Rock-and-Roll Relationship Building

by Leslie Klipsch

toddler dancing to musicThe "Rock-and-Roll Dad" bursts into the small conference room of a Chicago YMCA with a ponytail, gold earring, and guitar. He claps and sings an enthusiastic 'hello' to each toddler and parent gathered in the brightly lit room. By the time he completes his welcome number, children are on their feet, hovering around Rob Sepulveda in the middle of a circle of parents perched on thin blue mats. The scene proves too exciting for one child, a two-year-old girl in a black velvet sweat suit and green plastic barrette. She runs squealing back to her mother, burying her face into her chest. Rob, whose stage name is "Rock-and-Roll Dad," engages both kids and parents in an animated tenor, "You guys are ready for a sound-check!"

Many of the children are here because their parents subscribe to the "Mozart Effect" and believe that early exposure to music will result in high intelligence and great success. Others love music themselves and are anxious to share their passion. Still others are looking for some mid-day entertainment for their youngsters. Regardless of why they show up, they experience a common benefit -- they bond with their children through music.

Sepulveda recognizes the importance of this bond and tries to make his "Musical Munchkin" class enjoyable for both parents and youngsters. A father and musician himself, he saw the power of music in communication with his own young sons and found a way to share his talent and child-rearing practices with others. In classes and at gigs geared toward children played all over the city, he works his crowd in a way that reinforces relationships. He puts kid-friendly lyrics to adult-friendly rock-and-roll and everyone is entertained.

Music is a particularly interesting aspect of child rearing because it is universal. Dr. Alice Sterling Honig, Professor Emerita of Child Development at Syracuse University, points out that ethnomusicologists have verified that parents croon to their kids in all cultures. "Lullabies that have come down through the ages have many similar characteristics -- boring, repetitive melodies sung over and over, low voice tones, and soothing styles that relax rather than cause the body tension." She says that music is a simple way for necessary bonding between parents and children to take place. It begins during infancy, but carries on through childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood.

Dr. Sterling Honig also emphasizes the scientific effect of such interaction. "The brain is stimulated when a person uses 'motherese' with a baby; that is, the person speaks in long drawn-out vowels and melodious syllables. Cascades of electric and chemical messengers pour across the neurological synapses and wire in those synaptic connections."

Even parents who consider themselves nonmusical can enjoy the experience. Sarah Woolever, a Minneapolis-based music therapist, believes that music is a great way for people to interact because it "evens the playing field." When parents and children experience an instrument or piece of music for the first time, they learn together.

Woolever, who works at a family services center, spends much of each day encouraging mothers and fathers to be attentive to their children through the vehicle of music. The goal of her classes is to teach parents to respond appropriately to their baby's needs. "My clients are parents who were never parented themselves. They may not understand how to respond to their children when they are upset or how to sense when they are uncomfortable, even joyful. Babies react to the music I play and parents begin to recognize their responses and can then apply them to normal, everyday experiences." Her clients cannot afford private lessons, but they can make music an activity shared together at home.

Singing, playing an instrument, banging pots and pans, even viewing videos or DVDs that feature music can be used by parents almost anywhere. Because parents should be as involved as they can with every step of their child's development, Dr. Sterling Honig suggests that the best way to present a video or DVD is to "sit with your child, enjoy [the video] with your child, and make sure that you show your pleasure in your child's humming along or swaying to the music."

The lullabies found in literature of civilizations for thousands of years may not have looked like a class with the "Rock-and-Roll Dad," but music has long been an effective bonding tool for parents and children.

By the end of the session at the YMCA, the kids are tired. One boy sits in a daze on his mother's lap; another chews mindlessly on a maraca. The parents, however, are still groovin'. The "Rock-and-Roll Dad" sings good-bye to each child and explains that next week they will shake their tail feathers to the Ramones or perhaps Buddy Holly.

"I take requests," he quips amid the buzz of parents gathering up their children, "anything but 'Free Bird.'"

Tips for Bonding Through Music:

Sing it, Sister. Begin with tunes like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," the ABC song, or "Baa, Baa Black Sheep." Each set of lyrics is uncomplicated and sung to the same tune. Children love repetition and will enjoy the same song many times over.

Shake Your Tail Feathers. Toddlers love to wiggle so be creative and add simple gestures that they can mimic. This can progress into a full-out dance party as the child grows.

Start a Band. Begin by unloading the kitchen cupboards and add shakers, bells, perhaps even a keyboard, as your child develops.

Become a Groupie. Choose music that you both love and share the experience of enjoying it together. Remember to observe your child's reaction to certain types of music -- babies sometimes react adversely to songs set in minor keys, some love drums, others prefer strings! Make music a part of your lives!

About the author: Leslie Klipsch is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer. Before joining the ranks of motherhood, she taught high school English. She, her husband, and two sons live in Chicago.

Copyright © Leslie Klipsch. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.