotch, it ends up being socially awkward and his classmates will probably tease him for it. Help him come to his own conclusions and develop his own strategies that are consistent with the kind of person he wants to be and present to his peers.

I wouldn’t suggest cutting MJ out of the rotation—that horse has already left the barn. But do continue coviewing with your sons. That way, you can help them become critical consumers of media by discussing with them what they see and what it means to them. And it’s a great way to establish an environment in which you are there to guide and protect them through the next few years, before they develop the ability to stand outside themselves and understand how they look to others.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

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