English nursery rhymes: the first lesson in gender discrimination?

Death, desolation, destruction and gender discrimination are some of the recurrent themes of a number of ENGLISH NURSERY RHYMES. Nursery rhymes have a very important role to play in the development of a child’s language awareness and language sensitivity. But how do they affect the cognitive development of a girl child when she sings and repeats them during her childhood? Popular English nursery rhymes seem to be linguistically useful, but cognitively harmful for the girl child. Is there any research done in this field? I wonder. The power of language or the language of power monopolized by the patriarchal society?
The language of nursery rhymes is generally very simple and suggestive and the rhythm and the picturesque quality of nursery rhymes captivate the impressionable mind of children. The musical quality of the rhymes have no correlation with their thought content and neither the singer nor the listener is interested in deciphering the meaning of the rhymes. Rhymes for the sake of the rhymes, just for music and fun. Nothing serious? Are we sure?
A number of well known English nursery rhymes are gender biased and they present the girl child as a subordinate to the male child. The nursery rhyme: “Jack and Jill went up the hill/to fetch a pale of water/Jack fell down and broke his crown/ And Jill came tumbling after” presents Jill as a poor girl who has no option but to follow Jack. Jill, in this nursery rhyme represents the girls of a patriarchal society. Why can’t Jack come tumbling after? Does it affect the male ego? By teaching gender biased nursery rhymes, aren’t we instilling a sense of submissiveness and inferiority complex in the mind of the girl child?
In the rhyme , “Polly put the kettle on,” it is Polly who puts the kettle on, as the kitchen will be her domain when she grows up! “Peter put the kettle on” would be sacrilegious for the male child.
In the rhyme, ‘Sing a song of six pence’ the girl child is very subtly introduced to ‘parlor’, ‘bread’ and ‘honey’, the counting house has been kept reserved for the male child. “The king was in his counting house/ Counting out his money/ The queen was in her parlor/ Eating bread and honey.” Doesn’t this rhyme seem incongruous in an age when men and women have an equal right to the ‘counting house’?
English nursery rhymes present the male child as robust, energetic, adventurous and ambitious while the girl child is presented as meek, humble and submissive. Take the example of the nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb”: “Mary had a little lamb/ Its fleece was white as snow/ And everywhere that Mary went/ The lamb was sure to go.” The similarity between Mary and lamb is too obvious. Cant we say, “ Michael had a little lamb”? No, we can’t, because the meek lamb and the meek little girl child collocate nicely in the psyche of the male composer of this nursery rhyme!
The theme of violence is all pervasive in a number of English nursery rhymes. “The maid was in the garden/ Hanging out the clothes/ When down came a blackbird/ And pecked off her nose.” The picture of a bird pecking off the nose of a maid is not at all a pleasing experience for an innocent child. Is it desirable to portray a bird as the villain of the piece? Moreover, why should a blackbird target a ‘maid’? Dose it imply that girls are not capable of thwarting the evil design of the attacker? Can’t a blackbird peck off the nose of a male? It seems that the patriarchal society derives a kind of sadistic pleasure in portraying women as helpless creatures even in the nursery rhymes! A girl child gets a taste of gender discrimination, albeit unconsciously, by repeating these gender biased nursery rhymes!
The apparently innocent nursery rhymes are not so innocent; they seem to have a hidden agenda in instilling a sense of inferiority, helplessness and discrimination in the impressionistic mind of the girl child. Linguistic development affecting the cognitive development!


  1. Shocked by the theme behind these rhymes. Never thought in that pount. But in that age child can discriminate between male and female gender bias. I think when she grows automatically she forgot i think. This is my personal view. I am not generalising.

    Liked by 1 person

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