Why are some Nursery Rhymes so disturbing?
Kittens lose their mittens. Children fall down hills. A spider threatens a little girl. A beloved bug’s house is on fire.
Many stories on our Uncle Goose Nursery Rhyme blocks feature tales of doom and horror; loss and harm. Perversely, these classic stories are set to happy, sing-song verses.
Children have enjoyed subversively sinister Nursery Rhymes for centuries. People from every culture have warbled simple poetry to babies and children.
Easy, breezy songs and rhymes help improve a young child’s intellectual development. Simple stories help with spatial reasoning, socialization, conversational skills, cultural competence, and more.
The sing-song sounds can be soothing and comforting. Some rhymes are fun to say out loud. They crackle and pop as they trip off the tongue.
“Jack be nimble. Jack be quick. Jack jump over the candlestick.”
It’s a fun rhyme. You can picture a boy laughing and jumping
And yet, the poem probably celebrates an outlaw. In the 1500’s, the pirate Black Jack was adept at evading capture. Back then, the habit of jumping over candles was good luck. After all, it prevented people from putting out their light source.
Lady Bug, Lady Bug may be about persecution. In the 1500’s, people were being burned alive at the stake for their religious beliefs.
Mary Quite Contrary may also be about persecution and torture. Mary Queen of Scots buried people in her ‘garden.’ And she tortured with ‘cockleshells.’
As you dive into the history of many nursery rhymes, you may be horrified. They’re often based on acts of persecution, prostitution, pandemics, and mayhem. And there’s a good reason for this.
Consider the time frame. Centuries ago, we didn’t have the internet, TV, newspapers, or foundational literacy. People needed a way to spread news about horrific current and cultural events.
And yet, openly sharing this news could get you killed. Parody was the best way to get news about culture and current events to stick and spread.
Today, people use memes. Centuries ago, people used Nursery Rhymes.
Turning something horrible into a fun children’s rhyme was a subversive way to pass on news and opinion about current events. It was a clever way to speak truth to power.
Even people who couldn’t read could chant a light and easy ditty. And no one was likely to get killed for repeating a silly, sing-song children’s story.
But why do these stories persist? Why not make them more gentle and less disturbing? As an answer, let’s consider this short story:
Once upon a time, there was a handsome prince. He was born wealthy, then married a beautiful princess. In time, he became king. He lived happily ever after. The End.
It’s not a very interesting story, is it? We didn’t learn anything from it. And that’s because nothing happened.
A good story must have some conflict. We feel inspired when we learn about how others met a challenge. We also gain a mental simulation of how we might behave in a similar situation.
- If the kittens didn’t lose their mittens, we wouldn’t have a story.
- If Jack and Jill went up the hill and didn’t fall down — where’s the story?
- How do you behave when you see a spider? What’s appropriate?
- What happens when your house is on fire? What do you do?
We may not like it when things go wrong, but it’s how we develop curiosity. It’s how we learn to cope. Conflict-driven stories let us engage in meaningful discussions about learning, culture, and values.
When you engage with children over nursery rhymes, you’re carrying on a centuries-old tradition. You’re helping them learn and grow. And you’re having fun while doing it.