Nursery Rhymes in the 21st Century
How we parent our children is not like ‘the olden days’. Children are encouraged to be heard as well as seen, they are urged to question the world around them. They are expected to learn empathy and be compassionate to others. We want to them to embrace change as we live in a modern world with new technology infiltrating our lives every day.
And yet….the nursery rhymes we play and sing to our children are the same ones that were sung to us and to our parents and our grandparents. How come everything these days is the latest and greatest but nursery rhymes have not been updated for the 21st century? Why are these little songs so old fashioned when everything else has become modernised?
Of course I am not going to stop singing this nonsense to my son. I have found I am impressed at how well I remember many of the songs. He enjoys me singing (the only person in the world who does). I like putting on a silly voice, teaching him how words rhyme and doing actions to some of the songs. I am not telling anyone to stop – just to be aware of what your child is listening to. For example…
Many nursery rhymes describe ludicrous behaviour. In ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ the guy went to bed with his trousers on, and with one shoe off and the other shoe on. But it gets much more absurd. Animals are able to do all sorts of wild behaviour. In ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ the dog stands on its head and in ‘Pussy Cat’ the cat goes to London to visit the Queen. During ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ the cat plays a fiddle and the cow jumps over the moon. My favourite in the bizarre stakes is ‘Yankee Doodle’ – the man must be a little crazy because he sticks a feather in his cap and calls it macaroni.
If the songs had just remained old-fashioned and a bit silly, I probably wouldn’t have an issue with them. What concerns me is the instances of abuse, serious injury and bad or illegal behaviour that are depicted. Is this the first introduction to music we want our children to hear?
Some of the things that happen to animals are a bit awful. In ‘Three Little Kittens’ they are not allowed to eat pie, and in ‘This Old Man’ he plays knick-knack on a hen. I am not sure what that is but it doesn’t sound pleasant. The scenarios can even be a bit amusing; in ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ she doesn’t have any food to give to the dog so it looks dead and she goes to buy him a coffin. How you can have money for a dog-coffin but not for food is not explained. But then some tunes venture into shocking cruelty. In ‘Ding Dong Dell’ the boy tries to drown the cat in the well and during ‘Three Blind Mice’ the poor mice who have already got it bad, being blind and all, have their tails cut off with a carving knife.
It is not just animals that are harmed. People also get their share of physical injury. Animals partly get revenge during ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ when a blackbird pecks off the maid’s nose. ‘Rock-a-bye’ baby has a nice calming tone to it until you realise the cradle with the baby in it is falling from the tree. What happens to the baby is not explained but it cannot be good. There are plenty of falls and knocks – Humpty Dumpty breaks into many pieces after his fall. Jack falls down the hill and breaks his crown and Jill comes tumbling after. In “Its Raining, Its Pouring’ the man bumped his head on the end of his bed and couldn’t get up and poor ‘Miss Mary Mack’ bumped her head and now she is dead. ‘Ring o Roses’ apparently alludes to the plague when we all sneeze and fall down. And in a twist, ‘Oranges and Lemons’ starts off quite pleasantly and then in the last line of the song sweetly sings “and here comes the chopper to chop off your head”. Just what your child wants to hear at bedtime.
These nursery rhymes also promote illegal, dangerous and just plain bad behaviour. Majory Daw seems to be in some sort of almost slave labour arrangement as she only gets a penny a day. Nimble Jack jumps over candlesticks and Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town in his nightgown. Sukie keeps taking the kettle off the stove even though all Polly wants is to make a cup of tea. ‘Ten Little Indians’ is just plainly culturally insensitive and ‘Hush a bye baby’ encourages materialistic and indulgent behaviour. And what does a baby need billy goats or a diamond ring for anyway? Finally, Peter the Pumpkin Eater sounds like a terrible husband – his first wife wants to leave him so he kidnaps her and keeps her in a pumpkin shell. I don’t know who would marry him after that but he decides he doesn’t love his second wife either.
So Where To From Here?
Eliminating all the disturbing rhymes leaves us with only two that make the cut. ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ reminds us that life is but a dream which is quite a profound sentiment for a children’s jingle but it is perfectly fine. ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ has beautiful prose that describes a star as like a diamond in the sky. So you can decide to sing just these two songs but then you are likely to go a bit mad with only two to repeat over and over. Or you can choose to ignore my little rant and sweetly sing about chopping off heads, cats being drowned, jumping around fire, serious head injuries and giving a feather a silly name.