Nursery rhymes are scary, and other stories (Part I)

Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady’s chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn’t say his prayers,
So I took him by his left leg
And threw him down the stairs.

This has been one of my daughter’s favourite nursery rhymes since she started talking – (‘gooth’ was one of her first words). But my husband and I have always found it slightly macabre that there’s a song about a large bird flinging a geriatric down the stairs, in retaliation for religious apathy.

And this is one of the tame ones.

Think about three blind mice and their chopped-off tails, Rock-A-Bye Baby and his/her terrifying tumble from the treetop, poor cursed Humpty Dumpty, and Jack and Jill’s cracked skulls. Not to mention that freak Peter, who confined his wife to a pumpkin shell.

The origins are horrifying.

I looked into it and it turns out that most traditional nursery rhymes weren’t really meant for children – they began as political or religious statements, couched in enough nonsense to protect the singer from prosecution for treason and set to a catchy melody that was easy to remember.

Take, for instance, Baa Baa Black Sheep. It’s not about black sheep or little boys. It’s about taxes.

In the 13th century, King Edward I realised he could make some moolla by taxing sheep farmers. One-third of the price of a sack of wool went to the king, one-third to the church and the last third to the farmer. Nothing was left for the little shepherd, crying down the lane. (The original final line was ‘And none for the little boy, crying down the lane.’)

(Even the Hundred Acre Wood isn’t exempt. It turns out that Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends demonstrate a staggering number of personality disorders. I can’t say, however, whether AA Milne created the characters with this in mind. I sincerely hope not.)

Fairy tales? No fairy story.

If you think nursery rhymes might be a little bit dodgy, don’t – I beg you! – google the origins of popular fairytales (like Beauty & the Beast, which is about bestiality and sororicide; The Little Mermaid, a story of agonising pain, loss and betrayal; The Pied Piper, in which an enraged madman systematically murders a town’s children; and Sleeping Beauty (a.k.a Sun, Moon and Talia, which is perhaps the worst of them all.)

I’m more than a little convinced that the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were a bunch of bloodthirsty and misanthropic literary lunatics.

So, what do we do?

Do we forbid our children from exposure to old-fashioned rhymes and legendary stories? Do we impose a Disney-version-only culture? (G-d forbid.) Do we audit our books, films and music, discarding anything that isn’t safe to read by virtue of an upbeat storyline, positive messaging and a happy ending?


My best advice is this:

We take nursery rhymes with a pinch of salt and a sense of humour, alter the words/outlines/endings of stories that don’t support our cultural, social or other comfort zones, avoid the stuff that offends us, and ensure that our kiddies are adequately compensated with ‘good’ children’s stories to keep them entertained.

How? What stories are ‘good’ for kids, and at what age?

Well, you’ll have to look out for Part II of this series: GOOD BOOKS ARE OUT THERE, AND OTHER STORIES (PART II).

No-one said parenting was easy 😉 See you soon.

* This post originally appeared on the JoziKids blog,