We need new nursery rhymes

Why are many nursery rhymes and lullabies so completely bizarre as to border on disturbing? I’ve mentioned “Humpty Dumpty”, “You are My Sunshine”, and “Rockabye Baby”, but what about “Jack and Jill”? They go to get some water, perhaps to help out their overburdened mother, and the most commonly known first verse ends with one kid’s broken head and the other falling down a hill. Then there’s “Little Miss Muffet”, whose arachnophobia prevents her from enjoying a nice bowl of curdled milk on a cozy perch. How about the dismemberment of those three blind mice? Did they deserve to have their tails amputated with a carving knife? Can the mice be blamed for running after the farmer’s wife, considering that they possessed no ability to see? Don’t even get me started on “It’s Raining; It’s Pouring”. I mean, is it really about an old man so concussed that he dies in his sleep, becomes paralyzed, or is at best bedridden? I could go on.

I think the worst one of all might be “Hush, Little Baby”. Think about the lyrics: the parent, patronizingly referring to himself in the third person, is telling the kid to be quiet while promising to buy her a mockingbird, of all things. It’s not overtly stated that this gift is intended as a bribe to elicit silence from the child, but because the two notions are so closely linked, and form a rhyming couplet, to boot, the inference is logical. I’m desperate for my children to go to bed when it’s that time, so I get the parent’s perspective, but it’s not a healthy habit to promise the expenditure of money to reward children for a few hours in which they are not speaking to me or needing anything from me. Wouldn’t the kid expect a new gift every night simply for doing what her body requires anyway? What a way to go broke. And as if this weren’t enough, the wheedling parent goes on to promise that if the bird is faulty, he’ll fix the problem by buying the kid a diamond ring. Ahem. A diamond ring signifies, at least in our culture, betrothal. Does this mean the parent is passive-aggressively hinting at some kind of Oedipal codependency? Even if not, it’s distressing to think that he would suggest buying another, much more lavish present, as a solution to having given a gift that underwhelms. And this cycle continues: the parent promises a mirror as a substitute for the ring if it turns out to be costume jewelry, a goat to replace the broken mirror, a cart complete with a bull to dry the child’s tears in the event that the goat proves indolent, a dog that the parent gets to name as a consolation prize for the overturned bull-drawn cart, and a brand-new cart with a horse this time if Rover doesn’t bark (who wants a barky dog anyway?!).

I mean, I appreciate a good contingency plan, and it’s nice to know that the parent has ideas about what will happen if things go awry with the gift that he’s intending to impart, but certainly there is a better way to handle this situation. I also think it’s strange that the parent would be so keen on purchasing a twittering bird and a barking dog when he’s basically beseeching his child to go mute. And why is he reinforcing the expectation that the gifts he’s offering will disappoint? Is he trying to raise a child ingrained with low expectations or inculcate the concept of planned obsolescence? If so, there’s definitely a more wholesome means to that end. I realize I’m passing judgment on this parent, so I tried to think objectively: maybe this kid’s love language is gifts, she has exactly one week to live, and these are the seven things she wants most in the world. Maybe the grieving parent knows that any poor parenting choices won’t matter at this point, and since he’s rich as a sultan, he wants to fulfill her final desires, as much to comfort himself as to bring her satisfaction. If this is the case, fine; I rescind my argument, and you should read no further.

If circumstances are other than those, I stand by my distaste for these lyrics. The rhyming isn’t even good enough to explain away the author’s choice of words. As far as how the ditty ends, after all of the promises the parent makes to the child, when the final gift, the horse and cart, fails to impress, he concludes by assuring the child that she is still the sweetest in town. I seriously doubt the veracity of this assertion because, if she’s as used to being parented the way that the song suggests, I’d expect more resemblance to Veruca Salt than Mother Theresa. Besides the fact that superlativizing (yes, I made that up) one’s child like this is intrinsically dangerous, it doesn’t even make sense that a child would be assuaged with the knowledge that she’s a real sweetheart after the solution to each disappointment leading up to that realization was the procurement of material possessions to fill the void left behind by each previous purchase that fell short in some way.

I guess it could be a whole lot worse. At least the parent is singing a goodnight to his child, as opposed to the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. Now there’s a truly tragic household: the woman, having overbred to the point that she’d lost the ability to manage her family, restricts her children to a liquid diet and, instead of a lullaby at bedtime, delivers corporal punishment. Seriously, why hasn’t anyone reported Mother Goose to Child Protective Services by now?

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