Why you should sing to your kids even if your voice sucks

Don’t let tone-deafness stop you from singing to your kid, says Ian Mendes. Just be careful which song you pick.

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Illustration: Rachel Idzerda

I’m a terrible singer. But that doesn’t mean I never do it. When I’m driving, for example, I sing along at the top of my lungs to my favourite songs on the radio—as long as there are no passengers to witness the musical mangling.

But being completely tone-deaf is a non-issue when you’re singing to your young children. Newborns, of course, have no frame of reference when it comes to musical ability, so you can freely serenade them without the pressure of feeling like you’re auditioning for The Voice. Words like “pitch,” “tone” and “talent” are years away from entering their vocabulary, so you’ve got time on your side.

Remember, these tiny beings spent many months inside their mother’s womb, sloshing around in amniotic fluid and hearing all sorts of strange, guttural noises that actually helped put them to sleep. So there’s a good chance your warbling, off-key version of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” is actually quite soothing and comforting. If the sound of mom’s gurgling digestive juices helped baby doze off, then the bar is set pretty low for you as a singer.

According to experts, a baby’s hearing is fully developed by the third trimester, so it’s a good idea to start singing to your little one in the final weeks of pregnancy. That wall of fluid and placenta may actually serve as the perfect buffer zone to allow your kid to acclimatize to your singing voice.

So sing to your kids freely, loudly and unselfconsciously. But be careful which songs you pick, because you never know which one could become a key component of the Official Bedtime Routine™. Sing “Jingle Bells” on a cold December night, and you could still be stuck with it when July rolls around.

Instead, you could opt for one of those tunes from the 1800s—you know, the ones that are ridiculously creepy with the benefit of more than a century of hindsight. Your choices from this genre include “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” which ends with an infant free-falling from the top of a tree, or “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring,” which chronicles the story of a man who has apparently suffered a concussion but doesn’t seek medical attention. Sweet dreams, baby!

You may prefer something more contemporary. Apple Music offers the lullaby version of several Adele songs, including “Hello,” which you could sing on top of, karaoke-style. Just keep in mind that babies are pretty intuitive—the saddest breakup song ever, which had the entire Internet weeping, might not be the most soothing choice. And don’t pick a modern tune based on its title alone. Even if it delivers on the lofty promise in its name, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is just as likely to induce a nightmare.

I ended up choosing a selection of soft rock songs from the 1970s for our youngest daughter—James Taylor, Elton John and Simon & Garfunkel, usually. Later in life, when she’s riding an elevator or waiting in a dentist’s office, I hope she has warm memories of her dad butchering mellow rock classics at her bedside.

Singing my daughter to sleep every night gives me a tremendous opportunity to bond with her. Dads can’t breastfeed, so we don’t have a built-in mechanism for soothing and connecting with our kids. We have to put ourselves out there, find our own rituals. And just like some moms feel sad when a baby weans, I was heartbroken the night my youngest daughter decided to change up the bedtime routine. “Daddy, I don’t need a song tonight,” she said matter-of-factly one evening when she was six years old. She may as well have said, “Daddy, I don’t need you anymore. Also, I’m going to call you ‘Dad’ from now on.” Fortunately, her lack of interest in a song that night turned out to be a one-off, and at age eight, she still regularly asks to be sung to sleep.

So that’s exactly what I’ll do—until she finally realizes I have no talent.

A version of this article appeared in our June 2016 issue with the headline, “Pitch Imperfect,” p.44.

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