Cute nursery rhymes?

Come on quick! Change the channel! They are showing some terrorist attack with the bodies strewn all over!

And hide the newspapers while you are about it! Look at those corpses lined up after the Naxalite attack! What will we tell the child if she asks about it?

You check the movies they are allowed to see, you are careful to select books that are suitable for them…The lengths we go to protect our children from the violent world!

Then we sit the child down and ask her to recite the nursery rhymes.

“Twinkle twinkle…” she sings and we smile. “Baa baa black sheep…” she lisps and we applaud.

“Jack and Jill….”

Hang on! Jack fell and broke his head and for good measure Jill also came tumbling down and God knows broke what else!

Humpty Dumpty not only had a great fall but split apart so badly that he couldn’t be assembled again! What were they trying to teach the kids? That it is not safe to go up a hill? That being fat had its dangers?

We have any number of rhymes that have all sorts of cruelty and violent behavior depicted in them.

Take for instance the pussy cat that went all the way to London to frighten a little mouse under the Queen’s chair! Now why would any stupid cat  go to so much trouble unless the creator of the rhyme had some reason to depict that?

The two cruel little boys, Tommy Thin and Tommy Stout. The rhyme starts innocuously enough: Ding Dong bell, pussy in the well…But then goes on to become violent; she didn’t fall into it by accident but was put in by a very naughty Tommy Thin. What’s more, he gets off lightly with just being scolded for being naughty and drowning her. Reminds us of all the criminals who manage to get away with just a rap on their knuckles for the worst crimes, doesn’t it?

There is more: The old woman who lived in a shoe who had so many children that she couldn’t give them any bread. So what does she do? She feeds them broth without any bread and whips them soundly in lieu of that, before sending them to bed on an empty stomach! What cruelty! What will the kids learn from this? That adults are heartless? That their own mother might do something similar to them?

There are several rhymes that are not so popular now, but they were there when we were kids. Take Goosey gander for instance. I am giving the full rhyme in case some of you don’t know the full verse:

“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

Imagine a kid doing that! Does it preach that it is okay to take matters into one’s own hands and punish someone who doesn’t respect the Lord?

They get even more violent in  Rock-a-by-baby…

Rock-a-bye-baby on the treetop.

When the wind blows the cradle will rock.

If the bough breaks the cradle will fall

And down will come the cradle, baby and all!

What a horror! Imagine the baby falling from the tree top. And which moron mother tied the cradle up there? Couldn’t she find a decent place down below? Thank God the kids who recite these rhymes didn’t understand anything of their gruesome meaning!

There is another that outdoes even this one. It is by far the most depressing and violent one I can remember.

Ladybug ladybug fly away home,

Your house in on fire and your children are gone,

All except one and that’s little Ann,

For she crept under the frying pan.

The ladybug is told that not only her house is burnt down but her babies are all dead and even the only one who tries to get away creeps under the frying pan. Did she fall into the fire or get charred by the heat? Shudder, shudder!

The one good thing about nursery rhymes is that they are taught to very small children who don’t ask you the meaning of the words but happily sing them! And so they don’t ask about the really gruesome ones, thank God! But the adults who composed them (where they sadists or what?) and those that teach them definitely do! So we have the option of picking and choosing the good ones, which is why we don’t hear our kids singing the really gruesome rhymes like Rock-a-bye baby and Ladybug!

The fairy tales are even worse. If not actual violence some implied violence is depicted in many of them, especially those by the Grimm Brothers. Did they get their name from the ‘grim’ tales they wrote or did they write them to justify their name? The tales are replete with wicked stepmothers, the apparent storehouses of cruelty! Perhaps the brothers suffered at their own stepmothers’ hands and got all the dope for the tales!

Hansel and Gretel are driven out by their stepmother into the forest where they are almost killed by the old woman in the cottage made of chocolate and biscuit! Cindrella is made to slog for her stepmother and her daughters till she finds her prince charming! Rapunzel’s wicked stepmother imprisons her in a tower. Snow White is sent off to be killed by her wicked stepmother who wants to see her heart as proof! And when she survives, is fed poisoned apples. The story of the very cute Red Riding Hood has the fox gobbling up her grandmother before trying to eat her too! The worst part is the clinical way these are depicted.

