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Unsheltered childhood

A brief item by "J. C." in the February 1 issue of the TLS takes note of a new book by Steve Roud, Mondays Child is Fair of Face, described as a collection of "traditional beliefs about babies." J.C. comments: "It leaves the impression that babies were traditionally in constant danger"something often reflected in nursery rhymes. He seems more inclined than Roud is to accept the view that "Ring a ring a roses" comes from the Great Plague of 1666 which helps explain the line "A-choo, A-choo, All fall down." (I learned it as "Ashes, ashes", but there seem to be many variants on it.) Then there is "Rock (orig. Hush) a bye baby, with its pessimistic: "When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, Down will come baby, cradle and all."Of course, childbirth, infancy and childhood were far more precarious in earlier centuries than they are in the developed Westbut think of so many parts of Africa, still. But culturally, these and other evils were not kept from the knowledge of children as commonly as they are today. Life was grittier, dirtier, more pungent. My paternal grandmother sang a Slovak version of the playful "Patty Cake, Patty Cake," and when we later asked for a translation, we learned that the repeated chorus was "If you fart, it will stink." And she sang another one that sounds as it were the Slovak equivalent of "Roll me over in the clover." I doubt that it was only Slovaks who were so earthy.When we were children, we would love it when my father would put us to bed and give into our pleas, "Tell us a story." He knew the Beatric Potter stories, and would amuse us with his own variants on them. But one of the stories he occasionally told was Hans Christian Andersons "The Little Match Girl," which ends with the little girl freezing to death on a bitter cold New Years Evenot exactly the story one might expect a parent to choose in order to send his children off to dreamland. I asked my siblings about this, and one of them suggested, "Maybe he wanted us to be grateful for what we had."

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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I was recently entertaining some kids I know by telling them the story of "The BFG" by Roald Dahl, a literary hero of mine. I was annoyed by the fact that I was confined to only telling them that particular story due to the fact that my other favorites - "Matilda", "James & the Giant Peach", "Charlie & the Chocolate Factory" - have been made into mainstream movies that these kids have already seen. Thankfully, they haven't caught the animated 1989 version of "The BFG" yet. In the midst of telling the story though, I paused and quickly tried to figure out whether I should shield them from the part where the "mean" giants - no football commentary intended - actually take children from their beds in the middle of the night and eat them. I made a snap judgement and decided that these kids could use a little more grit in their lives, and I told the whole tale. Not exactly a dose of reality, but certainly different from the "Big Comfy Couch" they are used to.

I grew up in a German community in southern Illinois. My German grandparents liked to tell us stories of children who came to terrible ends because of disobedience. I thought it was something in the German culture until I taught children of all nationalities in the public elementary schools of San Francisco. All of the cultures represented had similar stories. Buddhist children hear about the consequences of failure to respect elders that are similar to the girl who was thinking about her red shoes as she went to communion. The punishment is death. I found that children like to tell and hear these stories. When the fad came along for putting the old stories in new editions that had happy endings, I found that the children did not like them very much.

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