Ask ARP: What should I do about nursery rhymes with a racist past?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent,

I am a Mom of two girls and I live in Eastern Canada. I am looking for some advice about the children’s rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, Catch a tiger by the toe”.

Last week, on the way home from daycare, my oldest daughter (who is 4) began to recite this rhyme. She said it was used by one of the teachers as a method to make a choice. When my husband and I heard this, we both felt uncomfortable and we were surprised that she had been taught this at her daycare.

I did a little research on the history of the rhyme. Among other things, I found out that, although the rhyme has been around in some form or another since the 1850′s, the word tiger was never used until after the racist version became popular. This, I believe this is why so many people feel it is so offensive. I also found out that there have been lawsuits against companies in the US who have used this in their marketing campaigns.

So, I talked with my daughter about the rhyme. I told her that in the past a very similar rhyme was used with words that were very hurtful to many people. For that reason, we would not use that rhyme in our house. I told her that she did nothing wrong, and her teachers did nothing wrong because they did not know others would be hurt by this (the teachers are all very young and would probably be unaware of much of the history of this).

Then I emailed the Director of the daycare, expressing my concern. This is the reply I received:

I was intrigued by your concern so I asked a few people over the lunch hour today what they thought about using the rhyme. One of the people (she is 23) was not aware that there were other words used in this rhyme in less enlightened times. She only knows the rhyme as we say it today.

I suppose if children know that this is a politically correct version of an old taunt then we should avoid it. But it seems that most children, even young adults, only know the “tiger” version. There are similar histories to many of the old nursery rhymes and songs, although I agree that the old version of this rhyme is particularly abhorrent.

I do have some concern about sensitizing a child to something that we cannot quite explain in full as there is no context for the child – we can’t tell them what the old words used to be. It is an interesting debate.

I have since talked to my child’s teacher, who apologized for using the rhyme. She thanked me for raising the issue and she said she could certainly find another rhyme to use. I guess this is the reaction I was expecting.

I’m not sure what to do about the Director’s response. My first instinct was to respond that perhaps none of the children knew the history, but what about their parents and grandparents. But I thought before I responded, I would seek help from others. So here are my questions. Did I make a big deal about nothing? Do people find this rhyme offensive? What should I do next?

I would appreciate any thoughts you have.

Sarah in Eastern Canada

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