May 26, 2023

Of Children’s Rhymes and Misopedia

—And no, “misopedia” isn’t a Japanese soup website

By Ed Goldman

Watching Bill Maher and David Sedaris express their mutual disdain for children on an episode of Maher’s HBO show “Real Time” earlier this Spring, I began to wonder about those misanthropes who don’t go as public with their feelings about kids as these two did.

WC Fields, the comic actor, juggler and world-class drinker, encouraged his fans to think he was not only a curmudgeon but also a kid hater. In response to a question, “How do you like children?” he allegedly said, “Barbecued.” 

Edgy Cartoon

Taking a final bough

I have a hard time believing Fields really said that, principally because barbecuing is a Tex-Mex tradition and even though he lived in Hollywood, Fields was strictly a Pennsylvania urbanite. (His proposed gravestone inscription was, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” While he certainly died, the epitaph never happened.) 

Then there’s this clearly misopedic ditty still being sung to our napping ducklings:

“Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetops,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.”

This is horrifying! Why wasn’t the perpetrator of this unveiled threat contacted immediately by Child Protective Services (not to mention the Federal Aviation Administration)? I mean, the song doesn’t suggest the bough may break—it posits it as an absolute: “When the bough breaks.”

What more evidence do we need that there’s vile mischief afoot? Will it take some guy walking into your backyard—wearing an ill-fitting suit, a fedora slouched over one side of his face and a cigarette dangling from his lips—who rasps, “Hi. Nice little tree ya got here. It’d sure be awful if when yer baby was in the cradle a bough kinda accidentally broke, know what I’m sayin’?”

On the other hand, what in God’s name are responsible parents thinking when they rock their baby to sleep in a treetop?! 

Just how tall a tree are we talking about here? And what’s wrong with a cradle tethered to terra firma? Are we hoping that by lulling kids to sleep high above the ground they’ll grow up to be astronauts? They have to first GROW UP, you imbeciles! If they fall from a tremendous height before they teethe—well, let’s just say you can cancel your dreamed-of 2052 trip to cheer the kid on at a NASA Jupiter launch.

NASA Tour Leader: Yes, may I help you?

PARENTS: We just wanted to see the place. We’d hoped our baby was going to grow up to be the next Sally Ride or at least Larry Hagman as Tony Nelson in “I Dream of Jeannie.”

NASA TOUR LEADER: But, let me guess: the bough broke?

PARENTS (Sobbing): How could you know?

NASA TOUR LEADER: We get this a lot. What’s wrong with you people?

PARENTS: We bought the tree full-grown at a local nursery. It came with a no-bough-breaking guarantee. Please believe us! 

NASA TOUR LEADER (Speaking into his wristwatch) Security?

To be sure, there are other “children’s” rhymes of questionable propriety. Consider:

“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 is as much of the poem most of us heard when we were kids, and probably the full extent we share with our kids, not unlike how we ignore the second verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” So what have we got here? A little boy suffering a skull fracture and a little girl probably heading for a similar fate. This is supposed to lull children into blissful slumber?

Turns out there are actually second and third verses that, while medically dubious, at least let the saga end on a happy note:

“Then up got Jack and said to Jill,
As in his arms he took her,
“Brush off that dirt for you’re not hurt,
Let’s fetch that pail of water.”

“So Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch the pail of water,
And took it home to Mother dear,
Who thanked her son and daughter.”

I’m glad to know that Jack’s crown rupture was mild enough to have him get right back up. And at least we now know that Jack and Jill were brother and sister—not, as a smutty rhyme had it when I was seven years old (and had it explained to me when I was 14):

“Jack and Jill went up the hill,
Each with a buck-and-a-quarter.
Jill came down with two-and-a-half—
And they hadn’t gone up for water.”

I don’t think I’d recite that to either your child, grandchild or member of the #Metoo movement. I imagine WC Fields might have liked it. I mean, he also liked Philadelphia.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).