In these strange pandemic times, small children all over the world are on lockdown. To many frazzled parents, juggling home schooling, child care, work, and economic worries, in often small spaces, it may feel like living in some dark fairy tale.
With schools shuttered and education moves imperfectly online, many responsible adults are worried and anxious. Catching COVID-19 at school is a major concern. But if some children just stay home and play all day, how are they going to learn what they need to grow into happy, healthy, and functioning adult members of society? Will their educational development be stunted by this extraordinary break in normal life? Should schools open up earlier than other community institutions and businesses on the premise that children are not like other, older humans?
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These are all valid questions. In this unprecedented topsy-turvy time in which nothing seems to make sense, the fragilities of modern society are revealed, from stark economic inequality to the stigmatization of some of the more vulnerable among us. Without formal instruction and supervision, how will kids make sense of a world where nothing is normal, where people wear masks and keep far away from each other, lest they catch something fearsome?
The truth is that the world of children is a lot darker and weirder and perhaps more creatively resilient than adults often assume. It’s there that kids are exposed to such things as contagion, plague, mysterious accidents, social inequality, and political intrigue and executions—and pass them on to others, from generation to generation. Through the medium of playground games and the seemingly harmless nursery rhymes and nonsensical wordplay that children delight in, a grim and unsettling depiction of the world endures. Like Alice’s Wonderland, almost nothing seems to make sense.
Many children over time have fallen asleep to an innocent lullaby about a baby who, strangely enough, has been left on a treetop, in precarious danger of falling with every breath of wind. Elsewhere, a poor black sheep has been taxed out of existence, with all three bags of its wool sent off to the one percent. In another place, two people fall down a hill under mysterious circumstances, one of them breaking his crown. But that’s not nearly as disconcerting as when several church bells toll ominously, a candle comes to light you to bed, “And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!”
Why are these children’s rhymes so much dark nonsense, and what could it all mean?
More pertinent to the psychological moment, what exactly is the mysterious message contained in:
Ring-a-ring a rosy,
A pocketful of posies.
We all fall down.
Many have pondered whether this children’s game could be (somewhat callously) an allusion to the great plague, the infamous Black Death of the fourteenth century. The assumption goes that “rosy rings are the red sores that covered the victim’s body. Bunches of flowers, the posies, were used, ineffectually, to sweeten the air that carried its own special odor of corruption. And when the Black Death had run its course, its victims all fell down.”
It must mean something, because otherwise what would be the point?
Perhaps we could understand better if we didn’t always view children through the concerns of adulthood. Children’s culture (and yes, there is such a thing) could be considered for itself, not as a watered-down version of what it is to be an adult. As pychologist Judith Rich Harris noted, “[a] child’s goal is not to become a successful adult, any more than a prisoner’s goal is to become a successful guard. A child’s goal is to be a successful child…. Children are not incompetent members of adults’ society; they are competent members of their own society, which has its own standards and its own culture.”
There’s a lot to learn from the lore of children, from what they say to how they play.
Particularly when it comes to the game of cooties, says anthropologist Lawrence A. Hirshfield, in “Why Don’t Anthropologists Like Children?”. “There has been little scholarly work on cooties,” he writes. But his own review of literature on cooties and similar games shows how children can build a resilient culture that allows them to make sense of a chaotic world and how to act within it.
In a kid’s world, cooties and other similar contagions may not be real—but they’re deadly serious. The North American children’s lore of cooties is “a social contaminant that pass[es] from one child to another, a form of interpersonal pollution.” The term “cootie” might have been taken from a British colonial word for lice popularized by returning World War I soldiers, possibly derived from a Malay word, kutu, meaning “a parasitic biting insect.” It might be lice, it might be germs, but it’s invisible, and you may be in danger of catching it.
Folklorists Iona and Peter Opie describe a similar game from Britain called “The Dreaded Lurgi,” while in Japan children have developed their own prophylactic treatments for such a social contagion, called engacho. Similar medical methods, recorded terms such as cootie vaccination and cootie immunization, can also be found for cooties, involving special hand gestures or perhaps pretend injections. Children who play this game learn and absorb concepts familiar to a public health emergency, but on their own strange terms. Because cooties can be a serious problem.
