Jennifer Rose, who is featured in Program 4 of Art to Heart, is a teacher of traditional dance as well as a professional performer whose work combines dance, music, and drama. (You can find out more about her at the Jennifer Rose web site.) Jennifer’s husband, Alfredo Escobar, is a visual artist. In this article, she shares thoughts and encouragement on how parents and their children can enjoy arts activities together.
Is it genetics or environment? The age-old chicken-and-egg question about children’s abilities and preferences goes on and on. My parents are not musicians, but they raised six children who are all musically talented. My paternal grandmother’s family were all good singers, and the folks who believe that genetics play a role in artistic talent are content to point out that “it often skips a generation.” My husband Alfredo’s parents are both talented artists, so naturally he got it “from both sides.” The fact is, we don’t know what will make a child interested or talented in anything, and our responsibility as parents is to give our children healthy experiences in many areas. Whether we feel qualified or not.
It is important to Alfredo and me that our children love the arts, so we started early to lay a foundation for that to develop. As soon as we found out we were expecting Lydia, I began singing “Kentucky Babe” to her when I lay down for bed at night. Sure enough, when she got big enough for me to feel her activity inside my tummy, I could sing that song to calm her down when I needed to rest. When she was crying in the birthing room after her introduction to this world, I began singing that song from across the room. Her crying stopped immediately. Now, even five years later, she still knows that’s her special song. I chose a Danish song for Isabel, with similar results.
Simple Games, Simple Joy
Both girls had danced with us for hours in their little front carriers by the time they were 2 years old, and it has not been necessary to “teach” them to dance. They are both incredibly expressive and creative in their dancing. I sometimes get moves from them that I use in choreography! When they were tiny, I often played patty-cake with them, holding their hands and clapping them together with mine. Later I played little singing games with them that helped identify body parts, colors, or other things I wanted them to learn. Counting songs came later, and then spelling songs and songs with improvisational rhyming. I usually lead those myself, and we also listen often to some great CDs with fun, educational music led by accomplished children’s musicians. The great thing about little kids is that they love to spend artsy time with their parents and couldn’t care less if their parents are any good at it!
In an effort to help teachers and parents remember and play singing games with their young children, I put 42 of my favorites in a book called American Heritage Playparty and Singing Games. The notebook has written lyrics, instructions, and historical notes, and the accompanying CD and DVD have complete demonstrations of the games. The games the girls and I currently play most often include “Little Johnny Brown,” “Marching ’Round the Village,” “Looby Loo,” “Jump Jim Joe,” and “Mazudio.”
Talk to Your Baby!
Both research and instinct tell us that the first five years are incredibly important in a child’s development. Face-to-face time with family members is essential to the development of a baby’s emotional sense. The amount a baby is talked to directly affects his linguistic development. The kinds of sounds a baby hears in its first few months will be the kinds of sounds she makes as she imitates the language of her family and caregivers. A child may be born with talent, but environment shapes values and behaviors that can open the door for natural talent or slam it completely shut.
If I had to put a name on the parenting style that Alfredo and I have chosen, it might be “deliberate parenting.” We feel that raising children isn’t a random thing that one can leave to chance.
While we’re constantly watching for the things that make our girls tick (with Lydia, it’s bugs), we’re also constantly making deliberate choices about what we expose them to, because that will ultimately affect their behavior and determine in large part who they become. We tell a lot of stories together, including established tales and those we make up as we go. We look at family pictures from years gone by and tell the girls about their ancestors and living relatives, so they’ll have a healthy sense of where and who they came from.
We limit their TV time to almost nothing, because we want them to create their own games and spend as much time as they can outdoors. We let them paint in Alfredo’s studio with real acrylic paints and canvas, so they know what their father does for a living. And they understand the thrill of creating a work of art, no matter how abstract it looks (and the grandparents love it). We have been to see some really great musical shows together, and we’ve always talked beforehand about what we would see and how we would act, with expectations and rewards clearly outlined to ensure success.
We look at pictures or listen to the music from the show afterward to help them remember the experience. We watch scenes from Broadway musicals on DVD before bedtime a couple of nights a week, and I often catch the girls acting out the roles and singing the songs in their play together. I reinforce the responses I like by complimenting the girls on them: “I love the way you sing that song so emotionally,” or “That was a beautiful dance—can you do some more?” Of course, all of this requires that we spend a lot of time with our children, another responsibility that we take very seriously.
Parenting is the most fun, most rewarding, most difficult job either of us has ever had. We chose this job with great excitement, because it is the one thing we can do with our lives that will truly fulfill our reason for being on this Earth. We started off with the end in mind: children who will know the value of expression, of nature, of humanity, and of themselves. We can’t think of any better way to that end than a life filled with art.