Robbie Schaefer: What Makes Kids Tick

We’re fortunate here at Kidzu to be good pals with Robbie Schaefer, folk artist, nonprofit founder, playwright, children’s recording star, dad, volunteer, and all-around creative polymath/good guy who knows a thing or two about what makes kids tick when it comes to music and the arts.

Who better, then, for us to interview than a man who has dedicated a considerable chunk of his life to making music that inspires the child in all of us.

K: What drew you to music for kids?

RS: I kind of stumbled into that side of things because of my own kids. They actually appeared on some of my songs. What really drew me — and draws me — to performing for and with kids is how emotionally accessible and open they are to music. Kids are often more adept at speaking in the language of music than words.

Music is the language for the language-less place in us.

K: Why is music so effective with kids?

RS: You’ll hear people say that music is universal. But I’d alter that a bit to instead say that music elicits a universal emotional response in us. Music is the language for the language-less place in us. And kids don’t always have those language centers fully developed yet, so music taps into something that lets them communicate more easily and honestly.

K: Obviously you find this important to kids?

RS: Yeah, I do. Music with kids is a bit like a fertilizer or water for a plant. It brings out something that life can bury very quickly. You can see it in a kid’s eyes when you connect with them via music. Something remembered shows up.

K: You’ve spent a lot of time in poor villages in Africa and India and Central American, and more recently in Europe’s refugee camps. What does music do for child refugees?

RS: Most of these kids have been bouncing around from place to place, homeless, facing food shortages, not speaking the language of their host country. So there’s obviously a real deficit in their lives when it comes to music and the arts. When we introduce this common language of music, in a matter of hours or days we literally watch these refugee kids start to re-inhabit their own skin. A little glimmer of confidence reappears, like, ‘Oh yes, I remember this world.’

We literally watch these refugee kids start to re-inhabit their own skin.

K: How do kids and music differ around the world?

RS: Kids love ritual, structure, repetition. You don’t see a lot of that here in the West other than with kids in a particular discipline — like learning an instrument or in the school band. So when I do a song writing workshop, I make sure that every day begins and ends with the same music ritual. Maybe it’s just singing the same song each day while facing each other, then the next day, same song, different kid across from you. You can think of it as opening and then closing the experience each day.

K: We like to say that kids teach us as much as we adults teach them. Have you found that to be true?

RS: Absolutely. Kids will often surprise you. At one school in Nicaragua, we [One Voice] were introducing a music program. This boy named Richard — who fancied himself a lady’s man and class clown — was always interrupting things, making faces. One day I gave the kids a chorus and told them they had to create the lyrics, and the theme was family. Well, the next day Richard comes back with three verses of a Rap song about family being what you choose vs. what you are born with. Now, the point here is nobody was assigned homework and nobody else got it done that fast. But music opened up something in Richard that compelled him to create and share. And he taught us something about family too.

K: In your experience, at what age do kids stop being so open?

RS: Kids can start losing this as early as fourth or fifth grade. I attribute it to that peer-driven desire to conform. And here in the West, there is a growing pressure to achieve vs. create. If I compare songwriting between 2nd and fifth graders, those older kids are not willing to fail, to take a chance, to look silly.

The creative process encourages failure — it depends on it.

K: Which is a shame.

RS: Which is a real shame, yes. Because music gives us permission to be silly, to fail. The creative process encourages failure, it depends on it, and kids can only grow if they’re willing to take risks and fail.

K: Is this a global problem?

RS: I see it more in the U.S. than in other countries, and I attribute that to the entertainment culture and how it’s being sold to younger and younger audiences. Which means kids are facing the need to conform at younger and younger ages. In poorer places like India or Nicaragua where entertainment isn’t nearly as prevalent in the lives of kids, I see much older kids still willing to take a chance, still lacking in the inhibitions that really thwart kids in the U.S.

K: OK, so what can parents do to keep music and the arts alive in their kids, especially as they grow older?

RS: There are a few things parents can do.

First, I always urge parents to make a habit of offering new things to their children, because you never know which one is going to light that inner fire.

Second, don’t tie achievement to these experiences. In the U.S. in particular, we’re so consumed with achievement we forget that without failure creativity isn’t even possible. The achievement will come if they learn to experiment with and love what they do.

Third, don’t force your child to take piano or guitar or participate in the band. If they feel forced they’ll likely hate it and if they hate it they’re going to abandon it the first chance they get. And maybe resent you as well. I mean, how many adults do you know who were forced to take piano lessons as a child, yet haven’t touched a piano in years? It’s almost a cliche, right?

Fourth, practice what you preach or, better yet, play the music and sing the songs and grab your mate and dance in the kitchen. Show your kids your own love and appreciation for music, don’t just foist them off on some instructor. Kids always mimic their parents first. If you’re touting music in a music-less house, your words are going to ring hollow.

Lastly, take a chance yourself, be a kid again, try something new. In a riff on Gandhi’s famous quote, why not ‘be the change you want to see in your child.’ How cool would it be to say to your kids:

“Mom is taking a painting class.”

“I didn’t know mom paints.”

“She doesn’t. But she’s trying.”

It’s harder for us, it takes time and effort, but how much more rewarding is that for all involved? And joyful.

K: Thanks Robbie.

RS: My pleasure!

Originally published at on October 19, 2017.