My kids were figuring out whose turn it was to do something this morning, and instead of their usual game of rock-paper-scissors, busted out that ubiquitous kids’ rhyme to solve their dispute:
Them (chanting): “eeny meeny miney mo, catch a tiger by its toe. If it hollers…”
Me: Now wait just a minute. We need to talk…
My eldest understood fairly quickly why the rhyme was offensive: until fairly recently, “tiger” wasn’t the word in the rhyme, and she is sensitive to (and appalled by) the stories of slavery and oppression she has read. My boys were a harder sell. I told them that tiger kind of rhymed with a very hurtful and mean word people used to use to describe black people, and then thought of an example to try and make it relatable:
Imagine that a while ago there were a group of bullies who used to hurt you and tease you on the playground, and they had a special song they made up just to tease you. They would kick the ball at you and sing “Jacob’s a loser, Jacob’s a fool” over and over again. All the kids on the playground knew that horrible, teasing song. Now imagine you were at your new school and the bullying had stopped, but one day at recess you see some kids who also used to go to the old school, and they have are kicking around a soccer ball and singing that same old tune, but just with different words: “Bacon’s a loser, bacon’s a food.” How would you feel if you heard that?
Even my five year old got it. “Bad,” he supplied. “It would remind me of the teasing,” said the other.
What if the other kids said they were just joking and it was just a song about bacon?
They looked perplexed. “My feelings would still be hurt,” said my son.
“Yeah,” I said. “And I think when people of color hear that rhyme, for some of them it reminds them of the yucky version of that song, even if people don’t use the words. And we don’t want to sing songs that make other people feel yuck, right?”
My eldest shuffled on her feet a little: her question unspoken between us: “If it’s so bad, why didn’t you tell us before?” I told them they weren’t in trouble, and after all they probably learned that rhyme from me because it was something I’d heard and sung as a counting rhyme all my life. And that, until recently, I didn’t know that it hurt people’s feelings. But now I’ve had some friends of color and parents of kids of color tell me their stories about how that song made them feel… so now I do know, and I want to do better. Mom is also learning. Unlearning. Relearning. Once we know better, we need to do better.
They nodded and got back to their game. “Rock, paper, or scissors?” my youngest asked, and the morning continued.
Honestly, I sometimes wonder what we can do to raise respectful, kind, compassionate kids in the cultural climate and privileged bubble we live in: it feels like a Herculean task. But we can nix that nursery rhyme, and that’s a small start.