Pop Songs: Bad for Babies?

Welcome to “Mildly Inappropriate Mommy,” a weekly series of blog posts dedicated to musings on children and parenthood. Got your own suggestions for a MIM topic for the blog to tackle? Leave them in the comments section below.


I can count on one hand the number of children’s songs I know. There are, of course, the ABC’s song, “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and … uh… does Guns and Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” count? Yes, I know I should learn more, but for the time being, my playtime singalongs and nighttime lullabies to my son tend to lean more toward the top 40 than “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (hey, there’s another one!) A little One Republic here, a little Adele there … what’s the harm, right?


I began to rethink my musical laissez faire approach earlier this summer when I found myself warbling Foster the People’s “ Pumped Up Kicks” to the little one. The song’s melody is catchy and upbeat… and the lyrics are anything but. Sample line: “All the cool kids with the pumped up kicks, you better run, run, run, outrun my gun.” Was singing about violence — in a cheery, seemingly approving way, no less — to my then 10-month-old really such a good idea?


Mark Foster of Foster the People performs at The Independent on March 23, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)


I know I’m hardly the first mom, real or fictional, to expose my baby’s ears to kid-unfriendly tunes. The sitcom “Friends” included an episode in which two of the main characters find that singing “Baby Got Back” to their daughter made her smile like nothing else. After that episode aired in 2002, I had to wonder how many real parents of infants tried that trick with Sir Mix-A-Lot’s posterior-praising rhymes — and was that, too, ill-advised?


Now before you roll your eyes and call me overprotective, remember that language development begins very early in life — as early as in utero, some say…So even if your little denizen of diaperdom  may not be able to declare, “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns hon’,” might the words still be having some impact on his little baby brain?  To find out, I turned to an expert,  Dr. Alan E. Kazdin, Professor of Psychology & Child Psychiatry at Yale University and the director of the Yale Parenting Center.


His advice was not exactly what I wanted to hear: The nature of the songs you sing to and play for your infant  does matter. When it comes to song lyrics, “your child is going to learn those sounds really well and those words really well and if there’s inflection that goes with it to match the words, your child will learn that.”


“Always say to yourself, ‘What do I want to teach here?’” Kazdin said.


With the “anaconda don’t want none” example in mind, Kazdin said a parent might want to consider the grammatical implications. (It doesn’t take a Yale professor to note that that particular lyric includes a double negative and lacks subject-verb agreement.)


One song, he said, isn’t going to have a long-term impact, but “grammar is going to influence educability,” he said. “Why not speak the best you possibly can to your child?”


He added that children’s songs — Itsy Bitsy and beyond — are valuable for a reason: They tend to be easy to hum, easy to remember and are about basic concepts (a spider climbing up a water spout) that children can learn, especially when the songs are sung repeatedly.


Kazdin politely recommended that I expand my kiddie song repertoire by visiting my local library … but, fortunately, I don’t have to say goodbye to all my favorite jams.


“One song,” he reiterated, “is not going to change a child’s life…. If it’s one weed in a whole bouquet of flowers, just let it go.”


If there’s one “weed” song I really like, he said, I can enjoy myself as long as I ensure my child is exposed to “flower” songs too.


I haven’t yet decided if “Pumped Up Kicks” will be my weed. With all apologies to Sir Mix-A-Lot, I know I definitely won’t pick “Baby Got Back.” Something tells me the anaconda would eat the bouquet.


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