Nursery Rhymes and Authority

Nursery Rhymes and Authority


A father, unhappy with the sad endings of so many classic nursery rhymes revised one for his daughter. She liked it so much he revised more and now has millions of viewers on his Chu-Chu web site. Parents like the new versions of the rhymes because they have happy endings, and who would not like happy endings?

Many of the nursery rhymes we recite or dance to or sing have a rather dark history. For example, Ring Around the Rosie is likely about the plague of London in 1665. The “rosie” in the song may be the malodorous rash that suffers of the plague had, and the “a pocket full of posies” were needed to cover the stench of rotting flesh.  And since so many residents of London died from the plague, “we all fall down” [dead]. (thanks to BBC)

That is only one example, but it suffices as an example of an activity that countless children have learned from over the years. So many of the rhymes were originally a way for the disenfranchised to protest such actions as unfair taxes (Ba Ba Black Sheep) or a queen who killed for religious reasons (Mary Mary Quite Contrary). However, they evolved from a way of protest to a way of learning for later generations who did not suffer from such abuses.

Literature, and nursery rhymes are literature, is a safe way for children and all of us to learn. By reading or hearing or seeing well written words, we can experience a plot from the safety of our easy chair, desk, classroom, theatre, wherever we are. We can see and understand the violence or joy or humor safely. And, if we discuss the plot and characters and action of the literature, we benefit from the knowledge of others. Parents reading to or watching with their children is a great and secure way for the children to learn. But what the child is exposed to, I think, should be authentic.

And that, being authentic, leads me to question the revising of any literature in order to make it happier.  When we teach literature, we are becoming authorities, and the literature we expose our children to should be authentic as well, and so should be our interpretations of the literature. If what we offer our children is too sad or to happy, then when they grow and see that life is not too much of either, or they see that we gave them a wrong interpretation, then they may feel betrayed.

Yes, Humpty Dumpty was ruined, but in his ruin is a lesson for every child and the child’s teacher.


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