As Hirshfield relates,
One of the lead researchers on the project, Ivelisse Martinez, witnessed the force of cootie fear first hand. Martinez was chatting with a group of nine-year-old children in a classroom (not about cooties) when a girl approached the group and sat in an available chair. Almost immediately and quite suddenly she became demonstrably upset. Martinez asked her what was wrong. The girl breathlessly replied that she just realized that the last child to use the chair had cooties.
Though it may have a real impact on children’s social distancing, it’s hard to pin down what cooties is exactly, because conceptually, it needs to be many things. Children have vaguely described cooties as “They give you bad germs that can kill you” or “if you don’t like a person and you touch them, you can get cooties.” It’s not unlike an invisible virus, in that no one is safe. No kid knows whether they’ll get it, or whether they’ll be accused of giving someone cooties.
The reality is that cooties also reflects deeper social problems and anxieties, not unlike what happens in the real world. Like a virus, cooties often attack the more vulnerable in children’s society—those at risk of being stigmatized in some way. Cooties make it okay to socially distance yourself from those you don’t like. The material point Hirshfield makes is this: “Cooties are about power and authority within children’s culture. Cooties are used to establish and maintain unequal social relations between children.”
Playing games can often be meaningful in themselves in this way, even if outsiders don’t understand them. We may see fragments of these reflections of the adult world in the playful nonsense of children’s culture and understand that by playing, children are also learning and rehearsing and exploring these darker concepts. But that link to adulthood and reality that many try to draw on to explain the unexplainable is not the most important thing to understand. The fact is, even without formal schooling and instruction, children are constantly learning, absorbing, and testing out crucial concepts through play.
The same folklorists who described the dreaded Lurgi, the Opies, also debunked the idea that the nursery rhyme “Ring-a-Ring a Rosy” was about the great plague. From its history and timing, such a theory didn’t make sense, and we can’t really be sure what it means, if anything. But it’s true that many nursery rhymes are often so dark, so strange, so…nonsensical.
As adults, astonished at the verses we may have playfully repeated as children, we may want to attribute meaning to them to make some kind of sense out of them. Other nursery rhymes have also been posited to be about other, much darker themes, with each line simply bursting with adult meaning. Some scholars may try to find meaning in the origins of nursery rhymes that were perhaps derived from adult ballads, stripped down to be more palatable for children, and therefore assumed to be more meaningful than just mere nonsense.
Whatever the real origins, this search for a satisfactory meaning might not mean much when it comes to children. Because nonsense makes a lot of sense in a kid’s world.
Some nursery rhymes were certainly from the same source as ballads. But if we think of nursery rhymes as only being created for children, rather than children creating or playing with rhymes themselves and passing them down to other children, we discount the remarkable capacity that kid culture has for weird and wonderful language play and invention, of spontaneous rhymes and puns and verbal sparring—and why it is so enjoyed by children around the world.
It’s this childish tolerance of nonsense, the idea that maybe nursery rhymes and other games don’t have to mean anything intrinsically linked to an adult world, that allows children to learn and organize the world around them into something that makes sense to themselves. To understand what the world may be, it’s also useful to understand what it is not, where logic and language go hand in hand with the illogical and language that bends and stretches.
Jan Wojcik describes a child who, upon seeing the surf and the sea for the first time, said, “The waves hit the rocks. The rocks cry.” On another occasion, Max comes up with a spontaneous black comedy of a nursery rhyme: “Now is the time,/ Now is the time/ To take all the Easter girls/ And all the Easter boys/ And all the Easter bunny children to the bridges,/ To lock them up in the bridges.”
It’s seemingly nonsensical moments like these that children and their parents delight in—as children acquire new metaphors in their speech, linking two disparate things by their unexpected similarities, we see the world with different eyes.
“Off my case, potato face.”
“Up your lip, potato chip.”
“Up your nose with a rubber hose.”
“That don’t rhyme, Frankenstein.”
“I’m the boss, applesauce.”
By playing these linguistic games with words, rhymes, metaphors, and figures of speech, children not only become more aware of language and linguistic structure as something that can be used to create new ideas and concepts, improving their linguistic competence, but can also experiment with how they see the world…and then make fun of its darker forces.
It’s hard to believe the cooties and nursery rhymes of your childhood can reveal so much about the world. Even under lockdown, with schools closed, it’s children’s linguistic nonsense and playfulness that may not be fully understood, that allow children to keep learning and exploring the deepest corners of the world.