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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32 Comments Add yours

  1. I agree with you about Rock a bye baby. Hardly a good tale to send your baby off to a restful sleep #AnythingGoes

    1. Min says:

      Indeed. I actually banned my mother from singing it as I was terrified it would give the baby nightmares.

  2. Rob says:

    Certainly some of those are very disturbing. I know we have a few nursery rhyme books but I don’t think I’ve ever actually read them to any of the kids. Interesting post. #AnythingGoes

  3. One of our tots favourites is ‘Goosey Goosey Gander’ which features a man being thrown down the stairs for not saying his prayers. That’ll teach me to show him youtube videos without watching them first.


    1. Min says:

      Ooh I had forgotten that one! I’ll have to try and dig out my old book of nursery rhymes as I’m pretty sure it was full of classics like this…or then again maybe not!

  4. ha ha! I love this post! I agree! Some nursery rhymes are nuts! Who would want a baby to fall? I do however love ring a ring a rosies! – all about the black plague! Angela xx

    1. Min says:

      Thank you! Yes, there is something brilliant about the fact that a nursery rhyme was invented eons ago about a horrible disease, and yet we’re all still singing it!

    2. Chris says:

      It’s actually not about the plague at all. This nursery rhyme was not recorded until the late Victorian era, well after the time of the plague!

  5. I’ve always loved nursery rhymes, still do. You are right, though, they are full of disturbing and shameful phrases: these reflect verbal history passed down from generation to generation. Great piece.

  6. Lianne says:

    Ha, I know what you mean. Some of them are def crazy. I work in Early Years and there are certain songs we can no longer sing because of their meaning or because they’re not politically correct. However, is it just me that has been singing them for that long that you dont actually think about what you’re singing or the meaning behind them? 🙂 #MaternityMondays

    1. Min says:

      Ooh, I’d love to know what the banned ones are?

  7. It’s the same with fairy tales, most of which are pretty scary when you read the originals and think about actually reading them to a child 🙂 Thanks for making me smile, I’m off to sing ring a ring of rosies with my kids…! #anythinggoes

    1. Min says:

      Yes, that’s very true. And also a lot of fairy tales are all about reinforcing gender stereotypes, which is another thing I have an issue with. Might have to write an angry post about them as well!

  8. haha this is hilarious. We change the boy down the lane to whichever child we are singing it to, So funny you are really on one aren’t you 😉 #MaternityMondays

    1. Min says:

      Yes I always change it to my son’s name. And the “Master” and the “Dame” end up being whichever adults are around at the time. Personalising the nursery rhymes is always more fun and less offensive *says nothing about all the ones I have changed so that the lyrics are all about nappies and poo.*

  9. Great post. A lot of nursery rhymes and fairy tales are pretty gruesome when you think about them in detail. Hopefully, the children miss the meaning!
    Thanks for linking up to #AnythingGoes

    1. Min says:

      Let’s hope so-to be honest I don’t recall taking the likes of Baa Baa Black Sheep too seriously as a wee one.

  10. My hubby and I have discussed the dark nature of some of the nursery rhymes and we’re more careful about the ones we pick to sing. However, after reading your post, I think we need to be even more picky! You definitely got me thinking that little bit more about, ‘why nursery rhymes’. #CommentLuv

    1. Min says:

      Some of them are awful, aren’t they? That said, I don’t know how much children really take in the lyrics anyway. I don’t think I paid much attention!

  11. Pen says:

    Or…’it’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring’ (not sure how rain and old men snoring can be linked but never mind) ‘he went to bed’ (but he was already snoring before he got into bed – does that make sense?) ‘and bumped his head, and couldn’t get up in the morning’. He died? It was raining and an old man died? Delightful! I regularly sing this to my boy when it is raining. He thinks it is funny. I am creating a monster.

    1. Min says:

      Aha, those are the rest of the lyrics! The only bit I could remember was the old man snoring! I also sing a song that I used to sing at primary school to Piglet when it rains. It goes “I can’t do (insert mundane activity such as going to school/work/leaving the house) today he said, it’s raining, it’s raining again.” So basically I am teaching him that when it rains, the only sensible option is to stay in bed.

  12. Pen says:

    Sorry, #TheTruthAbout

  13. Honestly, my kids have so many nursery rhyme books and they’re all bonkers. To think I loved these rhymes as a kid. I’m totally with you on the last one. What the heck is the baby doing on top of a tree. Love the Wembley library shout out. Was terribly sad to come back to the UK to visit family this Summer and find that Barham Park library in Sudbury is now gone.

    Thanks for linking to #effitfriday

    1. Min says:

      Thanks for reading. I’m sure there’s a shop in Wembley High Road called Friends of Barham Park Library which sells (or lends, I’m not sure) second hand books.

  14. Can’t find your social media links so can’t tweet this at present…

    1. Min says:

      Oh, there should be a Twitter link at the bottom of each post. I will check. Thanks for letting me know.

  15. Nursery rhymes are amazingly grim aren’t they?? We have a book of old rhymes here from when my husband was a boy – we used to read them a lot. What about wee-willy-winkee running through the town in his night gown!? I’m glad they still sing them though. Although my boy seems to sing baa baa pink sheep have you any spots! Sarah #FabFridayPost

    1. Min says:

      Yes, they’re bizarre. Another awful one that another commenter picked out is Goosey Goosey Gander, which I’d forgotten about!

  16. imatwinmama says:

    Hahaha very funny post! The patriarchy!

    What about that bloody “1,2,3,4,5?” Presumably, you count to 10, so that you can hold up each of your fingers and thumbs in order and teach your child to count. So the person who cruelly caught a live fish (yummy though!), ensnaring it on a hook, and losing a chunk of their finger in the process, then holds up their bloodied, nightmare-inducing finger to their child, whilst telling them in a sing-song voice, “Because it bit my finger so!”, hideous grin on their face, blood dripping from their oozing wound…!!!


    1. Min says:

      Honestly, I could write a book with the amount of mad, bad and simply weird nursery rhymes there are out there. Their entire purpose seems to be to terrify little children!

  17. Nab says:

    Korn made a song mocking nursery rhymes and their gory content

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