The argument for "safer" nursery rhymes

“Why do they want to chop off my head?” asked a small voice, interrupting our peaceful, snugly bedtime story reading routine, where I was reading from the new nursery rhyme book we bought recently.

“Um, I mean, to kiss your head,” I said quickly, making a mental note to not zone out when reading to my 3-year-old son next time.

Of course, he was referring to the phrase “Here comes the chopper to chop off your head” in the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”.

“Oranges and lemons" say the Bells of St. Clement's
"You owe me five farthings" say the Bells of St. Martin's
"When will you pay me?" say the Bells of Old Bailey
"When I grow rich" say the Bells of Shoreditch
"When will that be?" say the Bells of Stepney
"I do not know" say the Great Bells of Bow
"Here comes a Candle to light you to Bed
Here comes a Chopper to Chop off your Head
Chip chop chip chop – the Last Man's Dead.”

I hadn’t read this rhyme in maybe 20 years and I certainly didn’t remember me asking the same question of my parents/teachers when it was recited to me in my childhood.

But that doesn’t make the fact that such a violent idea was presented in a children’s book go away. In fact, the more rhymes I read in this book, the more frightening themes it revealed.

Take for instance, “Three blind mice”.

Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run,
They all ran after the farmer's wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice?

Or “Goosey, Goosey Gander”

Goosey Goosey Gander where shall I wander,
Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady's chamber
There I met an old man who wouldn't say his prayers,
I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.

Hmmm…maybe this book wasn’t the right one to read to my son. But hang on, this is a classic nursery rhymes book. Children, over many generations have been singing these rhymes. So they should be ok to be read to a 3-year-old right?


As any parent who needs parenting advice would do, I turned to Google.

It turns out that nursery rhymes were the way in which children were taught life lessons back in the day – by providing them with examples of what would happen if you didn’t follow the rules. So you would see children getting beaten or being sent to bed without food. Or you see cat eating mice or fighting each other – all real life occurrences, possibly something children of this day and age will never be exposed to due to the trend of bubble-wrapping children, city living and cat obedience schools.

Furthermore, Jerry Cleaver, author of the book Immediate Fiction claims that, “when characters are having a good time, the reader is not.” This is the reason why nursery rhyme characters like Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty and the poor little baby who was being rocked by the wind in a cradle tied to the tree top are all remembered for many generations.

Parents also seem to think that “a fictional character is only interesting if he/she wants something really bad and is full of inner conflict.” And this is the reason why modern day characters like Dora and Barney won’t have as much of a legacy as their predecessors owing to their relatively boring life!

Learning about the history of these nursery rhymes still hasn’t convinced me that a young child should have such horrendous pictures painted in their heads.

I just hope that these scenarios don’t result in a return to night terrors and night-waking in my son, or worse yet, a fear of all books.

Lakshmi Singh is a freelance writer who loves to write about all things parenting, inspired by her two "case studies" – a little boy and a little girl. When she is not busy chasing them, she is detailing their latest antics on Twitter. She tries very hard to not talk about them on her blog though.

What is your opinion about classic nursery rhymes? Are they too scary for our children?

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