#FolkloreThursday: Children’s Folklore

All adults have passed through childhood, which means we all have experience with children’s folklore. The stuff is remarkably stable, and we’re still figuring out why!

Photo by Ariel Lustre from Unsplash. In public domain.
Photo by Ariel Lustre from Unsplash. In public domain.

Like the categories of women’s folklore and occupational folklore, children’s folklore is an umbrella term that includes a large number of genres. What makes it children’s folklore is the primary folk group involved in its transmission: children.

We find children’s folklore across multiple modes of transmission, including verbal folklore, customary lore and belief, and material culture. Examples of verbal lore found among children include folk speech, jokes, and various narrative genres; examples of customary lore include superstitions like Bloody Mary, games (too many to list!), songs and rhymes (greasy grimy gopher guts, anyone?), and gestures (from greeting and leave-taking gestures to obscene ones; examples of material culture include crafts like making fortune tellers or origami, plus all the various ways kids interact with food and dress.

Oh, what’s that, you don’t know greasy grimy gopher guts? It’s a popular American children’s rhyme, and it totally exemplifies the variation inherent to folklore. Here are two texts:

  • Great big globs of greasy, grimy gopher’s guts / Mutilated monkey’s meat / Little birdie’s bloody feet / All whipped together in penetrated porpoise pus / And I forgot my spoon.
  • Great big gobs of juicy, grimy gopher guts / Mutilated monkey feet, chopped-up parakeet / Eagle eyes in a great big bowl of pus / And me without a spoon.

In terms of how we study children’s folklore, it’s important to distinguish between folklore by children and folklore for children. The former is transmitted horizontally, among members of a folk group or peer group without much in the way of hierarchy separating members from one another (which isn’t to say that there’s no hierarchy at work in groups of kids, but rather that it’s not hierarchy based on age). The latter, folklore for children, is folklore that’s transmitted vertically, from adults to kids. A prime example would be lullabies, a genre of folk song.

Similarly, it’s important to distinguish children’s folklore from children’s literature. Folklore is usually characterized as informally transmitted traditional culture, which might occasionally take the form of the written word, whereas literature tends to be authored and more static, at least once it’s published (yes, I know, there are always exceptions). So while we might see fairy tales as sometimes part of children’s folklore in that kids retell fairy tales and play fairy-tale based games, we could also consider fairy tales to be children’s literature, when they are authored by adults and presented to kids. Another notable disclaimer is that folklorists do not universally write children’s books.

Children’s folklore can provide a nice example of coding, too (or transmitting messages in a way so as to protect an oppressed or marginalized group from the consequences of their communication). Many children’s folk groups have secret languages, such as Pig Latin in the U.S., which aren’t all that terribly tough to decipher, but they give the illusion of privacy. Sometimes children do develop sophisticated ways of slipping things under the noses of adults, too.

As Lynne McNeill notes, children’s folklore is an especially rich field of study precisely because of how children respond to and adapt concepts from the adult world:

Children also have a ruthless sort of ranking system that emerges in their traditional games. Remember playing house? The selection process for who gets to be parents and who has to be kids (or pets!) is always interesting, as is the way in which roles are easily dismissed after being fought for. We can see in children’s traditional games a reflection of their perception of adult life – the roles, the rules, and the social expectations into which they’re going to have to assimilate at some point. The really cool thing is how those expectations are just as often obliterated by children’s folklore as they are upheld. We grown-ups could probably learn something from that. (79)

Because I’m a history nerd, I’ll briefly note that children’s folklore became a significant field of study in the 19th century. Early children’s folklore scholars tended to be British or American, but the study of children’s folklore has spread across the world in the 20th century. Currently, there’s a pretty big focus on how children interact with pop culture and the mass media.

This field has blossomed so much that I can’t list every children’s literature scholar here, but here are a few notable ones:

  • William Wells Newell, American folklorist: Games and Songs of American Children (1883)
  • Lady Alice Bertha Gomme, British folklorist: The Traditional of England, Scotland, and Ireland: Tunes, Singing-Rhymes and Methods of Playing According to the Variants Extant and Recorded in Different Parts of the Kingdom (1894-98)
  • Peter and Iona Opie, British couple: The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1952)

And here are a few major concepts:

  • Newell’s Paradox: children are both conservative and creative
  • The triviality barrier: children’s folklore ignored because it is considered trivial
  • The cultural construction of childhood (Philippe Ariès): the idea of childhood is a modern concept, was not culturally accepted until 17th century

Finally, why do we study children’s folklore?

  • Folklore teaches children about the world around them, so in studying their folklore, we learn what they learn
  • Children are relatively powerless, but they gain and explore power through their folklore
  • Among other functions, folklore provides children with an outlet for curiosity, rebellion, and exploring the arbitrary and authoritarian nature of the adult world

We could run through examples of children’s folklore all day; when I teach this topic, it’s generally one that most people can remember engaging with when younger (or currently, if there are children in their lives to observe and interact with).

Do you remember any folklore from your childhood?

References:

McNeill, Lynne S. Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2013.

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