By Monty Harper
This piece is re-posted from Monty Harper’s new blog, Strawberry Tugboat.
“Children’s Music Ain’t Got the Same Soul!”
“Children’s Music Will Destroy Your Good Taste Forever!”
“Why Does Children’s Music Make Me Want to Destroy the Earth?”
These are real headlines from online articles written by real parents who – believe it or not – are annoyed with children’s music! And in these articles, the writers seem to want to justify depriving their children of it. This attitude is not uncommon. I run into it often. A lot of parents feel they can do without children’s music.
How does this affect me as a professional children’s musician? It threatens my financial well-being and calls into question my entire life’s purpose, throwing me into a deep morose fueled by existential angst!
No biggie. I can point out to myself that the critics above are targeting their abuse toward high-profile commercial acts like Kidzbop and Dora the Explorer, which is quite unlike what I do. But how likely is it that the dad who describes the entire genre as “horrible, awful, miserable kids’ music” AND believes his own favorite bands are great for his kids will ever risk further abuse to his own ears by seeking out quality alternatives? Zero, unless he also believes that his kids would gain substantial benefit from access to that awful miserable music at home.
So how can I defend children’s music? Is it possible? Is there some compelling reason care-givers should cultivate collections of kiddie crooners for their cars and couches? Are parents depriving kids of anything important if they don’t?
What may come immediately to mind is the obvious yet not so obvious issue of appropriateness. Most parents don’t want their two-to-ten-year-old babies rapping about violence toward women. So kids need their own music to insure that the lyrics will be “appropriate” for them. (I put the word in quotes since no two people will agree about the details of what is or isn’t.)
But this argument doesn’t quite satisfy. There is plenty of mainstream music, folk music, and sanitized versions of pop music that pass any given standard of kid appropriateness. Yet none of that is created especially FOR kids.
Next we might argue that the value of kids’ music lies in education. Songs can teach multiplication tables and history lessons. Some of my own songs celebrate reading or pique interest in science. Most children’s artists slip at least a little teaching into their lyrics now and then. Adult songs don’t usually serve this function, and music has an uncanny ability to deliver a message straight to your brain, so sure, education provides a fairly good defense for children’s music.
But the ear-weary parent may counter that a didactic song is not something you’d choose to listen to. It’s a teaching tool, and it belongs in the classroom, not on the home stereo. Point taken.
So am I defeated then? What about just-for-fun songs made specifically for kids? Do kids need those?
Yes. Yes, they do. That’s my unbiased opinion, and to back it up, I offer three ways children’s music delivers value where adult music cannot.
First, children’s music is developmentally tuned to children (Surprise, surprise!) There is a lot of research out there about this, so if you want to check my facts please do! But here’s how I understand it.
Kids process music differently from adults, just as they do language, movement, video, food – anything, really. They have an easier time with slower tempos, simpler arrangements, clearly ennunciated lyrics sitting high in the mix, more repetition, and themes they can relate to. Kids’ music, tuned to the proper developmental level, holds kids’ attention more completely than adult music, helping create a firmer foundation for music appreciation throughout their lives.
This is important stuff. Music wires together many different parts of the brain. Music helps young children develop language, mathematics and motor skills. Adult music might do this too, but it doesn’t get through nearly as effectively because it isn’t tuned to kids’ specific developmental needs.
Second, children need their own culture. Great songs make us feel understood. They reflect our feelings, validate our worries, celebrate our triumphs, remind us we are not alone in the world, make us feel part of something larger than ourselves. Imagine waking up in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. Every song you hear becomes a reminder that you are an outsider. You have become a kid in an adult-music world.
Kids may rock the beat, but they don’t relate to hooking up, breaking up, or other common themes of adult music. More to the point, very few mainstream songs reflect a child’s sense of wonder, love for the absurd, need for comfort, or everyday experience of growing and learning. Dozens of parents have conveyed to me how important my song “Loose Tooth” was to their kids while losing their first teeth. What mainstream songwriter would ever even address such a topic?
Children’s music, like children’s literature, helps place kids’ personal lives in a context of shared experience. It’s validating, empowering, and comforting. It helps kids grow with confidence into capable, creative, contributing members of adult society. It helps make childhood great!
The third benefit is bestowed upon parents as much as their offspring. Children’s music delivers a unique opportunity for kids and parents to bond over a shared song.
Yes, I do acknowledge that you obviously can bond over a shared love for your own adult music. I introduced my daughter to Brian Wilson’s Smile CD; now she’s a huge fan too, and we enjoy singing bits from it together at random moments. It’s awesome!
What I’m arguing is that adding children’s music into the mix brings something above and beyond. Children’s songs deal with the stuff of childhood and family life. Lines from such songs often come to mind during interactions with your kids. In my house we sing Joe McDermott’s “Don’t Drop a Brick on Your Foot” when someone accidentally hurts themselves, and it lightens the mood. When kids bring new songs into the family musical vocabulary, this is the kind of thing that gives them a powerful sense of belonging.
Live music should also be part of the mix here. Your six year old might look cute dancing to “Satisfaction” but do you really want to drag her to a Stones concert? A live children’s concert by a local performer can be a joyful, age-appropriate, shared experience. Just make sure not to sit in the back and chat with the other moms, or you’ll miss the opportunity. Sit with your child and enjoy the music together. You might be surprised what you get out of it. As my daughter told me when she was three, “It’s delicious when you share.”
I concede that your progeny won’t die without their own music. But the benefits of children’s music run deep and wide. The good stuff is out there, I promise. It’s well worth the effort to seek it out, and you’ll do your kids and yourself a huge disservice if you don’t!
A very big thank you and shout out to my friends and colleagues on the Children’s Music Network email list, whose many and diverse comments on this question helped me shape my thinking.
What do YOU think? Please post your comments!