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While some parents might think a long car ride of the same music on repeat is a huge headache trigger, it is a great learning experience for young children—especially with songs that can be used to elicit emotions and create social skills.
"Music is a form of communication that exceeds verbal language," explains Jessica Baron, a musician, author and child development specialist who is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit group Guitars in the Classroom. "Love and soothing, which a baby should get a lot of, is communicated through the human voice by singing. Songs bring language into the music."
Baron says that songs can take the words and sounds that young children are beginning to understand and relate them to life lessons and social development. She shares some examples.
"I Love You"
This "Barney and Friends" song gives meaning to words that toddler-age children hear all the time, says Baron, with lines like "it's a great big hug and a kiss from me to you" offering a relatable "action, a conceptual understanding."
"The reason that song is so powerful for very little kids is it's articulating what they're feeling in a loving family," she says "By the time they're 5, they want to shoot Barney. But that song has done its job."
"Make New Friends (But Keep the Old)"
The song known to Girl Scouts across America teaches an idea that kids can carry with them throughout their lives.
"Is it OK to have a new friend?" Baron asks. "Can you keep the old friend if you make a new friend? That's a big idea." This is an important lesson to be taught to kindergarten and first-graders, which is an age when name-calling and line-cutting starts, Baron says She says socialization is key to preparing for second grade when "they're going to take off intellectually like rockets."
Baron says that Malvina Reynolds' folk song—whose chorus features the life lesson that "love is something if you give it away, you end up having more"—is "a song about unselfishness" and "teaches the universal equation of loving." She adds that "the kids do a hand motion where they literally go from hugging themselves to extending their arms out to the circle to give that love away."
While Bob Marley's song may not immediately be considered children's music, Baron says it does offer a coping mechanism for dealing with hurt and sadness. She offered the example of a teacher singing the soothing lyrics to calm children down after an earthquake and teaching those who are scared to "don't worry about a thing, 'cause every little thing gonna be all right."
"I Will Be Your Friend"
This Guy Davis song has lyrics like "if you got trouble and you need a helping hand, come to me. I will be your friend." Baron says it teaches kids that it's OK to lean on others, that the "child is knowing if he is in trouble, go tell somebody. Go get your friend." She says it also "encourages trust, loyalty and willingness to understand a friend's feelings."
"The More We Get Together"
This British folk song about singing, dancing and playing with friends "is an anthem for playing, creating and learning together with the bonus of sharing friends and feeling happy," says Baron. "It is a great school readiness song."
"If You're Happy and You Know It"
"Children get very frustrated when they're little and they don't have the words to explain it," says Baron. "They're playing with a toy and the toy breaks and they can't fix it, so they cry and get mad."
She says it's important to teach children calming songs like this one so that they can learn how to deal with their frustration and so that they learn that it's OK to fail. She says she likes this song in particular because it "teaches emotional states—what they feel and look like" and says it can be particularly helpful for children with autism.
Create Your Own
With her organization Guitars in the Classroom, Baron "trains teachers to make up songs on the spot to handle whatever is going on."
She uses the example of using the melody of "The Farmer in the Dell" to help with frustration and temper tantrums, changing the lyrics from wives, children, cheese and pets to things like "when your pencil breaks, when your pencil breaks, ask for another one, when your pencil breaks."