Sing With Your Children

Edited slightly, April 2021

This post is directed towards parents, but anyone can read it. You can use it as a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a teacher or simply an adult in the world interacting with children.

The most important factor in your children’s musical development is you. As in many other aspects of early learning, children model their behaviour and attitudes upon that of their parents, and it has been shown over and over that musicians most often come from homes in which their parents were engaged in music making. Listening to records is also enriching, but it is not a substitute for engaging in music yourself.

This doesn’t mean you have to be an accomplished musician. It just means that you have to do music in some way. For most of us, the easiest way to do music if we are not accomplished musicians is to sing. We all have voices and we can all sing. Children don’t care if you are in tune or in any way expert. What they learn when you sing while going about your day is that singing is normal. Singing is part of life. They learn that they can sing because their parents (aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.) sing.

As well as singing in your own life, alone and with your family and friends, a great way to sing with your children is to start echoing their songs when they start vocalizing. Their early vocalizations are often so musical; the line between attempted speech and song is pretty blurry. When my kid started to make sounds I would echo them, then vary the sounds and go back and forth with them in this way. It is fun to follow the baby’s lead. Listen to the baby’s sound and imitate it. They will make another sound and you can imitate that, too. You can sing duets way before the child is ready for words and tunes. It encourages the development of speech as well as singing, and makes it more fun to be with your baby. I also learned a lot about improvisational singing through this exercise. The babies can teach us a lot.

Another approach you can take at the same time is to sing children’s songs, the ones that have been passed around orally over the years. Traditional children’s songs are easy. Like most folk songs, they usually have a lot of repetition and simple rhythms and structures. They are even simpler in melody than adult folk songs, and they are usually short and easy to learn. Even if you don’t think you can sing, you may find you can sing children’s songs.

Singing together is known to activate all kinds of feel-good hormones, and strengthens bonding. You need this as parents and children, because so much of the time you are directing their socialization and it is not always fun. You can use singing not only to help you relax together when things get stressful, but also to sweeten the directions. Daycares often use songs to reinforce routines such as tidying up and getting washed. And when there is any kind of delayed gratification, singing about what you are going to do when you get the chance is a good way of helping children wait and relax about it.

Here is a song I made up when I lived down hill from our shopping district, and would sing it to my kid in the stroller as I walked home, making up verses that fit in the moment, describing what we had been doing and what we would do when we got home. As they got older, we sang it together, and then they would make up verses as well, engaging in the process of putting their own ideas to music as well as serving as a distraction from (usually) a hungry belly or a tired body.

We’re going down the hill, down hill home
We’re going down the hill, down hill home
Down hill, down hill home
Down hill, down hill home

We were shopping on the Drive
We got a lot of vegetables and also cheese
Down hill, down hill home
Down hill, down hill home

When we get there we’ll have some lunch
Then we can lie down for a nap
Down hill, down hill home
Down hill, down hill home.

This is just a little example of the process, not something you should learn yourself. You probably don’t live down hill from your errands anyway. The point is that if you sing with your children, you can build a wonderful, bonding and nurturing practice that also helps your children develop, creatively, intellectually and socially.

By the way, my grown-up kid is now an excellent singer, guitarist and songwriter. They have a wicked memory for lyrics and a wonderful sensitivity in musical collaboration.

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