The Love Language of Silly Family Songs

The Love Language of Silly Family Songs

Randy Lubin recalls the exact moment his life became an improvised musical. The 35-year-old game designer from San Francisco never used to sing, not even in the shower or alone in the car. At his wife’s request, he would perform the kiddush, a Jewish prayer sung each week during Shabbat, but that was it. “Singing wasn’t something I sought out or particularly found a lot of joy in,” Lubin told me.

Seeing his son, Curio, for the first time changed everything. “I remember just being overwhelmed with love for him and also just the sense that he seems so fragile,” Lubin said. It was in the newborn intensive-care unit, while marveling at the baby’s small hands, that Lubin started singing: “Tiny fingers and tiny toes / Oh, Curio, we love you so.” These lyrics—unrehearsed, sweet, sincere—became the start of a new dad’s musical awakening. Now his original tunes provide a soundtrack to many aspects of domestic life: “Sleepy Boy” for nap time, “Get You Clean” for washing up, and the always relevant “Mr. Poop Machine.”

Singing made-up songs can be an active and rich part of home life, and one common starting point is the inception of parenthood. But people don’t just serenade their babies; pets or even plants might also become unsuspecting audiences. On the surface, these songs are little more than nonsense—spur-of-the-moment, creatively feral melodies that fall out of people as they interact with the small beings in their care. But they also offer caregivers and dependents a meaningful way to communicate when speech alone is limiting.

This musical connection begins with how we talk to little ones. Caregivers across cultures often intuitively interact with young children using “parentese,” a speech style that captures a baby’s attention with a higher pitch, more repetition, elongated sounds, and roller-coaster variations in intonation. It promotes language learning while inviting interaction between a parent and child, even if the response is just a baby’s babble. Many of these same qualities feature in how we address our pets—consider the singsong way you might ask a dog if he’s a very good and fluffy boy—which some researchers believe stems from a similar caregiver instinct.

But singing to children or pets, as opposed to just speaking, carries distinct benefits. Studies show that infants prefer a mother’s singing to speech, displaying greater alertness, happiness, or calm depending on the type of song. Babies also find a father’s singing highly engaging, especially if he uses a higher vocal pitch. This power of singing appears to be language-independent; infants will relax to a lullaby in any language, even if it’s not their native one. Although there is less data on how human singing affects animals, playing music for dogs—particularly the easygoing grooves of soft rock and reggae—has been shown to make them less anxious in kennels. (My partner tries to wield this soothing power by serenading our cats as they yell for their morning meal; we like to think they appreciate “Do You Hear the Kitties Sing, Singing the Songs of Hungry Cats,” inspired by a classic tune from Les Misérables.)

[Read: Why people pretend to talk as their pets]

Singing also helps parents feel competent and engaged in the everyday labor of child-rearing. One longitudinal study of a mother with a preterm infant in the NICU, for instance, found that singing to her son on a daily basis helped the mother bond with the baby, reducing her symptoms of postpartum depression and increasing her self-esteem as she adjusted to her parental role. And these songs of care, often performed with remarkable consistency in pitch, rhythm, and tempo, can become reliable and validating scripts for parents to coax their little ones into different modes, such as sleep or playtime. “Babies are pattern detectors,” says Elise Piazza, a University of Rochester professor who has studied early-childhood communication through language and music. Piazza told me that singing creates a feedback loop, where a baby’s enjoyment motivates parents to sing more and builds parents’ confidence. One can imagine that inventing their own songs to celebrate their particular child might further empower parents. It could help them make sense of a new person, one who requires immense time and energy but who can’t talk to them.

When parents sing, they create a shared context for their tiny listener and themselves. “Music is a form of joint attention,” Psyche Loui, a Northeastern University professor studying music cognition, told me. Some researchers think that the song itself becomes a kind of meeting ground, which helps the listener and the singer sync up not just emotionally but physiologically—their heart rates, for example, rising and falling together. Singing may also signal to both the child and the parent that the other is fully present. “That’s useful for infants to feel comforted and safe,” Loui said.

For all that singing gives us, it has faded from many parts of American public life. These homespun anthems are commonly kept deeply private, intended only for the child and the caregiver. Chris Maury, an engineering manager in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told me that singing became a way to establish an individual connection with his daughter, Sydney. “When she was younger and couldn’t talk back, it was more comfortable for me to sing to her than to talk to her,” Maury said. One lullaby he created turned into a special way to calm her: “It was just for the two of us.”

To an outsider, these songs may sound strange, silly, or poorly sung by tired people. None of that takes away from their effectiveness in forging social bonds. Rather, there is a gorgeous power in creating personal, imperfect music to connect with the small creatures who depend on us.

In fact, with enough time and repetition, these songs might become part of family legacy. Parents I spoke with for this story shared hopes of treasuring their songs into the future and imagined someday using them to reconnect with the experience of raising a young child. Loui noted the power of music to conjure a particular time, place, or, perhaps most important, relationship.

It certainly works for me. A few years ago, a longtime family friend reminded me of a silly song my mom would entertain me with during long car rides when I was a wiggly toddler. He assured me, with great pride, that he could remember all the lyrics to “Be Especialee,” a tune in the style of a cheerleader’s chant that spelled out the letters of my old nickname. To prove it, he started singing aloud with all the pep and volume the number demands. After swallowing a twinge of embarrassment, I joined in. It was ridiculous: two full-grown adults at a dinner table belting out a baby song. But as we sang that beautiful nonsense, dreamed up by my mother decades ago, old feelings began to stir. By the time we finished the song, I knew that I was deeply cared for.

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