Over the course of her 11 months of life, my daughter has become the proud of owner of not one but two little teddy bears that say “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”, one dressed in blue pyjamas which recites it in English, and the other in pink jammy jams, speaking Spanish. I had never encountered a religious bear prior to Amalía being given these guys, but I was pretty sure I knew the prayer they both say. I thought it went “Now I lay me down to sleep/ I pray the Lord my soul to keep/ If I should die before I wake/ I pray the Lord my soul to take.” It rhymes, but it’s a bit of a downer, no?
So I was delighted to find that Amalía’s prayer bears had a new and improved version: “Now I lay me down to sleep/ I pray the Lord my soul to keep/ the angels watch me through the night/ and keep me safe til morning’s light.” Angels are a nice, comforting image to conjure up before nodding off. Unlike, say, death. I approve of the gift bears’ fine editing skills.
But I’ve since discovered that re-mixing nursery rhymes is a slippery slope. Another toy Amalía has starts to sing Jack and Jill, but instead of “Jack and Jill went up the hill/ to fetch a pail of water/ Jack fell down and broke his crown/ and Jill came tumbling after”, this little plastic “CD player” with a happy face on the front sings, “Jack and Jill went up the hill/ looking for some colors/ the sky was blue, the grass was green, the shining sun was yellow!” in a maniacally cheerful voice that borders on the demonic.
I get what happened here—some toymaker was worried that the idea of Jack and Jill falling down would stress out our precious little rugrats and came up with this anodyne version in which the pair of idiots go up the hill “looking for some colors.” But now the song makes absolutely no sense. Couldn’t Jack and Jill see colors from the bottom of the hill? Is the hill so massive it obscured the sky and sun? Isn’t a world without sun or sky or colors more frightening than slipping and bumping your head? And what’s with the sudden foray into free verse? ‘Water’ and ‘After’ barely rhyme but ‘colors’ and ‘yellow’? Not. At. All.
Then there’s the fact that the toymaker is protecting children from a story I think would upset very few listeners, if any. Most kids carrying around a singing, happy-face-adorned plastic “CD player” have no idea that “crown” means head, and if they thought long and hard about the rhyme would have to conclude that Jack and Jill went to Burger King, got paper crowns, got thirsty because of all the sodium in the fast food, went uphill to the water fountain, fell and crushed their headgear, and then practiced their gymnastic skills. In my own reading of the rhyme, I assume Jack got patched up and is fine now but has learned the valuable lesson that he shouldn’t climb hills without adult supervision.
Speaking of once-useful cautionary tales, Amalía has a singing plastic picnic basket (hers is a world in which inanimate objects often break into song) which croons a version of what I knew as “I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee, won’t my mommy be so proud of me? I’m bringing home my baby bumblebee. Ouch! It stung me!” A cheery ditty with a fun surprise ending that also warns kids of the risks of torturing insects? My name is Mommy and I approve this message!
Only now, Amalía’s picnic basket ends its song asserting, “I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee and a butterfly for company!” I’m all for interspecies friendship, which this new version promotes. But the warning that bees sting is now gone, and in its place is a recommendation to entrap even more beasts of the field.
It’s not just the mother and the entemologist in me that mourns the rewriting of these nursery rhymes. The author side of me hates them, too. The thing that offends me most here is that in the rewriting, both nursery rhymes became not only unrealistic but also incredibly boring. Conflict is the engine that makes any story move. Take away the Civil War and contentious romances and Gone With the Wind is just the story of a girl who can sew nice dresses out of curtains. Excise the adultery and the Revolution and Dr. Zhivago is a tale of people sitting around in the snow looking at each other. Yawn.
Fiction of all sorts, including nursery rhymes, allows us to try out conflict in a safe way. That’s the point, it’s where the thrill comes in; we’re scared, then reassured the danger isn’t real.
As the mother of a now-toddler, I know that real danger lurks around every corner, in the cords that can be used to pull lamps down on her head (yes, we’ve tried to remove all of them), in the uneven floors that could cause her to fall, in the various leaves and stones and rubbish she constantly picks up and puts in her mouth, or tries to before we can take them away. I do everything in my power to keep my child safe and I still stay up at night worrying about some trauma befalling her.
But as much as we try to child-proof our children’s environments, maybe we need to ease up on conflict-proofing their imaginations? Amalia will face conflict daily in her life; she already does when I drag her away from a discarded paper cup in the road, and she wails at the loss of this potential treasure. Pretending conflict doesn’t exist isn’t going to make facing it any easier. Folklore—including the rhymes and songs we teach our kids—is a reflection of a society’s mores. In all likelihood, the first version of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep appeared in a British magazine in 1711, a time when raising God-fearing children was believed to be of utmost importance. Today we want to keep our children safe and happy, which is great, but deciding that they won’t be able to handle a nursery rhyme that flirts with danger may be an intellectual extension of helicopter parenting, when we become the thought police sanitizing children’s ditties until they are fit for our plastic-wrapped world.
So where do we draw the line? Not introducing the imminent threat of death before turning off the lights and leaving a sleepy child in a dark room seems like a good idea to me. Dumbing down nursery rhymes less so. How much risk to expose our child to, even in theory, is one of the constantly changing boundaries parents have to re-establish daily. I let my daughter play with the toy that jacked with Jack and Jill. But when I sing her the nursery rhyme on my own, I stick to the real version.
For the time being, Amalía’s favorite bear is an oversized teddy named Taki who wears a fez, recites the Greek alphabet and sings a few children’s songs, including one about a butterfly who falls and dies in the winter (yes, it actually uses the word dies) and then comes back to life to fly again in spring. Somehow the ending is even happier, and more triumphant, than if the butterfly had never disappeared at all.