The Ugly Duckling deals with the very adult theme of inferiority complex! Did all those poor girls who are depressed by their dark complexion as shown in the Fair and Lovely ads, get inspired by this tale?

By comparison, the tales of the Panchantra and Aesop’s fables (do kids get to hear them these days?) have a moral even while being entertaining. Likewise, rhymes in regional languages deal with everyday animals and birds and are beautiful to boot. I have heard some lovely rhymes in Tamil about little mice which peep from their holes with their huge eyes and  about large ones dancing for idlis and vadas!

Some decades ago, there were efforts to make rhymes in English from the mythological tales detailing the exploits of characters like Hanuman and Krishna. Wonder what happened to them.

One went like this:

Who will leap, who will leap

Across the deep?

Hanuman, Hanuman,

He alone, said Jambavan!

Simple words and ample scope for the adult to tell them the story of Hanuman.

(I would love to hear the regional language rhymes, if you know them!)

To give the creators of fairy tales and fables the benefit of doubt, they must have had some noble intention in mind. They probably tried to teach the children that good triumphs over evil in the end and violence doesn’t pay.  Something we can’t say for the real world villains and criminals who seem to be getting the better of the legal system. So many of them go scot-free thanks to the loopholes in the law that allows them to escape even death on the strength of trivial technicalities and a smart lawyer!

So let’s continue to switch channels and hide the newspapers while scouting round for meaningful and beautiful nursery rhymes and tales for our children.



  1. hey! that’s great…like it…
    you have beaten me…:)



    1. Thanks for the comment Subrashis. 🙂


  2. I recently had this ‘gyan’ while making my son understand what the rhyme s actually mean and then I realised that most of the rhymes were violent.

    We had bought some wide eye books for him which are betetr bcoz they have stories with animals and rhymes which are non violent.

    As now e is intersented in listening, I have started on our mythology, nothing like it to build roots 🙂


    1. Epics are the best thing. And the stories can be modified and made suitable for kids. My father had a wonderful way of narrating them to kids.

      As for the rhymes, fortunately the kids don’t understand the meaning and when they ask, we need to ‘censor’ them for their consumption.


  3. hahahaha.. totally agree.. this was hugely discussed couple of years back over media because of some ruckus caused by cartoons meant for children but actually promoted violence… Chin-chan i think..

    and yup regional poems promote language and good values… ll share a link wr it has all the you tube videos of the poems.. i had it somewr, i am sure 😐


    1. Violence in cartoons and comics merits a separate post! Do share the link with us, Ratzzz. It would be great. Tamil ones are really nice. 🙂


  4. […] The ball was set rolling for this post by a blog post from one of my friend’s mom, Zephyr. While her post dealt with the hidden meaning in nursery […]


  5. Grond · · Reply

    Late entry.

    Was waiting for the ADULT connection to the Jack & Jill story, but supposedly hasn’t come up yet.

    Its true that these dainties we liked as infants were mostly written about current affairs of that time, the very simplicity of these verses made them apt for singing to kids. As adults we realize the goriness of these ditties, but tell me frankly, do the real listeners care?

    Back to J&J, do you know that the surname Gilson comes from ‘Son of Gil’, from Gill, the original form of spelling Jill? Many have heard the more profane parody where they come down with a daughter, but truth is that they had a son out of wedlock, hence giving rise to the name Gilson.

    God, where do these rhymes come from?



    1. Better late than never. This post sure has had so many researching the origins of the rhymes 🙂

      Right you are Grond! where indeed the rhymes come from, eh? Like I said in the post, thank goodness the children singing the rhymes don’t understand them, or else we will have our hands full explaining them in suitable words to them. As it is, like Vidya pointed out, my granddaughter get upset when she sings Humpty Dumpty and so she has introduced a little girl who puts him together again!


