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Explaining This World To An Infant Is Harder Than I Thought

Nursery rhymes contain a uniquely misogynistic, patriarchal, Anglo-centric and monarchist view of the world.

24/03/2017 11:09 AM AEDT | Updated 24/03/2017 11:12 AM AEDT
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Miss Polly had a dolly who was sick, sick sick... wait, what?

My one-year-old son has begun to understand me. This joyous event is tempered by a disconcerting realisation: soon I will need to explain the brutal world around him.

It began innocently enough. I asked him to turn the page on a book we were reading and he did so.

And with that, everything changed. No longer are my wife and I reading picture books pointlessly into the ether. He really does seem to care about that fox with the socks, or where the green sheep is hiding, or whether there is such a thing as a gruffalo.

The truth hit me hard: he would start to ask questions where the answers would be dark.

I was immediately buoyed by the prospect of future discourse. We would discuss current affairs, family dynamics, witty cat memes. But the truth hit me just as hard: he would start to ask questions where the answers would be dark.

There's the obvious issue of describing contemporary geopolitics. How can I explain that swathes of people vote for men who dehumanise minorities? How can I tell him about climate change, that his generation will inherit an environmental catastrophe that ours has idly allowed to happen?

But that's not the most pressing issue. That stuff can wait until he's two.

With his developing ability to comprehend, how do we teach him the reserve power of swear words? We have tried to stop cursing around him, but this is futile when everyone we know, every family member, every stranger on the street and, yes, even we, continue to swear in almost every sentence.

But I think we may have vastly overestimated the impact of offensive language. We are professing an archaic standard of polite conversation, and are made hypocrites as parents in the process.

And then there are his books. Previously these never mattered, because we may as well have been reading him the business section of the newspaper. It was the sound of our voices that he craved, not the meaning of our words. But that's all over, and I am now far more aware of the stories we are shoving down his throat.

The worst by far are the nursery rhymes. A well-meaning friend gave him a book of these verses many months ago, before we could have ever known their clout. Now his addiction is all too familiar.

It could be that he just likes the ritualised humiliation of his out-of-tune parents singing on cue, but he loves that book. If he sees it, he will use all his little might to lift its hard cover over to us and demand it be read.

It is a parent's role to help their child to face the harsh realities of the world without fear.

Acquiesce we do, as we have for just about every other request of his short life. But now I am seeing how disturbing these rhymes really are.

They seem to contain a uniquely misogynistic, patriarchal, Anglo-centric and, it has to be said, monarchist view of the world. These are all ideologies I aim to instruct him against, but instead I sing ad nauseam about London, its dilapidated bridges and its endless parade of domestic violence offenders and feudalistic royals.

One of these rhymes even features a doctor so contemptible that he would charge a consultation fee for visiting a little girl's doll, after inexplicably drugging the toy first. With this, I am maligning my very profession.

At the moment, I am avoiding the worst of those ditties. But one day we will face them together, and all the horror of the news, too. It is a parent's role to help their child to face the harsh realities of the world without fear. I hope I have the courage to explain it, because he has the right to understand it all.


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