The Wrongness of Most Nursery Rhymes

One of the things that has surprised me most since I became a parent is that nursery rhymes still exist.

Not only exist, but they are EVERYWHERE.  And kids actually LIKE THEM.

When I myself was a wee nipper I had a book of nursery rhymes, which disturbingly included one about a child being whipped for sitting too close to the fire, or something along those lines.  It was illustrated by a sad-looking red-headed girl, and even at the tender age of four, or however old I was when I used to read that book (I was a precocious reader.  I can actually still remember starting school and being really annoyed that there were some other kids who were on higher reading levels than me, just because they were older and had started school before me, and not because they were, like, more intelligent or better at reading or anything.  I WAS THE BEST I WAS THE BEST I WAS THE BEST) I realised that that was no way to treat a child.  It certainly wasn’t the way I was treated, thank goodness for that.

Anyway, times must have moved on a bit as that nursery rhyme appears to have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Get thee to the Dustbin of History, thee nursery rhyme of horror
Get thee to the Dustbin of History, thee nursery rhyme of horror

However, that does not mean that all nursery rhymes are now sanitised, politically correct, right-on Poems of Virtuousness worthy of a weekly column in the Guardian reporting from the frontline of Austerity Britain.  Oh no.  In fact, there are quite a few that I still have a fair amount of beef with.

Let’s start where it always starts, with that old chestnut Baa Baa Black Sheep.

Now I know, you knew I would start with this one.  You thought I would have a rant about how singling out a black sheep to produce wool for its colonial masters, the “Master” and the “Dame” is racism in the first degree, and just like the Daily Mail you were about to throw your arms up in indignation at the thought that this innocent children’s classic could be brutalised by being renamed Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep in an attempt to mollify all those angry, lentil-weaving Guardian readers and before you know it they’ll be banning Christmas as well!

Well, reader, I will disappoint you.

I have no issue with the sheep being black.  On the contrary, why not have a character in a nursery rhyme who is something other than lily-white.  It would make a nice change.  The ones who really make me uncomfortable are the “Master” and the “Dame.”  It’s just so MEDIEVAL.  Who calls themselves a “master” or a “dame” anyway?  Who is this sheep giving wool to?  Dame Kelly Holmes?  Dame Judi Dench?  Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson?  A pantomime dame?  And more importantly, who is the “master?”  This smacks of patriarchy to me.  Master, indeed!  WHY ARE THE MEN ALWAYS ASSUMED TO BE IN CHARGE?  It’s like when I got a phone call from a call centre in India trying to get me to claim money for the car accident I had that wasn’t my fault (when?  In 1981?  BECAUSE THAT WAS THE LAST TIME I WAS IN A CAR ACCIDENT) and they asked to speak to the “Master of the House.”  Which would be who, exactly?  Piglet?  He pretty much does rule the roost round here, if truth be told.

And while I’m on the subject, who is this “little boy who lives down the lane?”  Why is it always a boy?

I must admit, strides are being made in this area, and by strides, I mean the librarian at Wembley Library who does the Saturday morning sing-a-long sessions changes the words to a monstrous tune known as “Three Little Men in Their Flying Saucer” to “Three Little Girls in Their Flying Saucer,” and gives a subversive grin whilst doing it.  Go her, I say.  That’s progress.

And so that brings me to another potentially racist little ditty.  I must admit that I thought I had heard the last of that one that goes “with a a knick-knack paddy-whack, give a dog a bone.  This old man came rolling home,” but when I heard it at the children’s centre I realised that I was sadly mistaken.  Let’s look at this in a bit more detail.

“Knick-knack paddy-whack.”  What is this about?  Because it sounds a lot to me like a racist term for an Irish person.  Who is being hit.  So this is a song about hitting Irish people.  A children’s song about beating up the Irish.  Great.  And it gets worse.

“This old man came rolling home.”  Why was he rolling home then?  Oh, I see, he was DRUNK.  So what you are saying here is that all Irish people are drunk, and get into fights, amirite?  And this is a song for children, people.  CHILDREN.

Next I come to the other one everyone knows about: Ring O Ring O Roses.  This is about the plague. THE PLAGUE, ladies and gentlemen.  You know that thing that killed, like a THIRD OF EUROPE in the Middle Ages.  JOKES.

Another one I have an issue with (I know!  Another one!  Are there any left that we are allowed to sing?) is Rock-a-Bye Baby.

Rock-a-Bye baby on a tree top (what is a baby doing in a tree?  CHILD ABUSE!)

When the wind blows the cradle will rock

When the bough breaks to cradle will fall(!!!!!!!!)

Down will come baby, cradle and all.

Utterly terrifying.  Need I say more.

My mother also sings one that starts with “Oh dear what can the matter be.”  The matter, according to this little ditty, is that “three old ladies” are “stuck in the lavatory,” where they then remain for A WHOLE WEEK.  This is at best a very unfortunate turn of events, or worse, elder abuse.

So there we have it, all nursery rhymes appear to be invented with the express purpose of either initiating young children into the more unfortunate aspects of the current status quo, or teaching them to be utterly terrified as the world is a very scary place full of violence, pestilence, extreme weather and frankly unpleasant people.  Even London Bridge is falling down.  You can’t even trust architecture.

Or perhaps children need to learn the unfortunate facts of life.  It’s not all one big Night Garden out there after all, and we can’t wrap them in cotton wool forever.  What do you think?


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