My favorite gift to newborns is, you guessed it, a book, but one that I especially like to give (along with Pat the Bunny!) is any edition of Mother Goose rhymes. Admittedly, some of the rhymes are old-fashioned and probably reinforce unfortunate stereotypes, but since there are so many of them, it’s easy to skip the outdated or sexist ones.
There are two reasons why I like to gift Mother Goose editions — one stems from my reading-teacher roots: Early exposure to rhyme is an important pre-reading skill. Developing an ear for rhyme builds phonemic awareness, which helps with sounding out words and spelling.
But the second reason is because passing these poems along to a new generation creates a shared literary heritage. For many cultures over the centuries, that’s traditionally been accomplished through oral storytelling. And, indeed, many Mother Goose rhymes were inherited and passed down from generation to generation in just that way. That means we all knew why Jack and Jill were climbing that hill; we knew why Jack Sprat and his wife were lucky to find each other; and we knew what happened to Little Miss Muffet. Being able to recite those poems created a sense of community and continuity.
Even across cultures we find shared stories that seem to help people navigate the world: Lon Po Po is a Chinese version of Little Red Riding Hood, warning children to follow directions and be wary of strangers. Cinderella stories appear in many cultures — there must be a universal longing for the downtrodden to be rescued and whisked off to love and happiness. Likewise, the story of a great flood is at the root of many cultures’ origin stories.
Why do I bring this up? Because I have started to wonder if some of our U.S. elected officials didn’t grow up hearing the same stories the rest of us did.
Such as the apocryphal story about George Washington and the cherry tree — “Father, I cannot tell a lie.” Or the tale of Pinocchio, the wooden marionette whose nose grew longer whenever he told an untruth. Or the boy who cried wolf from Aesop’s fables. Or the ninth commandment, which decrees “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”
Because we grew up with these lessons, I thought we had a shared belief that lying was wrong. But listening to many public figures today, you’d have to conclude that lying is no longer a wrong in America. To the contrary, figuring out how to get away with lies seems to have become a badge that some people proudly wear.
We read or hear statements unabashedly contradicting a person’s previous statements — by everyone from Supreme Court justices to governors to congresspeople to newscasters shamelessly purveying misinformation. And now, most concerning of all, after two weekends of mayhem and carnage at the hands of murdering teens carrying assault-style automatic weapons, too many of our elected representatives have chosen to obfuscate and hedge what is so clear to the vast majority of Americans: that we need tighter gun control legislation to prevent the slaughter of innocent beautiful children, selfless teachers, and Black grocery shoppers.
Can’t we speak the truth to each other anymore? Let’s remember those lessons we learned on our parents’ laps and demand the truth from those elected to lead our democracy. The burial of truth is what has defined autocrats and fascists from Hitler to Putin. But democracy depends on truth to survive.
— Ann Friedman, founder of Planet Word