The early years of parenthood essentially amount to a prolonged game of How Many Times Did I Save Your Life Today, Kiddo? You’re constantly playing defence to prevent your oblivious toddler from falling down stairs, wandering into oncoming traffic or swallowing Lego. At the same time, you’re trying to limit their exposure to less immediate, more insidious dangers—cigarette smoke, sugar-loaded juices and, most important, the friggin’ Frozen soundtrack.
Thus far, my wife and I have made it three years into parenthood without fielding any “Let It Go” requests from our son, Ellis. As someone who writes about music for a living, I’ve inevitably taken a methodical approach to introducing my kid to my record collection. (Hey, I used to get excited about curating a mixtape or CD-R playlist—now I get to program a person!) But traditional children’s music and Disney show tunes haven’t been part of the equation, because they were never really part of mine. Thanks to my older brother’s collection of Kiss LPs, I went straight from the milk bottle to “Cold Gin.”
I’ve already got Ellis on a similar fast track. Because, let’s face it: Kids’ music isn’t something parents enjoy; it’s something we endure. Listening to it is like the auditory equivalent of setting your kid loose in a shopping-mall play zone while you sit on a nearby bench checking your smartphone—an activity you do for them but not necessarily with them. Most children’s music is designed to sound the way we want our kids to be: sweet, innocent, gentle. The reality, of course, is much different. Ellis likes to take his clothes off at inappropriate times, smash his toys into the wall and run around screaming—is it any wonder he relates to Iggy Pop more than Raffi?
Sure, playing adult-oriented music for toddlers requires some on-the-spot improvisation: In our house, the “shoot ’em in the back now” line in the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” turns into “pat ’em on the back now,” and the Jay Z standard becomes “I’ve got 99 problems but an itch ain’t one.” But Ellis has so much fun bouncing around the living room to Iggy’s “Lust for Life” or head nodding in his car seat to the “la, la, la, la, la” refrain of Grimes’ “Oblivion”—why would I bother spoon-feeding him kinder-pop pablum? You don’t need simple, singalong lyrics to engage a kid; you just have to key into their vibe at any given moment. After I played him a YouTube concert video of mellow Canadian indie-rocker Mac DeMarco, Ellis became so enamoured that it supplanted Sesame Street as his daily post-daycare viewing ritual and replaced his thumb as his go-to soothing device. (My theory: DeMarco’s liquidy guitar tone reminds him of floating in the womb.)
Now, I am conscious of not treating my kid as if he were a hipster fashion accessory, like some vinyl-toting Mini-Me version of Kylie Jenner’s puppies. And it’s not like I’m in any hurry for him to grow up. But, I figure, why waste our time playing him children’s music he’ll eventually outgrow. Why not instead introduce him to simple gateway songs—from The Beatles’ “She Loves You” to Pharrell’s “Happy”—by artists whose music he can gradually grow into? (Especially when daycare already provides him with the Surgeon General–recommended dosage of “Wheels on the Bus” and “Old MacDonald.”) Exposure to a range of grown-up music at a young age has enriched his sense of the world, introducing him to cultures he wouldn’t learn about from singing cartoon characters or costumed children’s performers. For now, I’m just showing him a map of possibilities and will let his curiosities guide him down whichever path he chooses—even if he eventually rebels by embracing the Queen Elsa songbook just to spite me.
A version of this article appeared in our June 2016 issue with the headline “Rock 'n' roll preschool,” p. 38.