Nursery rhymes or nightmares? Why so many kids’ songs are so disturbing

Posted in Entertainment and Technology.

Like many modern parents, it wasn’t until I had children that I realised how insane old nursery rhymes are. Sure you get the odd Mary with her woolly pal, but for every cute lamb song, there are five other horror stories you’re singing away to your bewildered child on a daily basis. 

Loony lullabies

Not sure what I’m on about? Okay, let’s try these few on for size:

  • Three vision-impaired mice get their tails hacked off
  • An egg man falls off a wall and smashes to pieces
  • Two kids pretty much break their necks trying to get a drink of water
  • A bridge falls apart

The worst one in my opinion though is the old man sleeping while it rains, he hits his head and doesn’t wake up – so he’s dead, right? Oh, and the still incredibly popular lullaby about the baby in the cradle who falls out of the tree. Lovely. Now go to sleep little one …

Mixing it up

As a parent, it’s natural to trot out the songs and rhymes you were exposed to as a child. They’re deeply embedded in your subconscious and it feels normal to repeat them to your own children – that is, until, you realise how scary the words are. In fact, I find some of them so disturbing that we started to add extra lines after the song’s traditionally finished.

In our house, the old man can’t get up in the morning but he’s fine by lunchtime. Everybody’s happy. I know there’s a time and place for children to understand death, but a so-called cheery throwaway ditty is not the way to go about it. Do we really want our kids terrified to go to sleep when it rains or when grandpa takes a nap? 

Meaning in the madness

Of course, all of these old nursery rhymes have historic meanings, usually stemming from something political or religious hundreds of years ago. And some are actually nowhere near as frightening as they sound in this modern age, such as Humpty Dumpty – this was apparently a cannon during the English Civil War in the 1600s, which couldn’t be put back together when it fell because it was simply too heavy. So not an egg man after all.

Evil origins

On the flipside though, there are so many rhymes that sound fine now but originated from something awful indeed. For example, Mary wasn’t really contrary at all. Queen “Bloody” Mary 1 of England was instead a psychopath who used torture devices called ‘silver bells’ and ‘cockle shells’ for her victims (maybe her garden was where she buried them, all in a row).

And Ring Around the Rosie was about the Black Plague with ‘rosie’ a word for the rash people got. (Fact: the original lyrics for ‘a-tishoo a-tishoo’ were ‘ashes ashes’ which symbolised the cremation of all the dead bodies. Nice.)

Kiddie conundrum

The problem is, though, it doesn’t really matter what the origins of these nursery rhymes are, most of them either sound downright horrible, completely bonkers or contain subject matter you wouldn’t consciously dream of singing to your child. Even the ‘innocent’ Goosey, Goosey Gander throws a man down the stairs by his leg because he won’t say his prayers. Heavy!

Boycott or not?

So do you stop singing the rhymes or not? You can certainly try but it’s so hard not to! The words fly out of your mouth before you even realise what’s going on. So maybe the answer, for me, is to just keep adding my own lines. I sing lots of my own made-up stuff to the kids anyway (“Come and get your dinnnnner, before I throw it awaaaay!”, but let’s face it sometimes it just doesn’t captivate the audience as much as an egg man does.

And don’t even get me started on fairytales …


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