Respondible Parenting

I mention language development in children frequently to you, if only to ultimately compare it with music development. I bring up the point that we don’t teach children how to talk and use grammar, instead they teach themselves—by watching and listening to adults and older siblings talking to, and using grammar with, each other, especially the adults and siblings to which they feel emotionally attached (that includes you, dear reader!). Similarly, with the basics of music-making, children benefit immensely in their musical development by watching and listening to adults and siblings making music. All well and good, but I now also point out something that children observe as well as people talking and people singing/tapping/strumming/dancing. Children, your child, watch how other people respond to all that talking and music-making.

Consider the following typical dialog between two consenting adults, overheard by a young child (as well as you and me!):

“Welcome home, honey! How was your day at work?”

“Hello, dear. It was….okay… [sigh]”

“Oh, oh. Not good, I can tell by your face (and body language and pheromone dispersal). Spill the beans, what happened?”

“I…I got another raise in salary.”

“Aaugh! Again?! That’s terrible!”

“You don’t have to remind me. I feel awful.”

“That’s the second one this month!”

“Third so far this year.”

“Those monsters! How can they treat you that way? They know that you only do the work because you love it so.”

“Tell me about it. Then they slap me with all this money, like they have to buy my loyalty. Makes me feel so…so tawdry. I was threatened with a promotion, too”

“ANOTHER ONE?!? Those creeps! Okay, first thing. This is so NOT your fault. I’m not blaming you. Second thing, tomorrow, go straight to HR and register a—”

“I DID go to HR. They were less than no help. They said I need to relax and then booked you and me on a three-week cruise through the Scandinavian fiords, compliments of the company.”

“Those BRUTES!”


The child watches and listens—to the words, to the responses to those words, to the body language. Language is a back and forth thing, each adult says something unpredictable (to an infant/toddler) as a response to the other’s words. A string of alternating sounds and reactions. The child has to, and will, figure out the meanings of all those words, but also the emotions of all those responses to the words (in our example, emotions like pity, anger, sadness, indignation, etc…maybe I should have used a more pleasant example!).

Now, contrast the above with what happens when a young child listens to and watches a bunch of families, adults and children, sit together in music class and sing the Hello Song. Hello, everybody! So glad to see you! What sort of responses do the sounds of that interaction bring about? Way Different! Not the back and forth of a conversation, but the joining together of voices as everyone sings the same words! Lots of smiling, some laughing, rocking back and forth, clapping—everybody rocking and clapping at the same pace. And, eventually to even a two-year old, predictable words, predictable responses. Music-making is not the information sharing, intellectual-response eliciting activity that language is, because, well, music is not language (although it can, of course, communicate). To an observing infant, at first, talking and singing and walking and dancing are all just the things adults and siblings do, all jumbled together. Pretty quickly, though, even infants are sorting through their observations (in an infantile sorting way) and discovering that talking and singing are two very different activities. A big clue for children is the way we adults respond to those activities. Just as you would not consider it effective for your child’s verbal development to hide your conversations with other adults from your child’s ears and eyes, so too, I encourage you to be extra clear in modeling positive responses to the music you hear throughout the your day—from our Sticks collection, from the radio, from Alexa, from your spouse challenging you to a tone pattern singing contest. For guidance as they grow, your child wants to see and hear you responding to music.