Why you should care
Because some nursery rhymes come with a lot of baggage, and not just the bags-of-wool variety.
There’s an old English proverb that goes A woman, a spaniel and a walnut tree / The more you beat them, the better they be.
It’s a pretty catchy little ditty, but also a pretty indefensible sentiment. Now, if you’re a parent, imagine whipping out that little piece of singsongy wisdom in front of your kids. You wouldn’t. But you might sit on your child’s bed that very night and read to them about Peter, Peter Pumpkin-Eater (keeping his wife in a pumpkin shell) or Little Polly Flinders (beaten for sitting among the cinders) without batting an eye. It’s Mother Goose, right?
Yes, but as we have learned the hard way with regard to monarchies, bloodletting and lard, just because grown-ups have been doing something for centuries, does not automatically make it a best practice. I would guess that any reasonably conscientious parent reading Mother Goose today is likely to experience at least some discomfort from about a tenth of the nursery rhymes, particularly when it comes to their treatment of the sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice sex. Should we throw out the beloved baby songs with the soiled, patriarchal bathwater, or can Mother Goose be redeemed through a series of teachable moments? I say shelve it for something better.
Unless you are kept in a pumpkin shell, you are probably aware that many nursery rhymes have some rather adult backstories, containing veiled political satire and references to everything from religious persecution (“Goosey Goosey Gander”) to warring prostitutes (“Lucy Locket”). “Ring Around the Rosy” may very well be about the skin rash experienced by plague victims, and “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” about the Protestant martyrs who died under England’s Queen Mary (“cockleshells” being instruments for torturing male genitalia!).
Social reformers have been trying to sanitize the nursery canon for years.
Still, while I find it challenging explaining the nuances of the 13th-century wool tax (“Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”) to a 4-year-old, none of these historically loaded rhymes really bother me. What I find more troubling, especially as the father of two daughters, is how some nursery rhymes could influence a child’s perception of what society values in young women. “In Mother Goose, girls may be flower tenders, frightened curd eaters or imprisoned pumpkin shell residents,” as Douglas Larche, author of the alternative Father Gander Nursery Rhymes, once put it to the Los Angeles Times, “never winners, rulers or even successful candlestick jumpers.”
It’s more than that, though. There’s the implication in many of the nursery rhymes, from “Curly Locks” (whose title character shall “sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam”) to “Bobby Shafto” (“He’ll come back and marry me”), that marriage is the most desirable condition for a young woman. Nor is matrimony a station that she has much of a say in, either before (see “Where are You Going, My Pretty Maid?”) or after (as in the husband’s cry in “Heigh-Ho, the Carrion Crow”: “Wife! Bring brandy in a spoon”).
To be sure, social reformers have been trying to sanitize the nursery canon for years — the Victorians founded the British Society for Nursery Rhyme Reform — and several revisionist alternatives, some reeking of political correctness, have been proposed. Mother Goose has survived them all, and for good reason. Part of its enduring popularity, says Seth Lerer, a distinguished professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego, lies not only in the nursery rhymes’ memorability and adaptability but also in their ability to foster emotional connections and bonding. “Reading these rhymes together can bring parents and children into a shared sense of interpretive belonging,” Lerer tells OZY. And while he recognizes there are some unsavory elements to be found in nursery rhymes, Lerer believes that ultimately, “our job as parents is not to shield, but to explain.”
I tend to agree, at least when it comes to older children and things like movies, video games and pussy-grabbing politicians, but I don’t really see the point in trying to teach a child under the age of 5 how to recognize sexism in bedtime stories. There are plenty of other children’s books in the sea, and it’s far simpler just to omit the undesirable ones from the mix, classic or not. And I will happily postpone the discussion of catchy, offensive rhymes that require teachable moments for when my girls first discover Kanye.