Music: a Great Parenting Tool

Parenting isn’t easy–but there are tools that can help. One of them is music.

My four-year-old daughter and I were both exhausted–but I was slumped in a chair, wondering where I was going to get the energy to put her to bed, while she was jumping around the living room. She asked if she could play one of her children’s CDs.

“Okay,” I said. “But then it’s time for bed.”

Much to my amazement, I didn’t have to wait for the CD to be over, nor did I have to call upon reserve energy to lure her toward the bedroom. She listened to the first song. She sang along quietly to the second. When the third song ended, she was lying on the floor, sleeping peacefully. All I had to do was scoop her up and transport her to bed.

I’m not saying it always worked this well. But I am convinced that music has powers that are almost magical in their ability to alter moods and even physical states. In the bag of tricks I collected as a parent, music was an item of great value.

Scientists say that rhythm is the essential element in the universal , since the first sound we hear is the rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat in the womb. Music is a nonverbal language that can speak directly to the emotions and even the physical body. It has been used successfully in treating tension, high blood pressure, insomnia, and a variety of mental and emotional disorders; in reducing pain in terminally ill patients; and as an adjunct to Lamaze breathing techniques in the delivery room. The music playing in the background at some workplaces is programmed to enhance workers’ efficiency. And there is no need to elaborate here on the time-tested powers of the lullaby.

A book called Discipline: 101 Alternatives to Spanking (Parenting Resource Group, with Dr. Alvin H. Price, 1983) includes music as one way to prevent situations that make it necessary to discipline. Chores can go more smoothly, the authors say, when accompanied by a song. A musical interlude can often alleviate the boredom that causes misbehavior. Parents can lead small children to bed like Pied Pipers with the aid of a ritual bedtime song.

When I visited my daughter’s preschool classroom, the teachers used simple songs and jingles to move the children through their routine. Tasks such as picking up toys, lining up, washing hands, and putting on coats seemed to be done automatically when encouraged by a rhythmic, repetitive song.

If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed that twenty 3- and 4-year-old children would flock to their teacher and copy her actions as she calmly sang the words, “Everybody do this, do this, do this/ Everybody do this, just like me,” to the tune of “Shortnin’ Bread”; but I did see it, over and over throughout the year.

Another day, the children were sitting down to their afternoon snack, but with noise, commotion and fidgeting. When the teacher put on a CD they knew and liked, relatively slow in tempo, bodies visibly relaxed, and the silence was audible. It was a very dramatic example of the power of music.

Here are some of the ways I used music with my child at home. I’m sure there are many more.

To Bring Order Out of Chaos. Plato called music “the essence of order,” and I am happy to report that my experience confirms his observation. The most hectic time for me used to be between five and six p.m., when my daughter and I were both tired, hungry, and short on patience.

I found that if I put on a quiet, mildly rhythmic children’s CD, she would sit down and listen to it over and over, trying to learn the words. Or she used the music as a background to playing quietly with toys. The music-and nothing else-seemed to impose its own order, and she settled into it.

To Get Her Involved in the Task at Hand. One time I was trying to get my daughter to clean her room. Remembering what I had read in the book, I went in and began sorting toys, singing songs from Annie as I did so. Pretty soon she had joined me, in both the singing and the cleaning.

For a long time I sang “This Is the Way We Brush Our Teeth,” to the tune of “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” every night, because it got the job done much better than when I just told my child to do it.

It’s happened to all of us, that feeling of wanting to go with the music when it starts. The power of music is at times irresistible. It can be harnessed and used as a parenting tool.

To Change the Mood. Sometimes I could change my child’s mood without her realizing I’d done anything at all. I’d put on a relaxing CD. Or I’d casually start humming a song to myself-one that she liked, that had made her happy before. I was sometimes able to kid her out of a somber mood by singing a familiar song and putting in silly words here and there.

To Teach. Music can set the mood for learning, educators of young children say. Children are naturally musical, and even those with disabilities that make concentration difficult will respond to the structure provided by music.

Memorization in particular is made much easier when music is introduced. Songs have a way of sticking in the mind, and often, if we can remember a melody, the words just trip off our tongues. Didn’t most of us learn the alphabet with a song? Notice, some time, how much music is used on Sesame Street to teach letters and numbers.

For Self-Expression and Self-Esteem. Music can be a valuable emotional outlet for a child, an acceptable way to express feelings. In a book called Growing Up with Music by Hilda Hunter (Hewitt House, 1970), music is defined as “disciplined emotion.”

Music especially selected for children gives concrete expression to thoughts and feelings that they didn’t know how to express, maybe didn’t even know they had.

Captain Kangaroo had a song about a child who wanted to make friends with another child but was afraid to. Mr. Rogers used to sing, “Sometimes people are good/ And they do just what they should/ But the very same people who are good sometimes/ Are the very same people who are bad sometimes/ It’s funny but it’s true.”

Any time there is a piece of music that your child particularly enjoys and responds to, pay attention. This is a parenting tool you can use again and again, to turn discord into harmony.