  6. Nice blog. I have wondered about the violence in the lyrics too, but I guess nursery rhymes are far more innocuous than the gore they show on TV everyday and it certainly is a mercy that we did not understand what those rhymes even meant! But one can’t be sure of the next generation which only seems to be smarter than the previous! And again, I m sure like most kids, if they are supposed to learn something, they ll be only too keen to know about something else which would rather be whats on TV which would be far more graphic and detailed in nature for easier understanding. I reckon, I ld rather explain the rhymes which perhaps are a bit open to interpretation rather than try giving answers about why terrorists bomb places and kill people which I have no clue about myself.


    1. Thank you Richa. I like your perspective about violence vis-a-vis nursery rhymes and TV images! I agree that while we can improvise and modify the stories in the rhymes and fairy tales, we have no answer for the mindless voilence shown on TV, including movie violence as you rightly put it.

      And smart kids? they are super-duper smart these days!


  7. Most of the nursery rhymes have their origin in English History which has been witness to some of the most macabre and gory events that humanity has gone through. For example ‘ringa ringa roses’ which seems so innocent actually originated from the bubonic Plague.Many of the Nursery rhymes were used to parody the Political and Royal events.Over the years what they actually referred to got forgotten.

    I am proud to say I read my children Jataka tales. Panchatantra and also all the freedom fighters stories like Azad, Bhagat singh and many more. I also read them Abraham Lincoln’s story, story of Helen Keller, kaplana chawla..I read to them stories of great emperors like ashoka and also things like life story of Buddha.–All of which are inspiring.

    Regional ones–in Rhymes i can think of only ‘oodi vilayadu paaapa” 🙂 🙂 I know a few hindi ones which i have taught them.

    I think it is important to teach children a few sanskrit shlokas too. Key is to make it fun.

    Nice post


    1. Thanks for the comment Preeti. Yes, the English rhymes are rooted in British history, but having got independence from their rule, isn’t it about time we changed the rhymes to more pleasant and cheerful things? 🙂

      It is heartening to know that young mothers like you are taking steps to expose their children to stories from our myths and history.

      Some of the Hindi rhymes I know are also quite cruel and sadistic! 😦 Maybe there are many more that aren’t, in our regional languages.

      I agree about the shlokas. In many south Indian families this is a norm even today!


  8. Btw, I got the theme. Can’t believe I hadn’t seen it in the WP options all this while! 🙂


    1. Yeah. Visited your blog and saw it! 🙂


  9. Enjoyed that 🙂
    Most of the nursery rhymes did, infact, have important messages. Baa Baa Black Sheep was initially about a tax protest; Humpty Dumpty was a big cannon during the English Civil War; and Goosey Goosey Gander was originally about London prostitutes.
    Suffice to say the Victorians cleaned them all up for public consumption.
    Oh, and Ring a Ring a Roses was about the plague – atissue a tissue, we all fall down …


    1. Thanks AN. I learned about the historical events behind the rhymes! But though the Victorians cleaned them up, we still are left with the gory images and words, which successive generations are singing away to glory!


  10. Hey CB! did u know that ring a ring roses was actually about Small Box…Ring a Ring being the sympton of small pox…posies (whatever they are) were supposed to help or was medication or something and hush a bush we all fall down implied death…Morbid!


    1. You are right NN. Each rhyme sounds as gruesome as the other! Why don’t we change the words and make it universal so that every child sings cheerful and clean rhymes instead of outdated English events?


  11. There’s a fantastic song by Andrew Bird called “Measuring Cups” that addresses both the violence found in books typically thought as “intended for children” (fairy tales, nursery rhymes, picture books, etc.) and how they have been stripped down via censorship methods (such as the Disneyification of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty — not that it is necessarily a bad thing). The verse goes: “When you talk about the hand of glory / a tale that’s rather grim and gorey / is it just another children’s story that’s been declawed? / when the tales of brothers Grimm and Gorey have been outlawed”.

