Teaching our children politically-incorrect nursery rhymes

26 Mar 2013

J'ai du bon tabac dans ma tabatière,
[I have good tobacco in my snuff box,]
J'ai du bon tabac, tu n'en auras pas.
[I have good tobacco and you will get none.]
J'en ai du fin et du bien râpé,
[I have some fine, and some well-shredded,]
Mais ce n'est pas pour ton vilain nez !
[But they are not for your ugly nose.]
J'ai du bon tabac dans ma tabatière,
[I have good tobacco in my snuff box,]
J'ai du bon tabac, tu n'en auras pas.
[I have good tobacco and you will get none.]

This is how the chorus of a popular French nursery rhyme goes. This song is on a recent CD we borrowed from the library. I knew this song from my childhood and still remembered the lyrics. However, I found myself a little shocked and unable to sing it to my daughter. She is 3! She doesn't even really know what a cigarette is, let alone tobacco and snuff boxes. I let her listen to it, but felt I couldn't really teach it to her. So, we moved on to the next one!

Admittedly, this song dates back from the 17th century and customs or habits that appeared natural and part of daily life then, are not really appropriate any more today. Children did not have the relatively more protected childhood our children have today. It got me thinking about the nursery rhymes we teach our children.

How about this old French rhyme? La Mère Michel.  It is from the 1820s and I remember learning it at school for a show. I find it quite funny. But some may find it a little cruel.

As a multicultural family, it is important to both myself and my husband to pass on some of the songs we learnt as children. When I was pregnant, I would stick headphones on my belly and play some children's songs to her. We hope this will form part of her cultural heritage too. I have come to realise, though, that some of these songs, still used today, can be a little inappropriate.

Here is another example that I learnt in my childhood and also sing to my daughter regularly!


Alouette, gentille alouette, [Lark, nice lark,]
Alouette, je te plumerai. [Lark, I will pluck you.]
Je te plumerai la tête. Je te plumerai la tête. [I will pluck your head. I will pluck your head.]
Et la tête! Et la tête! [And your head! And your head!]
Alouette! Alouette! [Lark! Lark!]
A-a-a-ah [O-o-o-o]

My husband also sings this one:

Atirei o pau ao gato

Atirei o pau ao gato tô tô [I threw a stick to a cat]
Mas o gato tô tô [but the cat]
Não morreu reu reu [did not die]
Dona Chica cá [Ms Chica]
Admirou-se se [was astonished]
Com o berro, com o berro que o gato deu [with the scream the cat made]
Miau !!!!!! [meow]

Or what about the original version of this popular rhyme:

Eennie Meenie Miney Moe 
Catch a tiger by the toe

Do you know what used to be instead of tiger? I will let you find out on the Wikipedia page, I am not going to type the word! You may prefer the French version which is inoffensive and means nothing (none of the words are real).

Am, stram, gram,  
Pic et pic et colégram,  
Bour et bour et ratatam,  
Am, stram, gram.

Stories of death, killing, bullying or racism are very common in old nursery rhymes.
Is it a bad thing? I am not sure. It is part of our culture. I learnt these songs and I am not a bad person (I think). These nursery rhymes were meant to educate children by scaring them a little. I don't mean to scare my girl. But you cannot wrap children in cotton wool forever. I wouldn't got as far as teaching the tobacco song to a group of 7-year-olds to be performed at a show (as a fellow mum explained). I don't think my 3-year old understands the message behind these songs yet anyway.

What can you do about it (if anything)? You could change the lyrics to suit your needs/feelings.The Portuguese song mentioned above actually has a more politically correct version now (taught in schools) which does not involve killing cats! You could, when the child is older, explain what it means and why it is this way. You could also create new lovely nursery rhymes to reflect the modern times. We hear few around and it is a shame or maybe we hear them, but will only realise they have become classics in a couple of generations.


  1. I loved this post! We have been using nursery rhymes for pre-reading skills in our preschool homeschool and I've been surprised at how many including beating someone. I haven't yet come across anything that I haven't felt comfortable sharing with my daughters and I think some of these rhymes will become a good talking point when children are older and studying history - they give a little snapshot of what life was like but I agree with sheltering the little ones from some of the uglier verses until they are old enough to understand the context.

  2. Great post! This is such a fascinating topic! We come across this a lot with fairy tales, which are scarier than I'd like to share with my little ones. As you say, they are meant to teach a lesson, plus they reflect a time when children were less protected from violence. I like your suggestion to use the verses to teach children about an early time, though, as you say, I will probably wait to do this until they are a bit older.

    1. Fairy tales are the same you are right. Some can be very scary.

  3. This is a fabulous post. I've often been uncomfortable singing alouette, though useful to teach body parts. I can't believe anyone ever sang rock a bye baby. I agree on the talking positions.

    1. Thanks. I never realised Alouette was bad until I started singing it to my daughter to be honest.

  4. Love it! I did a post on Am Stram Gram not too long ago. Apparently some think that it isn't as nonsensical as you may think. You can read it here: http://www.thirdculturemama.com/?p=343

    I love passing on nursery rhymes as well, but for some reason, the lyrics are pretty important to me...

  5. I recently bought a book of Spanish nursery rhymes to read to my son. I learned Spanish in College, so I did not grow up with any traditional rhymes. There is one in particular that I always skip, because it makes me so upset. The gist of it is that the little girl is a pearl to her mom, but if she gets her pretty dress dirty she'll be beaten! It's so horrible! There is also signs of the "machismo" way of thinking in a couple of the other rhymes. The mom gets the burned tortillas and the dad gets the pretty ones. I'm just not comfortable teaching those to my son, but I do want him to hear the rhymes his Father grew up with.

    1. Tough choices, isn't it. How old is your son, maybe he doesn't realise the meaning yet....?


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