Harold Behr

Songs for Children: Playground or Battleground?

Every child loves music: the beat, the tune, the sounds of the voices and the instruments. Children love the words of songs too, even though they might not understand them at first. So from what age should a child be introduced to songs of the people? I would say that this happens naturally from birth, with parents humming and singing melodies which are familiar to them from their own childhood. At some point, themes of cultural identity enter the repertoire – songs which tell of struggle, suffering, loss, joy and fulfilment.

More than seventy years ago I was introduced to songs about Israel, first by my parents and then through a brief encounter with a Zionist youth movement. Religious singing played a part too, although since my parents were not particularly observant, this type of music gained less of a hold over my emotions than the spirited singing and dancing of secular Hebrew songs which were designed to whet my appetite for a move, one day, to an idyllic life in the Promised Land.

I can claim no in-depth knowledge of the parallel lure for Palestinian children of songs about Palestine, but a comparison sprang to mind while listening to a song being sung by Palestinian children aged about five or six. In both Palestinian and Israeli cultures the tunes are beautiful but the messages wrapped up in the lyrics make no mention of reconciliation. The former, at least in the one song that I listened to, sounds a melancholy note and speaks of a lost childhood. There is an exhortation to fight for the lost country of Palestine, even if it means sacrificing oneself. The latter invites its children to be strong in the face of adversity and to participate in the building of the new land of Israel.

My comparison might be wildly invalid: music for children in modern day Israel must surely have a different complexion to the pioneering songs of sixty or seventy years ago and there could well be many songs for Palestinian children which urge enjoyment of the world as it is – the celebration of nature and the pleasures of play – rather than hoping for rewards in an afterlife by perpetuating the struggle against an enemy. But I do know how messages implanted in early childhood endure, especially when repeated often enough and delivered through the medium of poignant music.

The writers of lyrics for children’s songs wield a powerful instrument. They carry a heavy responsibility for shaping the attitudes of future generations and my plea is for them to craft more songs which tell of friendship between the children of the different communities despite the grievances and fears which haunt their parents.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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