    It’s an interesting topic. I do think that there is plenty of violence in “children’s stories” that most probably should not be reading (there are so many parallels between olde fairy tales and medieval romances that have caused me to raise my eyebrows on more than one occasion), but I am typically against the withholding of material to children, particularly literature.

    Perhaps I’ve become too desensitized, but fairy tales and whatnot make me giggle no matter how disturbingly grim they can be. On the same note, I adore the far cleaner Fractured Fairy Tales aired on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. Original or deconstructed, I love me some fairy tales.

    There is so much violence in general in the media. I think it’s simply important for a parent to know what their child can handle and have an incredibly open communication with them regarding what they intake.

    My comment has gone all over the place, as my mind tends to do. Thanks for making a post that made my head spin with ideas =)


    1. Welcome here carboardstudios. you are right about not withholding literature from children. Parents being present to put things in perspective for the children, whether it is gory fairy tales or violent media images is a very valid point. and yes, too much violence can make a child either desensitised or too disturbed. but there is also the possibility of taking things on a superficial level or rather the fantasy level. Perhaps we are all saved because of the last possibility! 🙂

      and thanks for sharing Andrew Bird’s song! I am glad that the post has made your head spin with ideas! hope to see them on your blog. 🙂


  12. Great song by Zeppelin Sid , He rocks all the way.
    Now for the post , we used to have poem recitation as little children and usually ended up making spoofs of them, never liked the usual nursery rhymes so read In Poem Town and other books with simple poems which stayed with me for a long time. Yes the teaching of these rhymes needs some attention. I don’t think reference to death like in Machli jal ki rani a bad idea. I was taught the life and death concept as a small child when leaves dried and fell off the branches. It somewhere teaches the child the living habits of a creature. Same goes with many of the other rhymes. The way a poem is explained and taught makes the difference.

    loved these as kid

    Aasmaan mein nikle taare
    Chandaa maama kitne pyaare.

    Sabke man ko bahlaate hai
    Nayi chandani chhitkaate hai.

    Dekho inki shaan niraali
    Soorat kitni bholi bhaali.

    Roj savere chhip jaati hai
    Jaise humse sharmati hai.

    Aao chandaa maama aao
    Apne ghar ki baat sunaao.

    and this I love to sing even now so do my boys

    This old man, he played one;
    He played knick-knack on my thumb.
    With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
    Give a dog a bone;
    This old man came rolling home.

    This old man, he played two;
    He played knick-knack on my shoe.
    With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
    Give a dog a bone;
    This old man came rolling home.

    This old man, he played three;
    He played knick-knack on my knee.
    With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
    Give a dog a bone;
    This old man came rolling home.

    This old man, he played four;
    He played knick-knack on my door.
    With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
    Give a dog a bone;
    This old man came rolling home.

    This old man, he played five;
    He played knick-knack on my hive.
    With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
    Give a dog a bone;
    This old man came rolling home.

    This old man, he played six;
    He played knick-knack on my sticks.
    With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
    Give a dog a bone;
    This old man came rolling home.

    This old man, he played seven;
    He played knick-knack up in heaven.
    With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
    Give a dog a bone;
    This old man came rolling home.

    This old man, he played eight;
    He played knick-knack on my gate.
    With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
    Give a dog a bone;
    This old man came rolling home.

    This old man, he played nine;
    He played knick-knack on my spine.
    With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
    Give a dog a bone;
    This old man came rolling home.

    This old man, he played ten;
    He played knick-knack once again.
    With a knick-knack, paddy whack,
    Give a dog a bone;
    This old man came rolling home.


    1. Thanks for sharing your favourite song Tikuli! Hope the ‘paddy whack’ does not imply a real whack! the key obviously is the way the rhyme or story is presented to the child by the adult doing it!


