As my Ford cruised through the canyon, it started to rain. My six-year-old son and I were returning home from a birthday party for one of his friends. It had been a sunny afternoon, and then suddenly dark clouds converged. A bold radiance dramatically backlit the clouds. Rain is a rare occurrence in Southern California.
I had a CD by Coldplay on and the song “Swallowed in the Sea” began. After a minute, my son exclaimed wistfully, “This is such a good song!” I reached my hand back to hold onto his. The romance of the moment trumped my usually stringent hands-on-the-wheel focus on safety. My boy and I listened, and time stood still as we shared transcendent bliss. It is a good song.
Just as music can have a powerful effect on adults, children, ultra-sensitive beings that they are, can be influenced profoundly by music, too. Parents wonder, “How should I expose my child to music? Do I need to teach my baby to love music?”
Music classes have become a popular type of ‘mommy and me’ group. Now, please don’t get me wrong…I’m all for parents finding groups where they can socialize with their babies or just get out of the house. Those are good enough reasons to join any group. But I also don’t think babies need music instruction, or that they will learn rhythm better and earlier when their tiny feet are held, legs bicycled to the music.
I spoke to a woman who has administrated an infant music program for many years. She truly believes that the children whose legs she “moves to the beat” have a head start in music education. I find this extremely hard to swallow. Did Elvis’s mom bicycle his baby legs? Did she swivel his hips?
Katherine and her wonderful ten-month-old boy, Leo, are adjusting to the mellow environment of one of the RIE parent/infant classes. Leo is easily overwhelmed by the presence of the adults and the other infants; he will suddenly look around and cry, especially if the adults talk too much, or if a child approaches too closely. Katherine believes he was disturbed by the baby music class she had taken him to a few times, and that his experience in the class has made him wary of a group situation.
Katherine said that a musical instrument, for example: a tambourine or a set of maracas would be placed in Leo’s hands and he was expected to play it along with a song. Then a few minutes later, when he was just beginning to take interest in the instrument, it was snatched away. A new instrument would then be placed in Leo’s hands for the next song.
There are problems with this kind of instruction for babies. First, the child is not allowed to make choices. The adults decide what the baby should find interest in and then he is expected to perform. Secondly, the child’s innate desire to explore is curtailed. By interrupting the child while he is still demonstrating interest in an instrument (or any object), we discourage focus and long attention span. Thirdly, and I think most disruptive for Leo, was overstimulation and the unpredictability of his surroundings. Babies find comfort in knowing what will happen next in a situation, and can be sensitive to surprises or sudden changes.
We can trust a child’s relationship with music to evolve naturally. Babies are tuned into the sounds of birds, the hum of insects, or the howling of dogs. They make rhythmic noises in the parent/infant classes by touching stainless steel bowls together or tapping a wooden block onto a large water bottle. They also make a variety of vocal sounds and enjoy imitating and echoing each other. Infants and toddlers discover these sounds on their own and then quickly figure out how they are made. Then they might experiment with changes of tone, beat and volume. These are the kinds of active, participatory, self-initiated learning experiences that are most beneficial to babies.
Slightly less participatory is an instrument like a tambourine. A child only has to shake a tambourine to hear a tinkly clang, but he or she is still able to touch and understand the source of the sound– the mini cymbals. Older toddlers, age two and up, may be ready to explore more ‘mysterious’ instruments like kazoos, harmonicas, rain sticks, table harps and keyboards, all of which have the adult benefit of being easy on the ear.
A child cannot participate in creating the sounds emitted from a music box or CD player, but because music activates the imagination, transports us, relaxes us and elevates our mood, the child’s experience is not passive. Parents often use music as part of a bedtime ritual. (I chose to impose my singing voice on my poor children instead.)
Music can make a difficult day more tolerable for a parent. And parents need only play the music they like to hear; they should never feel pressured to play music because an baby ‘needs’ it.
Babies are sensitive to rhythm and beat and are often inspired to dance. Many of us have stories of our infants and toddlers grooving to music. But no, they don’t need baby dance class! There is plenty of time for instrumental, voice or dance lessons when a child is older and may be compelled toward a particular music form or instrument. And the best way to gauge readiness for lessons is when a child repeatedly initiates a request for them.
We risk hindering our children’s musical development and appreciation of music when we push it. But when allowed to orchestrate their own musical education by exploring sounds they can create and enjoying sounds that surround them, our babies stay in harmony with the music of their heart.
Here’s some music that has created magical moments for my children and me:
- Ladysmith Black Mambazo—or as my children called it, “the African music.”
- Wee Sing—Around the World and Fun n’ Folk.
- Our Time in Eden by 10,000 Maniacs
- Peter and Wendy by Johnny Cunningham
- Beauty and the Beast—the original Broadway soundtrack
- X & Y–Coldplay
Please share yours!