December 18, 2017

Not Your Mother’s Mother Goose

by Shannon Hembree

Where is my parenting manual? I ask this question all the time, and the response is always the same – crickets, nada, nothing. Is it too much to ask that when a sticky situation arises, I have a quick-reference guide to turn to for help?


Last night I was reading my daughter a book. This was not just any book – it was a book from my childhood. Queue soft music for warm and fuzzy meaningful parenting moment, right? Wrong. Instead, queue music for scary crazy scenarios that would never be seen in children’s books today.


I tried to skip over the more graphic parts, but my daughter at the tender age of five can read and called me on it. I tried to tell her mommy wasn’t a huge fan of the book and that we should pick something else, but of course, that only made it irresistible to her.


So here is the dilemma. These were books from my childhood. They were read to me. While I concede that I am a very damaged and slightly insane person, I don’t think the books had anything to do with it. Should I really be censoring books as a parent? You decide – here are some excerpts.


From Mother Goose:

“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,

She had so many children she didn’t know what to do;

She gave them some broth, without any bread,

And whipped them all soundly, and sent them to bed.”


As you might have guessed, the first question out of my daughter’s mouth was this: “Mommy, what does ‘whipped’ mean?”


And what about the “Sing a song of sixpence” rhyme? Apparently, some verses are left out in the modern telling. For example, the final verse in this book is as follows:


“The maid was in the garden,

Hanging out the clothes;

There came a little blackbird,

And snapped off her nose.”


As if the terror of birds snapping off your nose isn’t enough for little kids, there is a graphic picture that accompanies it.


And here’s another Mother Goose gem:

“Goosey, goosey, gander!

Where shall I wander?

Upstairs and downstairs,

And in my lady’s chamber;

There I met an old man

Who would not say his prayers;

I took him by the left leg,

And threw him down the stairs.”


I am by no means anti-Mother Goose, but I was surprised to see the difference between what was published decades ago and what is published now. And it’s not just Mother Goose, but random story books as well.


Another book I pulled out of the childhood book box is called The Bremen-town Musicians. It has a sweet picture of a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster on the front. The book opens with this, “There was once a donkey who was getting old. One day he heard his master say, ‘That donkey is too old to work. So why should I feed him?’”


Well, this donkey runs away and meets up with a dog who says, “I am getting too old to hunt…I heard my master say he wanted to kill me.” And the book goes on and on. They run into a cat whose mistress said she was going to drown it. They run into a rooster whose mistress said she was going to cut off its head. And it is downhill from there. They come across a house and scare the robbers away and then later when the robbers come back, they beat one of them up.


So what’s a parent to do? Whether you approve or disapprove, for now those books stay on the shelf to read at a later date. For now, I am choosing to censor by content. All too soon, my daughter will learn that people really do beat their children, mistreat animals, and do other horrible things. She has the rest of her life to be a grown up.


For now, I think it is enough for her to digest the reasons behind why she should never leave the playground without mommy or daddy (or the designated babysitter), why it’s important to tell mommy or daddy if someone touches her in a way that makes her uncomfortable, and what to do if she gets lost (and what it means to be lost for that matter).


Or maybe the decision to shelve the books for now is self-preservation. Have you ever tried to put a child to sleep after a book with content like the above? It’s hard. It’s harder still when they wake up in the middle of the night (and in doing so wake you up in the middle of the night), because they have had a nightmare that sounds strikingly similar to a book you read earlier.


So yes, those books are nestled all snug on the top shelf for now. And when they come down, I’ll have to prepare a goodnight routine. Because if I am caught off guard with new text, it might go a little something like this: “That’s right sweetie, the farmer chopped off his head with the axe while he was asleep at night. All right now. It’s time for lights out – good night and sweet dreams!”


Shannon Hembree is the co-founder of Mamas Against Drama. Mamas Against Drama is a website dedicated to supporting mothers in their parenting efforts. Learn more by visiting


  1. Katie Sanderson says:

    Great story Shannon! I really had to laugh as I was just reading Mother Goose today to my 3 1/2 year old and athough most of the poems struck me as silly, the “Old Woman in the shoe” in my version “scoulded them soundly, and sent them to bed”! Scoulded is much better than Whipped, but it still seemed a little harsh after giving them “broth without bread”! The story was much darker than I remembered, but hey, If I were an Old Woman living in a shoe with dozens of children, i too might be a little cranky.

    • In one of our “modern” versions, the mother “kissed them all soundly.” We pulled out the older version again recently (my twin toddlers did actually) and my husband was appalled (which was kind of funny). I don’t remember which one it was, but it had someone beating someone else with a stick or something along those lines…ack!

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