Going up against Mother Goose: a new take on nursery rhymes

Guest post by Lindsey Grossman

Photo by ralph and jenny, used under Creative Commons license.
Whether you’re into the cool, hip children’s books like Goodnight iPad or you’re a fan of the classics like Goodnight Moon, one lady will likely be unavoidable in your child’s literary rearing: Mother Goose. She’s gifted at showers, she’s at preschool, she’s at friends’ houses… and if you ask me, she’s got issues.

Reading the Mother Goose stories to my child revived certain memories of my own childhood: my favorite nursery rhyme book, the way the stitching in the illustrations rose off the pages. But some of them I don’t remember, and others that I loved now look completely different in the light of adulthood. Perhaps my brain protected me from the more violent rhymes by blocking them out. Or maybe my mom skipped over them, because she, too, was shocked at the brute force of these tumultuous tales. Or perhaps the same mind that searches the entire house for the cell phone that’s in her pocket could also have conceivably forgotten a few of these over the years.

At any rate I’ve taken to rewriting some of the words in the more offensive tales. For other questionable rhymes, I know that my son Jed’s too young to really derive anything devious or sinister, so I let it slide. But that doesn’t mean I don’t stew.

Here’s a closer look at four nursery rhymes that get my goat goose:

“Goosey Goosey Gander”

Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady’s chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn’t say his prayers,
So I took him by his left leg
And threw him down the stairs

My line: I change the last line to “That’s okay ’cause I really don’t cares.”

My take: I chose a message of religious tolerance (and tolerance for Royalist sympathizers) over correct grammar.

“There Was An Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe”

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

My line: I took out the bit about whipping soundly and changed it to “Then read them a story.”

My take: I get that she can’t afford to feed them, but the beating seems unprovoked. To me, two is too young for gratuitous violence.

“Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater”

Peter Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well.

My take: Not only does this scream domestic abuse, but Peter is possibly a sociopath. Can you imagine the media madness that would unfold modern day if it was discovered that a woman was being held captive by her husband? In a pumpkin? “Peter was the nicest man,” said their neighbor, “He helped us clean our gutters every fall.” Freak. Show.

“Humpty Dumpty”

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

My take: I love that this is one of Jed’s favorite rhymes as I’m obsessed with anything and everything Alice (Humpty Dumpty makes an appearance in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass). But Jed has an interesting reaction when Humpty Dumpty falls. First he thinks it’s funny, and then his face turns sad, followed by an “Oh no!” and “What to do?”

I hate that I don’t have an explanation or happy ending for him. I suppose I could tell him Humpty Dumpty underwent multiple major surgeries, but even if he recovered, I can only imagine what his hospital bill would look like (debt: an entirely different unhappy ending). Is there a tangible lesson that he can learn from Humpty’s misfortune? It’s always good to know not to climb on walls. The best lesson to learn from this rhyme is a simple one. It’s never too early to learn that sometimes, shit happens.

What are your favorite nursery rhymes? Do you think some are too violent?

Comments on Going up against Mother Goose: a new take on nursery rhymes

  1. I relate to this! I had this huge illustrated nursery rhyme book when I was a kid. It seemed enormous to me because it was a coffee table book. To look at as an adult, the illustrations are very beautiful but they are kind of scary. When I was a kid I was so afraid of the book that I used to hide it so I didn’t have to look at it in my room.

    So good call on minimizing nursery rhyme-related trauma.

  2. Fantastic! My mom used to change the rhymes, too. She was horrified by the originals:

    Rockabye baby, in the tree top
    When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
    When the bough breaks, the cradles will fall
    Down will come baby, bough, cradle and all

    Mom would change the last line to: “But don’t worry, baby, I’ll catch you, little doll”

    Here’s her take on this one:
    There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
    She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
    She read them a story and sang them a song
    And they were asleep before very long.

    • I never could remember the second half to the old woman ons, so I just made it up. Now I think I’ll keep it my way, “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many children she didn’t know what to do. So she kissed them and cuddled them and fed them some stew, and she put them into bed with an ‘I love you'”

  3. This is so timely because this weekend I visited the bookstore looking for books for my baby due in October. I immediately gravitated the classics that I loved, but then realized that I needed to sit down and reread them all to make sure they still fit the values I want to teach my kids. Luckily, most of them did, but it was still eye opening.

    I think of the lullaby Hush Little Baby which screams rampant consumerism and spoiled children.

