Recently someone I know sang an old nursery rhyme about hot cross buns to my little Button-Pusher. After the line, ‘if you have no daughters, give them to your sons’, I commented (half jokingly) “what if you have daughters? Don’t the sons get any if you have daughters? What are the sons supposed to do? Go hungry?” To which the singer replied, “oh you always read far too much into these things, it’s just a nursery rhyme.”
Now the singer in question was considerably older than me, and having been taught respect for my elders, I decided not to say anything more. But I did find myself thinking, is it really ‘just a nursery rhyme’?
Words are powerful, and can have a profound impact on us (I recently wrote about the word ‘bossy’ and what a negative effect its use can have on young girls, by discouraging them from becoming leaders or speaking up), and nursery rhymes and children’s stories are some of the first words we hear as babies. It got me thinking about how these words shape us, and our understanding of the world and our place in it? How great an impact do they have? Stories and fairytales are often read over and over again (if there’s one thing a toddler likes it’s repetition!). A little while ago, I realised that my little Button-Pusher’s bookshelves were full of modern authors, and thinking about the many old fashioned tales I would have heard in my childhood, I bought a selection of classic stories. And frankly, I’m amazed at the messages we’ve been hammering home to children for years. What kind of messages? Here’s my take on a couple of classic tales of yesteryear:
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
A little girl (no older than about ten) goes for a walk in the woods. Now, quite why a young child is walking alone in a forest is anyone’s guess, and though we should encourage our children to be independent (and perhaps not wrap them in cotton wool quite so much) a stroll alone through the deep dark wood is at best going to mean an encounter with a Gruffalo. Anyway, after stumbling upon a house, and getting no reply to a knock on the door, what does little Goldi do? She makes the correct assumption that they’re not in, turns around and heads back through the woods to find her parents, who are worried sick that she’s wandered off alone. No. That’s not what Goldilocks does. She wanders into someone else’s home and has a nose around. Not content with her amateur attempt at ‘through the keyhole’, she tastes each of three bowls of porridge laid out on the table, ready for the owners’ return. Replacing the spoon back into each bowl I might add. After spreading her germs, and sitting in three chairs (two of which are critiqued negatively for comfort levels, one of which is broken), she then somewhat brazenly tries out each of the three beds (no concern for the poor Mama Bear who had to make them that morning), and snuggles down for a sleep in the smallest of them. When Mr & Mrs Bear arrive home (after no doubt promising the poor Locks family – who they passed in the woods – that they’d keep an eye out for their errant daughter), they find young Goldi asleep in Baby Bear’s bed. And what does the rumbled miss do? She runs off never to be seen again. No apology. No ‘I’m sorry I broke into your home, ate your food, broke a chair and slept in your child’s bed.’ No consequences for someone who should at the very least be charged with unlawful intrusion.
Jack & the Beanstalk
Having been asked to run an errand by his mum, Jack ignores the request to sell their (only) cow and instead arrives home having swapped it for some magic beans. For this inability to follow a simple request, Jack is in fairness sent to bed, but on waking climbs a magic beanstalk that has grown in the garden (can’t imagine he told his poor mother where he was off to). He finds a giant living at the top of the beanstalk and promptly steals a bag of gold from him. Jack’s mum seemingly doesn’t question where a small boy would procure such a bag of loot and spends it all on food. If she wasn’t going to reprimand him for theft, the least she could have done is taught him how to open an ISA. Jack climbs the bean stalk again and this time steals a goose who lays golden eggs (it’s not known if the mum is complicit in this second act of larceny but it would appear Jack is once again not reprimanded for his actions). Not content, Jack climbs the beanstalk a third time and steals a self-playing harp, but this time is pursued by the Giant. Jack’s mum (now totally in cahoots) throws him an axe and once the beanstalk is chopped down, the Giant falls. To his death. And they all (save the giant) lived happily ever after. No prosecution for three counts of theft. Certainly nothing for gianticide. Message of the story: crime does pay. Handsomely. And seemingly once again, with no consequences.
I know my tongue is somewhat in my cheek as I retell these classic fairy tales, but I do feel that for generation upon generation, children have been taught some strange old morals and values through these stories and nursery rhymes. Miss Muffat taught us to be scared of spiders. The little mermaid had to give up everything she was, and leave behind her family, friends, and home to be with the man she fell in love with. Visually impaired mice will likely one day lose their tails. Future mother-in-laws will make you sleep on a pile of mattresses so high you’re looking at multiple bone breakages should you roll over in the night. And don’t get me started on poor Cinders * who married a man who was so enchanted by her frock and glass slippers that he didn’t recognise her once she’d changed into day wear.
I joke, of course. But only a little bit. Words are powerful. And what we say to our little Button-Pushers today, both male and female, shapes their adult values of tomorrow.
- for a much more modern version of the Cinderella story, check out my recent post , Ella & the iPhone here.