  13. shilpa · · Reply

    I was thinking the same thing yesterday when I was singing rock a baby to Bulbul. But there are a couple of Hindi rhymes that are slightly negative too like
    Machli jal ki rani hai
    Jeevan uska pani hai
    Haath dalo darr jaayegi
    Bahar nikalo marr jayegi
    Telling a little child something about death isn’t fun!
    I really wish there were more positive rhymes that are more popular than some you have mentioned..there are some but not enough.


    1. ah, I was just going to quote this. This was on Monika’s blog too. I think I didn’t get permanently damaged because English is not my first language and I didn’t completely understand what the rhymes were about. But what about kids who do?


      1. Precisely, Chinkurli! Thank God that the kids are so small as to not understand what they are reciting or else the world will be full of dysfunctional kids, wouldn’t it? when kids do understand, the adults have to put the rhyme in perspective for them, just as they have to do with violent videos on TV, I suppose.

        Can you give the link to Monika’s blog? I would love to read what she has said. 🙂


    2. Apparently the creators of nursery rhymes had used them as a means of venting their spleen at the social and political injustices of the day in England. but isn’t it about time to rescue them from outdated causes and give the rhymes a new and positive outlook?

      The machli rhyme is still fine because it just gives the living habits of the creature and teaches kids that one should let them live in their environment, as Tikuli rightly points out.

      I think creative mothers like Vidya and you should take steps forward to fill in the lacuna. 🙂


  14. Vidya · · Reply

    I completely agree with you – the levels of gore and wickedness in these so-called children’s stories and rhymes is astonishing.

    Brothers Grimm stories are scary to me, even now. I cannot imagine how any of these can be bedtime stories (Yes, that’s how they are marketed!)

    Every time Diya reads Humpty Dumpty she gets upset – I have had to create a second stanza involving a sweet girl who rescues Humpty with glue and stickers!

    The fact is that Mother Goose rhymes were not intended for children in the first place. They were created by sly dissidents as a way of poking fun at the royalty or politicians without getting hanged (which is what would have happened if they directly criticised them). For example, Jack and Jill are said to be King Louis XVI – Jack – who was beheaded (lost his crown) followed by his Queen Marie Antoinette – Jill – (who came tumbling after). Humpty Dumpty was said to be a large cannon destroyed by the parliamentaries in their fight against the royalists (“King’s men”)

    Karadi Tales and Rhymes (
    are an acceptable alternative for Indian kids. They have a very popular show on TV now too, with excellent graphics and music.

    “We create rhymes that every Indian kid can relate to – our rhymes are about mangoes, not daffodils; bhelpuris, not apple pies; kites, not surfboards.”

    The idea is great, but the execution, sadly, is not. I have both volumes of the rhymes. The words are complicated, rhyming awkward… it isn’t as catchy as it could have been. So Diya still prefers her Humpty Dumpty (as long as there is a little girl who can stick him back together!) 😛


    1. Welcome here Vidya and thanks for the comment. the info was very interesting. Isn’t it somewhat like the kids repeating what the adults say? I mean the snide criticisms getting converted into rhymes because the latter repeat them. Wasn’t it ingenious of you to have come up with the extra stanza in the Humpty Dumpty rhyme for Diya? can you give me the words? Btw, is the little girl named Diya or not?

      I have read the Karadi tales and rhymes, but like you found them not so catchy. consistent efforts are needed to improve the quality of Indian English rhymes. Hey, have you thought about doing something in that department?:)


  15. I had never given thought about Rhymes teaching violence to kids. It’s surprising!. I still feel why had i never thought about it?. It never clicked. Now after reading your article ZM I can recall Words like Berk , cobblers etc which are used today. But these are kids poems and yes indeed are really violent and corny at times.

    I can recall a poem of Hindi too

    Aaloo kachaaloo beta kahan gaye they? Baigan ki tokri mein so rahe they ,
    Baigan ne laat maari ro rahe they ,Mummy ne pyaar kiya, hass rahe they. ( Now i wonder why wud baigan kick u?)

    I remember a small child who used to ask his mother about Is humpty Dumpty still alive??

    talk about Rock a baby , if that’s not gory, I don’t know how else to describe it. Why anyone would think it fitting to sing to a child, I have no idea.

