If Nursery-Rhyme Friends Suffer Miserable Ends, Is TV Worse Than Childhood Verse?

peter.jpgRemember the clueless old woman who lived in a shoe with a load of kids? “She gave them some broth without any bread, whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed?”  In “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” when the bough breaks the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all.” There’s our misogynist friend Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater who couldn’t hold on to his wife, so he “put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.” We certainly understand why she wanted to leave him, but why is this a popular and perfectly acceptable topic for tiny ears?

I remember hearing and repeating these nursery rhymes as a child without a thought to what they were really saying, and apparently my parents didn’t find anything disturbing about them either. For them, it was a way to teach language through rhyme and repetition. Nursery rhymes are timeless teaching tools that have been around since America as we know it was born. Many originated in England, and several popped up right here.

Fellow blogger Sher D Fly recently pointed out the distressing outcomes of many nursery rhymes. When Jack and Jill tumbled down the mountain, he essentially cracked his head open. Humpty Dumpty had a fatal “great fall.” In “Goosey Goosey Gander,” a person wanders upstair and downstairs and in his lady’s chambers, where “I met an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers. I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.” Jeez! It’s odd, isn’t it, that we think nothing of exposing our very young children to images we work hard to shield them from when they grow a little older. What’s up with that?

Spoon-feeding History

It’s not surprising to learn that the origins of many nursery rhymes are historical. In the story of Jack and Jill, Jack is supposedly King Louis XVI of France, and Marie Antoinette is Jill. Since they were both beheaded, we can thank the poet for cleaning it up–a lot. And Goosey Gander’s elder violence refers to the necessity for Catholic priests in the 16th century to hide in small, secret rooms in large English houses to avoid persecution from Protestants. When Catholic priests were found, they–and the families that hid them–were executed. Again, a word of thanks to the poet for softening the blow.

Nursery Rhymes Vs. TV

So do the rhyme-makers’ efforts to lessen the violence make them a better option for our kids than the violence on TV? Not necessarily, according to a team at England’s Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, whose tongue-in-cheek study a few years ago found that the frequency for nursery rhyme violence was more than 10 times greater than pre-9PM TV shows in Great Britain. TV averaged almost five violent scenes per hour of viewing, but there were “more than 52 per hour of listening to nursery rhymes.”

The difference, they said, is that nursery rhymes are usually read to children in a comfortable atmosphere, maybe on the lap of a parent with the parent’s arm around the child. With TV, the child may be watching violent scenes alone.

fluffy-froggy-m.jpgnoisyboym.jpg Interestingly, a quick search on the Internet reveals that designers of baby clothes, baby’s room decor and baby toys opt for the non-violent nursery rhyme characters–the cow that jumped over the moon, “twinkle, twinkle little star,” and Mary and her lambs. In fact, the characters are mostly generic animals, like ducks, bunnies, bears, giraffes, turtles, elephants, frogs and lambs without any backstory. Nice to know they’re paying attention!

So to parents who’ve been reading those nursery rhymes every night–I don’t think you have to worry too much about it, but now that you see beyond the clever rhyme, you might want to find new material!