    “Hush little baby don’t say a word, mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. And if that mockingbird don’t sing, mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.”

    In reality, my attitude is more, if your mockingbird don’t sing you’ll just have to learn to live with disappointment. LOL

  4. Oh…. I really don’t know how I feel about this! Because I love nursery rhymes, it’s purely sentimental, happy memories from my own childhood… but you’re right!! I’d never considered that before and now I’m conflicted!!

    For those care-givers out there who perhaps don’t have the poetic skills, there’s actually a book out there where the positive spin has been put on for you. Check out http://www.amazon.com/Positively-Mother-Goose-Diana-Loomans/dp/0915811243.

    Thanks for giving me something to think about!

    • Yes! I think Humpty Dumpty makes a lot more sense when you think of it as something having been born from the egg – “you can’t undo birth” is a much better lesson than, well, sh*t happens?

  5. I noticed this as an adult too! I spent some time in Powell’s books one day looking for a Christmas present for my friend’s baby when I found Sylvia Long’s Mother Goose book. Not only are the drawings AMAZING and the cast of characters are entirely by animals, but she has rewritten some of the more violent stories to be less mean or frightening. Sometimes the picture softens the story, like the picture of Humpty Dumpty showing a small duckling rolling out of the cracked egg. It’s ok the egg couldn’t be put together, he hatched! It’s a really beautiful book and a great retelling of the classic rhymes.

  6. Wow! I’d forgotten how violent some of those are!

    There’s one rhyme they do in a drop-in Mother Goose group I went to a handful of times. The original goes:

    This is the way a lady rides: clip clop clip clop (nicely bouncing baby on kneee)

    This is the way a gentleman rides: clippity clop clippity clop (a little faster)

    This is the way a farmer rides: hobidy hoy hobidy hoy (faster)

    This is the way a hunstman rides: galloping galloping galloping over the fence. (super fast and lifting baby up at the end)

    I changed it to:

    This is the way a princess rides: trip trop trip trop

    This is the way a showwoman rides: clippity clop clippity clop

    This is the way a cowgirl rides: hobidy hoy hobidy hoy

    This is the way a stuntwoman rises: galloping galloping galloping over the fence.

    If anyone has any better ideas for the first line (who’s to say a princess can’t gallop with the best of them) let me know!

  7. This one isn’t about changing violence in a rhyme, but I did recently sing to my son:

    Twinkle, twinkle little star
    How I wonder what you are
    Ask your dad he has an app
    He can show you on the map
    Twinkle, twinkle little star
    Now we know just what you are.

  8. Wow, completely different take on Peter, Peter pumpkin eater than I ever got. He (and his wife) couldn’t afford a house, but they had a pumpkin shell, and that was enough for them. They didn’t worry about what they didn’t have.

    I’m a bit squeamish about changing traditional rhymes like that – unless the original is known and you’re being silly – when I was a kid, we used to sing “all the kings horses and all the kings men had scrambled eggs for tea again,” obviously I was a disturbed child – because they are a living part of history. (My inner history nerd had an early start in life.) And they’re not always exactly teaching the wrong thing: The old lady who lived in a shoe, for instance, smacked her children because she had so many of them she didn’t know what to do. And obviously did the wrong thing. A lesson in favour of family planning and parenting classes perhaps. 😉

    • Ha, that was my take on Peter, Peter as well. I assumed they were too poor to live in a house, so he made one out of a pumpkin and they lived very happily.

  9. When I was a kid my Mom was horrified by mother goose, and would change words around for most of them.
    “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
    She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do;
    She gave them some broth with plenty of bread;
    Then kissed them all soundly and put them to bed”

    Man was I ever confused when I got to read the real ones, but I love that my Mom did that for me!

  10. I remember finding Father Gander during my early teens and being entranced by it but I don’t remember it as a child. It’s called the Equal Rhymes Amendment and features additions and changes like “Jill be nimble, jump it too, If Jack can do it, so can you!”

    • My mum had a hilarious book called Politically Correct Stories For Kids (or something to that effect) – one of the stories was Frosty The Gender Neutral Snowperson, which was my first introduction to non-binary gender.

  11. I think the originals capture a really interesting part of our history. Like ring around the rosie, which we learned about in history class in high school. I think their links to real life that you learn when you’re an adult make them that much more classic. The violence is still G rated. It’s not like any of them say “and then humpty dumpty was bludgeoned to death by all the kings men.”

