How music can help kids pay attention and more

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Whether I’m waking them up in the morning (“Rise and Shine”) or trying to calm them down before a doctor’s appointment (“Hakuna Matata”), I start singing. Unorthodox, perhaps. But it turns out that this approach to getting my kids, 10-year-old twins and an almost 8-year-old, to rally around isn’t without merit. A study 2020 shows that music stimulates listening, cooperation and trust between people of all ages.

I’d be lying if I said my kids jump to attention every time they hear me sing, but music has become a powerful tool in my parenting arsenal — and for good reason. According to Patrick Savage, director of Keio University Music Lab in Japan, children are especially wired to forge bonds based on song. By age 2 or 3, children can reproduce songs their parents sing, and they are more fluent in song than speech.

Like many children, my boys are rowdy, loud and easily distracted. But in the sometimes painful drudgery of parenthood, I’ve discovered that music is more than just a way to get my kids’ attention and encourage them to follow directions. It’s a way to connect with them on a level more in tune with their developing mind.

You don’t have to be musically inclined

People are inherently rhythmic. Our hearts beat in rhythm and we walk in a steady rhythm, often with easy cadence and grace. So it makes sense that many of us instinctively speak to our babies in some kind of song, and when our children are picky, we rock them and sing. When my children were babies, I sang the same absurd song that my mother used to sing to me; when they were toddlers, they could clap with me.

“Music speaks to children in areas of the brain that process sound and emotion, both of which are fully developed at birth,” says Joan Koenig, founder and director of the American Conservatory Preschool & Kindergarten in Paris and author. of “The musical child.” “The thinking center of the brain only kicks in in the mid to late 20s. But with music, we have this tool that engages kids in language they can understand and feel through vibration.

Before my children could speak, the “language” we shared turned into musical jokes. I listened to their chatter and tried to echo the sounds I heard. This type of music mirror not only makes for cute videos that sometimes go viral, but it also shows your kids that you really listen to them, hear them, and follow their lead.

Add movement to the mix – whether that means dancing with your baby, pushing your child on a swing or rowing with your teenager – and you’ll create interpersonal synchrony, or an instance where your feelings or movements overlap, that binds you together, says Tal-Chen Rabinowitch, assistant professor at the School of Creative Arts Therapies at the University of Haifa in Israel. So there seems to be a relational benefit to the late-night dance parties we started when our twins became toddlers – a ritual we continue to this day, albeit usually with Minecraft music.

Savage’s research suggests that the benefits of incorporating music into parenting include more than bonding. “Music taps into the emotional and memory centers of the brain, so the information and instructions conveyed by the song are more likely to stick,” he says. Its operation is reminiscent of that of Ivan Pavlov’s dogs. Children hear a specific melody and they know what to do.

For years, educators have recognized that whether you teach children a new Language or to queue, information is best learned – and retained – by melody. At Koenig’s school, the teachers have songs for sit down, get up and go to the park. They even use raps, along with choreography, to help kids learn multiplication tables. “The proof that it works is in your own memory,” says Koenig. Consider this: how did you learn your ABCs and still remember them?

In 1993, a study published in Nature even suggested that playing Mozart makes children smarter. The movement was so powerful that scientists called it the Mozart effect. But according to Psyche Louisdirector of the TO LISTEN s(Music, Imaging, and Neural Dynamics) Lab at Northeastern University, Mozart is nothing special. Instead, it appears that early exposure to music, particularly in the form of musical activities and practice, may have benefits that go beyond children’s intelligence.

While researchers continue to debate whether music can increase IQ, there’s no doubt that the developing brain evolves in part based on rhythmic interactions. “Many studies show that formal music training improves cognitive skills,” says Rabinowitch. “Corn our work shows that it also improves children’s capacity for emotional empathy. And we know of other research that joint musical creation, and more specifically interpersonal synchrony, increases cooperation and helpful behavior in children.

Thinking beyond infancy

If you’ve ever sung in a choir, played in a band, or sang loudly in a bar with dueling pianos, chances are you’ve felt the high that comes from being part of the music. It turns out that the art of making imperfect music with another person, something Koenig calls “musicking,” releases feel-good hormones that bond people together.

It’s also a surprisingly conscious pursuit. “When you’re making music with other people, your thoughts don’t stray, because you’re pulled into orbit of sync, and that requires focus and attention,” Koenig explains.

Whether you choose to sing along to pop culture hits or bang pots and pans, syncing up with kids through music triggers the brain’s reward system. Result: your children may be more pleasant and you may be less likely to crack, at least in theory.

“The key is to aim for the game, not the performance,” says Rabinowitch. “When musical creation is designed for the interaction itself, and not to produce a piece of music, it becomes a socio-emotional language.” In reality, studies show that music facilitates communication in infants and toddlers. So maybe it has a similar effect on tweens entering puberty — or even full-blown teens.

Rabinowitch says my hope has merit. “Music is so tied to mood and emotional regulation that it can act as a mediator when parents and children are fighting,” she says. “It offers less argument than verbal language, and it can leave room for different interpretations and ambiguity.”

There are many options for making music with children. Whether you’re making a TikTok video, creating a melody with wooden spoons and a set of bowls, or dancing on your counters during a karaoke party in the kitchen, chances are you’re laughing. and get you online in seconds, and maybe even increase the chances that your kids will start helping around the house more, but don’t count on that.

Amy Paturel is a Southern California health writer and professor who also teaches personal essay writing. Find her on Twitter @amypaturel.

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