    “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?
    The king was in his counting house,Counting out his money; The queen was in the parlour,
    Eating bread and honey.The maid was in the garden,Hanging out the clothes;Along came a blackbird
    And snipped off her nose.”

    The image of live blackbirds baked into a pie did not sound silly to me as a child (it seemed hilarious though) but, later, I thought about it and wondered how in Mother Goose’s name could birds stay alive for at least half an hour in an oven hot enough to bake a pie crust? Imagine my surprise when I found out that baking live birds into a pie was a common amusement in the 16th century and an Italian cookbook even has a recipe for it.
    There are soo many … Mary, mary, quite Contrary ,Hey Diddle Diddle,Three Blind Mice,Little Polly Flinders,Oranges and Lemons, Rain, rain, go away etc etc.

    But when I was a kid, the sense of urgency hoping Hansel and Gretel would escape, or wondering what would happen to the many princesses and princes fighting off ogres and dragons, they sure made my afternoons fly…

    I wud still sing to kids… it has fun attached to it.

    Titli udi re, uda n saki,
    bus me chadi, sit n mili,
    sit n mili, rone lagi,
    conductor ne kaha, chal mere saath,
    Titli boli chal hatt badmaash


    Lalajine kela khaaya
    Kela khakar mooh pichkaaya
    Mooh pichkaakar tond phulaaya
    Tond phulaakar pair badhaaya
    Pair ke neeche chilka aaya
    Lalaji to gire dhadaam
    Haddi pasli dono tooti
    Mooh se nikla hai ram hai ram


    1. Looks like the Hindi rhymes are equally violent! imagine lalaji falling down and his ‘haddi pasli dono tooti’! and a kicking brinjal! Maybe the writers of these rhymes wanted to toughen up the kids to the reality of the world, as Siddharth has commented!

      Live birds were actually baked? how horrible! and yes, thank god for the resilience of kids that they remember the good things in such stories!


  16. Interesting take on kids’ rhymes Zephyr Mom. This brings to mind something I read a few days ago. It is basically about the song “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin (maybe Vikki/Vinni can help you out if you haven’t heard the song. Its quite good and considered one of the best true rock songs of all times). Now this song ran into a lot of trouble because of


    1. Oops… bad browser! Submitted too soon… sorry….. commenting again below.
      Interesting take on kids’ rhymes Zephyr Mom. This brings to mind something I read a few days ago. It is basically about the song “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin (maybe Vikki/Vinni can help you out if you haven’t heard the song. Its quite good and considered one of the best true rock songs of all times). Now this song ran into a lot of trouble because of allegations of backward masking i.e. the song had some controversial lyrics about Satan and Satanism if played backwards. (Read more at wiki entry: Basically, what most experts claimed was that while obviously nobody in their correct senses would play the song backwards, the brain however is powerful enough to pick up this subliminal messaging. Perhaps, the creators of these nursery rhymes were also going for a similar effect to ease the youngsters into the real world (and its “badness”). I don’t remember being scandalised over newspaper reports of terrorists or naxalites killing people or TV news items of explosions and armed conflict (Gulf War etc.). Perhaps it was because of the brain already having been conditioned for these type of things.
      Same, I believe, goes for fairy tales though usually these always ended, in some way, showing the triumph of good over evil. Of course, Panchtantra, Jataka Tales and Aesop’s Fables were on a completely different plane altogether.
      Thanks for the post, it brings back a lot of childhood memories. As kids, whenever we waited with dad in the car while mom went to do the weekly vegetable shopping, my sister and I took turns to recite to dad all the rhymes and poems we knew. Always kept us on our toes and was good for exam revision as well 😉


      1. You are welcome Siddharth! I will ask the boys about the Led Zeppelin lyric. actually i might have even heard it but can’t remember the names of the bands! I think that more than being conditioned by violence, a child’s brain gets desensitized by an overkill of the stuff on the visual media. it would be interesting to read your mom’ s comment on this post! 🙂


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