Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Of things that go bump in the night

The younger girl asks to watch TV constantly and her most frequent request is for Dora. Always, she wants to watch Dora. Yet she's afraid of Swiper, that sneaky fox. So she can't watch a whole episode of Dora comfortably without her big sister. As soon as Swiper appears on screen, she calls for E. E! It's Swiper! E rushes over and says every time: It's okay. Hold my hand. And so they sit, hand in hand, and the younger faces her fears with the reassurance of her big sister.

E is this close to being four, and her fears are more abstract. She worries about bad guys getting in our house when she's asleep. She has been feeling so nervous about the dark that we've added a second night light to her bedroom. She worries about getting dead, about when it will happen to us, when it will happen to her.

What worried you when you were little?

We tell stories all the time and the girls hang on every word. I want the words I set before them to build their esteems. I don't ever want the words I set before them to cause them any more anxiety. But how often do we repeat words by rote, without ever considering their meanings?

They know the lullaby Rock a Bye Baby that we all know. It's on every children's classical music anthology in existence, I think. It's so ominous, though, and have you ever stopped to wonder why we sing that to our innocents? According to my handy-dandy Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, it first appeared in a Mother Goose anthology in 1765 with the note: "This may serve as a Warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last." (p. 70)

Now seriously, my girls know the lyrics to that nursery rhyme but do they need to worry their pretty little heads over a message like that? So when E asked if the song means that babies get dead I invented a new interpretation for her. Yes, my toddler and my preschooler are as hedonistic and egocentric as any child in that general age bracket, but I'll find other ways to teach modesty and humility, thankyouverymuch.

And so, I humbly present to you my contemporary interpretation of a very old classic. My True Story of Rock A Bye Baby posted over at Simple Kids today. Let me know what you think. And I'm curious: did any other classic nursery rhymes bring nightmares to your youth? Pin It


Emily said...

You know, before I had kids I really held onto the idea that the upsetting things that happen in fairy tales, etc. are somehow important and reassuring to small children. Hansel and Gretel use their wits to escape, you know? Bad things happen in life-- parents sometimes die--but, through stories, children will learn that they have the inner resources to handle it, etc. Once upon a time, I told myself I wasn't going to shelter my kids from those stories. Or present them in their modern, sugar-coated forms.

Of course, I totally changed my mind once I had actual, sweet and fearful children in my arms. I sugar coat. I restrict access. I even say 'no' to the "Princess" movies. But it's still an issue I wonder about, and so I do try to give them safe ways to experience thrilling adventures from time to time.

Sorry! I know my comment isn't exactly relevant, but this is an interesting post.

noteverstill said...

Emily, thanks for bringing this up, because it’s something I struggle with when I describe my motivations. I don’t want to whitewash for the sake of whitewashing – you know I let my girls watch the Wizard of Oz, for goodness sake. And that’s why I don’t tinker with full-form stories; I agree part of the charm of Hansel and Gretel, for example, is that there is a little element of danger, and you cheer the protagonists on when they succeed on their own merits. E loves Little Red Riding Hood, including where Granny and kid get eaten by a wolf, and including where Woodsman chops him up into pieces and throws him in chunks down the well – or the Three Billy Goats Gruff, where the biggest goat ultimately crushes the troll to “bits, body and bones.” Part of what’s hard for E, who’s the real benefactor right now of my adaptive storytelling (because L is still just too young to question the details), is that these nursery rhymes *don’t* flesh out the story so you feel satisfied with the ending. Humpty Dumpty lies in a thousand shards. Jill watches her friend Jack get a concussion. And in Rock a Bye Baby, E doesn’t like the words at face-value because it sounds to her like the baby just falls – and is never caught. She’s worried and preoccupied with death since our neighbor died two months ago, the daddy to her friends. I tell these stories so carefully – I don’t change the words – I just provide a different plausible context; in this instance, so that words she’s known since infancy can bring her comfort instead of more distress. She can swallow whole stories because they provide adequate context. But she (and do you find this with your older daughter?) is such a ‘why?’ girl right now. The contextual gaps in nursery rhymes leave too many spaces for nightmares to enter. That’s why I concentrate these particular literary exercises on the very specific genre of nursery rhymes.

Thanks so much for bringing this up, and giving me reason to elaborate.

MommyWise said...

This post struck me because I've been wavering with the same decisions on what to tell and what not to. I always believed I would tell my girls the real world as is b/c it was important for them to learn.. but them being so young..I find I'm trying to excuse the behavior...sugar coat it... and I'm not sure whether I should or not.. but like your daughter... my eldest worries and worries so

marion said...
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