  12. Sheesh! It’s like the disney movies that have adult content in there that makes you gasp when watching them again. However, since I had these rhymes spoken to me over and over and I know them all by heart, I turned out just fine. I didn’t even realize they were that bad until reading them again. I think we’re looking too much into this. As long as they are getting a well rounded informed upbringing from you that teaches other lessons it’s not a big deal in my opinion. But changing the words is kinda cute too.

    • I was also going to say something like this. To be honest, I read this post and went, “Really?”

      I was raised on these nursery rhymes, plus original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales…and those are 10x more violent (limbs being taken off, eyeballs being eaten, and oh-so-many more delightful things), and messed up than anything Mother Goose had in her repertoire. I turned out just peachy. I mean, when I found out what Ring ‘Roung the Rosie was about, I was all, “Oh, well okay.”

      Sometimes it worries me when I hear parents who won’t let their children watch the sad/scary parts of disney movies because it’s too “traumatizing”.

    • Another voice to add in favour here! As one who was brought up on Hans Anderson and Grimm, even the Disney films sometimes seem a little too ‘prettified’ to me. There is a theory that fairy tales and nursery rhymes and so on are exactly the place to introduce to children the idea that not everything is always ok; that evil can be faced, dealt with, contained; that it is legitimate to have fears, and that one can face them (you know, it is often the youngest son who wins the kingdom, the third daughter who outwits the troll, and so on). If anyone wants to read serious pro-fairytale work, I recommend Bruno Bettleheim, ‘The Uses of Enchantment.’

    • A literary studies major here, seconding the recommendation of Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, and would like to add Perry Nodelman & Mavis Reimer’s The Pleasures of Children’s Literature.

      I was kind of dismayed by this article, because it’s the kind of cotton-wool thinking that you normally find on more mainstream websites. Fairy tales and nursery rhymes are an abstract place where kids can learn hard truths in ways that they can actually process – the idea of pushing an old lady into an oven is horrific by adult understanding, but to a child, it’s their own triumph over an evil witch – which could be symbolic of any number of anxieties in their own life.

      I think it’s also a bit disingenuous to remove violence from the texts to make them kid-friendly. Kids have violent urges (as a kid, my sister threw an orange at my other sister and broke her nose), and to present them with literary worlds where violence doesn’t exist at all can only make them feel marginalized, like something is wrong with them. If they see violence in stories, it becomes much easier for them to recognize the morality involved in their own actions.

      “Fairytales don’t teach children that dragons exist,
      children already know that dragons are real. Fairytales teach children that dragons can be beaten.”
      –G.K. Chesterton

      • This! I feel like if your child has a bad reaction to one of the rhymes (gets really scare, or tries to shove other kids off walls or something) then talking to them about the rhyme and maybe giving it a better meaning than what the child original got from it, but in general I don’t think there are normally bad reactions.

      • I agree! I teach preschool, and grown ups so easily forget how violent children can be. Our job is to teach them to manage their emotions, but we need to validate them as well. They don’t understand the idea of death or violence the same way adults do. They don’t always get that death is *forever* and violence can hurt people. They will learn that. But, for now, they are babies. Their stories are different. Their culture is different. (Yesterday I overheard one of my smartest, sweetest, most stable four year olds say “then we’ll cut off his face.” Goodness.) They don’t process this stuff the same way grown ups do. Tell them stories about giants who fall out of beanstalks, and breaking crowns, and dragons. They’ll ride along with the fun and the rhythm and the adventure of it. Tell them it’s not real. Teach them what to do with their big feelings. Cut out the worst parts if you must. But don’t pretend that they don’t know what danger is. They do.

  13. I have a few re-writes of my own too 🙂

    It’s raining, it’s pouring
    The old man is snoring.
    He went to bed and he bumped his head
    And he had a headache in the morning.

    I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee.
    Won’t my mommy be so proud of me.
    I’m bringing home a baby bumble bee.
    Ouch! He stung me!

    I’m releasing the baby bumblebee.
    Won’t my mommy be so proud of me!
    I’m releasing the baby bumblebee.
    Bye bye, baby bee!

    I treat all living things with respect.
    It makes my mommy very proud of me!
    I treat all living things with respect.
    It’s the only way to be!


    There was a guy
    Who played the drums
    And Ringo was his name-o


    And Ringo was his name-o

    And for difficult days…

    C is for crazy, it’s where you’re driving me.
    C is for crazy, it’s where you’re driving me.
    C is for crazy, it’s where you’re driving me.
    Oh! Crazy crazy crazy starts with C!

