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Mickey on the railway, picking up stones
Down came the engine breaking his bones.
“Aaah!” said Mickey. “That’s not fair!”
“Oh!” said the engine driver. “I don’t care!”
I dimly realized that my four year old was singing this rhyme. For some time, he had been prancing about the house acting goofy and talking gibberish - as he often does. I had been sitting nearby, reading something. For most part therefore, his sounds had been just background music for me. I hadn’t been concentrating on what he was saying. At some point however, he started singing this rhyme about Mickey and the engine. When I tuned into what he was signing, I was taken aback! I listened closely as he did an encore to an unseen audience. There was no mistake. I had heard it right the first time. Dismay turned to shock and a momentary numbness, as the import of the lyrics hit me anew.
I hastily trawled my mind to see if I could recall more rhymes like this one. And to my horror, I found I could! Like the one that goes:
Goosey goosey gander, where 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
For a moment, let us forget the shudder-inducing inanity of the lyrics and focus on a far more disturbing aspect. The fact that they celebrate or glorify wickedness and wrong behaviour. If the engine driver in the first rhyme comes across as being needlessly vengeful, the protagonist in the second one plays God himself when he decides to punish the old man for not saying his prayers. Shockingly, he throws the man down the stairs, even though the man is old. What happened to values like respecting the elders (though you need not always agree with them), demonstrating gentleness and compassion, etc.?
To us adults, these might just be rhymes to entertain children with. But we can’t take a flippant attitude, because for the children themselves, the rhymes are far more important. Rhymes and stories are two of the first ways in which a child makes sense of life and the world around him/her. Rhymes and stories are the primary means through which he/she learns about what happens in the world. They are supposed to impart the right values to the child in an engaging, non-pedantic fashion – apart from entertaining the child, of course. And so, they play a central role in a child’s life-education, and have a larger-than-life image in his/her little mind. Enamoured by stories and rhymes and the manner in which they are delivered, children usually take their meaning to heart.
Many rhymes and tales actually contain negative sentiments, thoughts and actions. However, these are cloaked in the song, gestures and other frills, thereby making them seem very innocent and very ‘right’.
And it is because of this insidiousness that rhymes and stories like the ones mentioned above are dangerous. Watch out!