We’ve heard this from lots of parents over the years: You’re singing along to your favorite song, when suddenly your toddler says, “Don’t sing, Mama!” or “Stop singing, Daddy!”
This can be disconcerting! We want our children to speak their mind and express their desires, but what do we do when their desires conflict with our desire to sing? You might also wonder if your child no longer likes the sound of your singing voice and whether you should stop singing with them. It helps to understand what’s at work in the emerging personhood of toddlers in order to decide what to do. (It’s NOT about your singing!)
The fact that your child is asserting their independence through the act of telling you what they want—and don’t want—to hear is actually a developmental milestone worthy of celebration, though it might be one you want to celebrate quietly. Similar to working through separation anxiety and mastering the mechanics of walking, children learning to assert their own independence around music-making is a milestone worth paying attention to.
Independence emerges over time. Between 12–18 months, toddlers discover they are no longer fully dependent. They now have the physical and mental capacity to explore the environment on their own, though they still return to their loving adults for grounding and reassurance. In a Music Together class, children this age wander away from the music-making circle and back again.
Having secure relationships with adults helps children learn to trust others and develop confidence in their own abilities. This confidence becomes more apparent between 19–24 months, as the child’s awareness of themselves as a person that is separate from others becomes clearer. Loving adults hear the child assert their ideas and thoughts and can honor the feelings, even if the adults don’t always agree with what the child wants!
The struggle to “do-it-myself” occurs between 25–30 months. This does not mean that the child is able to control their feelings about not being independent in all things! From 31 months to 4 years old, the child’s ability to handle independence and control their feelings continues to assert itself. This also occurs in conjunction with the emergence of more sophisticated language. Although how a child enacts his growing independence may not seem playful, some play researchers may consider this a form of Social play. Children acquire an understanding of customs, rules, and power relationships as well as knowledge, information, and processing skills.
Relation to Music Development
The steps to independence are also represented in the child’s experience of music. Think of this period of time as a simultaneous development of the child’s relationship to you and to the world, which includes their relationship to music. Toddlers are able to discriminate between the recording, the sound of their own voice, and the voices of the adults in their lives. We cannot all sound like Uncle Gerry or Mommy, so once they understand that there is a difference in the sound, they may try to use their newfound independence to stop the discrepancy.
Take comfort in the fact that your toddler’s behavior does not appear to indicate a lack of interest in music. The research is silent on the notion that toddlers who do not like their parents singing grow up to be disinterested in music. Rather, when adults reflect on their memories of their parents’ singing, they often think fondly of singing together and do not often remember having shushed their parents!
Strategies for Home
Here is the good news: Toddler behavior changes quickly and can be shaped by your response! Here are some strategies you can consider when your toddler tells you not to sing.
- When your child tells you not to sing, consider responding with, “Let’s sing together!” or “Will you sing to me?”
- Offer choices: “You sing the first part, and I’ll sing the second part,” or “Which one of us will make the ‘choo-choo’ sounds?”
- Children also value being part of the decision-making process: “What animal sound should we make?”; “Should we make our voices loud or soft this time?”
- If your child insists that you do not sing, meet them halfway: “I won’t sing this song, but I really like the next song, so I’m going sing along for the next song.” “Can I make the train sound while you sing?”
- Forming a partnership can mean taking turns playing along and singing along to songs. For example, one of you can play a shaker while the other sings, and then switch!
Toddlers’ emerging independence affords parents and caregivers the opportunity to begin to shape experiences of relating that allow toddlers to begin to practice empathy, compassion, turn-taking, and tolerating frustration. Perhaps these suggestions can give you a few more tools in your parenting and caregiving toolbox for negotiating these tricky situations!
Dr. Carol Ann Blank
Research and Special Needs Services Manager
Music Together Worldwide
Dr. Lili Levinowitz
Professor Emeritus of Music Education, Rowan University
Coauthor of Music Together®
Director of Research, Music Together Worldwide
Brazelton, T. B. (1992). Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
National Research Council Institute of Medicine (2000). From Naurons to Neighboorhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Hughes, B. (2002). A Playworker’s Taxonomy of Play Types, 2nd edition. London: PLAYLINK.
Hughes,B. (2006). Play Types: Speculations and Possibilities.London: The London Centre for Playwork Educationand Training.