A Pocket Full of Rye
The truth about nursery rhymes
Who in their right mind would tell a baby or a toddler about baking a pie stuffed with live birds? Or a tale involving ladybugs perishing in a fire? Kids dropping dead of the bubonic plague?
Me and millions of other addled parents that’s who.
No, I’m not a sadist with a basement full of dead animals and a video library full of slasher movies. I just happen to be in possession of several books of nursery rhymes, the golden oldies told throughout the generations, some of which just so happen to be a little bit twisted and sick. And of course, being the good parent that I am, I’ve shared these bizarre poems with my two impressionable toddlers.
The meaning of some of these rhymes didn’t really hit me until one day, after reading “Sing a Song of Sixpence” aloud, I tried to see it from my kids’ point of view:
Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing.
Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?
So let me get this straight: My 2-year-olds are supposed to be imagining a pie filled with birds which start to sing after the pie is cut open, that it’s normal to serve pies stuffed with live animals that can also double as dinnertime entertainment? (Why didn’t I think of that? I could use this one as motivation to get them to eat their dinner, telling them that if they don’t eat the chicken on their plate, it will start singing to them.)
Then I started examining other poems I’d been reading aloud, like this one found in a Winnie the Pooh nursery rhymes anthology:
Ladybug, ladybug fly away home.
Your house is on fire.
Your children are gone, all except for one, her name is Nan.
She crept under a frying pan.
The moral here? Perhaps the mommy ladybug shouldn’t have left her tiny insect kids home alone (quick, someone call children’s services. . . do they have those in the insect world?). And maybe Smokey the Bear needs to retool his fire safety directions to include telling kids to hide under a frying pan in the event of a fire.
Then there’s another one that my kids Abbey and Jonah just love:
Tom, Tom the piper’s son, stole a pig and away he run.
The pig was eat and Tom was beat and Tom went howling down the street.
A poem that extols the virtues of child abuse and the slaughtering of a stolen, chubby pink animal. How quaint. Maybe I could instead switch to reading them “Peter Pumpkin-Eater” who kept his wife hostage inside an oversized gourd, or “Three Blind Mice” where the brave farmer’s wife chopped off the tails of disabled rodents after they irritated her. (Where’s the animal rights crowd when you need them?)
My interest in what I was reading to my kids was really piqued after my husband saw a documentary that mentioned “Ring Around the Rosy.” It said the song was something kids sang about people who died of the bubonic plague, which gave its victims rose-like rashes around the neck (hence the ring part).
Maybe instead of reading these weird little rhymes, I should compose my own set of poems designed to scare the pants off of Abbey and Jonah when they don’t cooperate with me. There could be one about a Time-Out monster who takes little kids who don’t listen to their parents to an evil place where they have to sit absolutely still for 24 days while dressed in their itchy dress-up clothes and offered only kale and prune juice to eat. Or I could pen one about a boy who didn’t share his toys and was sent to a prison forever and was sentenced to watch other kids play.
Come to think of it, I could really milk this sick genre of kid’s poems to my advantage, either that, or start reading them some of the less innocuous material, like a Stephen King novel.
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