      • Thanks! My kids (and I) are huge Beatles fans so that’s our favorite rewrite. Yesterday we stumbled upon a Yellow Submarine shirt and bought it. The cashier noticed that both of my kids were already wearing Beatles shirts, so I pointed out that the one we were buying was in the next size up.. not that one would have too many Beatles shirts…

  14. I don’t know if it helps with your Humpty Dumpty dilema, but apparently the oldest recorded version of that particular nursery rhyme goes more like:

    Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
    Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
    Threescore men and threescore more,
    Could not place Humpty as he was before.

    Perhaps a crowd of people trying to set Humpty back where he belongs and getting in eachother’s way is a nicer mental image than Humpty’s poor, broken body smashed across the pavement?

    That said, I quite like the traditional nursery rhymes — not to be used without discussion, of course, but as a good way to talk about how things are different now. Of course we wouldn’t beat a child every day before sending him or her to bed, no matter how many children we had! But at some times in the past, it wouldn’t have been uncommon.

    This may be my history teacher’s approach to life, the universe, and child rearing, however, and so not right for everyone.

  15. I guess I am a bit out of place here. I like the idea of making up new rhymes but absolutely cringe at the blatant censorship of the old ones in the name of political correctness.

    Little kids learn nursery rhymes because of the rhyme and rythem, over analysis of any hidden message comes from adults.

  16. We were careful about avoiding religious books but I didn’t think to really look through nursery rhymes. My son is two and just looks at pictures. Recently he was enjoying a book of rhymes and pointing out the animals on the pages. He handed me the book to read and as I flip the page there is an image of a woman (that woman from the shoe maybe? I can’t remember) full-on spanking a crying child. I was so appalled that I snapped a picture and shared it on Twitter… and then ripped out the page and threw it away.

    I have heard from multiple sources that nursery rhymes are good for kids’ development. Is there really truth to that? Or maybe ANY rhymes work just as well? I have never really liked Mother Goose and find it a little bit disturbing that these things are even still in circulation!

  17. I’m in the leave-them-as-they-are camp, in part because, as a literature student, I believe in respecting the integrity of a text. Mostly, though, it’s because I grew up with the Grimm’s fairy tales and the original nursery rhymes, and I think they really helped the way I think about the world. I was a fairly morbid child, but it didn’t hurt me, didn’t turn me into a sociopath; rather, it helped me learn how to handle fear. It taught me how to tackle dark stuff before I was actually facing anything directly in my life.

    Seeing a picture of a child getting spanked in a book doesn’t teach children that they’re going to get spanked; YOU teach them that, or don’t. Stories in books are just stories in books (although I was a bit frightened of Baba Yaga as a child), and kids learn that as they grow.

    My mum was very sick when I was little (bedridden from age 2-8, and up and down ever since then), and I was constantly afraid of losing her. Reading frightening fairy tales gave me a way to channel that fear into another alley, one much less immediate, much less real, because it would go away when I closed the book, or could be re-interpreted if I read another version of the tale.

    Fear is a part of life, and kids know that, even if they’re not going through anything huge and scary, even if you are the most loving parent who gives them the safest home possible, even if they aren’t reading scary nursery rhymes.

    Stories that have an element of fear help kids to understand that fear is universal; they’re not the only ones afraid. As long as your kids are reading widely, and you’re reading with them, helping them to understand the difference between real and imaginary and encouraging them to interpret the themes of the stories into their lives, they will be just fine, and moreover, they’ll get a richer sense of the full experience of life.

  18. On the “Don’t Neuter ‘Em” side of the fence. When I was in High school and college, I used to be really into historical music. B’ut when teaching songs to other people, I took out offenseive words and concepts. Removed the sex and religion and violence… And the result is,well, lukewarm… Hmmm… Luke…. Imagine If we took all the scary/intense stuff out of star wars (which, by the way, I consider pretty soundly kid friendly – This is V, VI, and VII I can’t recall much of the Prequels)
    Once there was a guy named Luke who Lost his dad. He was looking for meaning, and for his dad, and he met a funny old man in the desert. The old man helped Luke save a princess. One day Luke met his dad. He learned that the princess was his sister “Wow!” said Luke, “I can’t believe you’re my dad. and you’re my sister! Let’s be friends!” They sent the Evil Emperor to his room for a time-out, And they all lived happily ever after.
    Not so much, eh?

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