Why Kids SHOULD “Stick a Needle in Their Eye” — at Least Metaphorically

Readers — This is a letter I got from Chris Byrne, who is always deep and wise about childhood. He was responding to the post about a new, less “scary” rhyme kids have picked up from My Little Pony. Instead of  the age-old “Cross my heart and hope to die/Stick a needle in my eye,” they’ve learned, “Cross my heart and hope to fly/Stick a cupcake in my eye.” – L. 
Dear Free-Range Kids: Like so many things (“Ring Around the Rosie” being related to the Black Death), these were the ways children played with fear. “Cross My Heart…” is an interpretation of the kind of vows that knights would make when taking off for medieval  “Hangover”-like road trip called The Crusades. The intent was to imagine the most horrible thing that could happen as a way of showing the intensity of the pledge.
“You won’t tell mom I put Larry in the dryer, right?”
“Cross my heart…”
In this case what would happen to my brother for ratting us out would had been far worse than a prick in the eye.
This is how children typically have talked for centuries, to mirror in their childish ways what they see as the adult norms. Now, you might think in this world that there is no pledge that has the kind of power this implies, and you might be right. (I have too many friends for whom the marriage vows of fidelity are transitory, sadly.) But still, this is an appropriately childish way of cementing a relationship. What kids learn from the intensity of this language is the making—and keeping—of promises helps define who we are in relationships. Getting a cupcake in one’s eye is just messy, and hoping to fly is a different kind of fantasy. So the question becomes, where do kids practice the intensity of a one-to-one pledge that is character building? No idea.
After I read this, I was thinking about the things we used to do. My brothers and I would end up in protective custody today, I’m sure of it. (Access to explosives alone would have had us tried as adults at age 8 or less.) We would flatten Wonder bread and take “communion” before battles in the backyard. I became “blood brothers” with a couple of friends. You know, that’s when you both cut yourself and press the cuts together. Usually, best accomplished when you’re covered head to toe in dirt from climbing trees and spying on the “witches” who lived down the block. (Adult reality lets one know that these two elderly sisters probably didn’t have the means to keep up their house, but a child’s mind makes peeling paint into a sure sign of demonic presence. We told each other stories about them to scare each other, and we knew a kid who knew a kid who had gone trick-or-treating there and was never seen again! Works like a charm with the little kids — the ability to scare them is a marker of being grown up because you know better and have cast off the power of superstition.)
In any event, this was where play comes in—helping children to interpret and make sense of what they see around them in the adult world as refracted through their present cognitive abilities. It’s like playing church or school, or fireman or policeman, it helps kids locate themselves in a culture at a particular time. Without these ritualistic forms of play (and, no, watching “Dancing with the Stars” is not a ritual, though it may seem to be one), kids can’t be integrated individuals, able to deal with pain, loss, betrayal, death as well as the many joys of life, which one hopes gain in value given their ephemeral nature. (Actually, watching “Dancing with the Stars” does locate you in the culture, but not in any but the most superficial way.)
Anyway, I think there’s something in here that’s bigger than you’ve had a chance to explore. Thanks, as always, for what you’re doing and for making me think. – Chris
Made me blink! Er…think!

21 Responses to Why Kids SHOULD “Stick a Needle in Their Eye” — at Least Metaphorically

  1. Uly May 23, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    Point: Ring around the Rosie is STILL not connected to the plague, or death, or anything of the sort.

  2. Emmanuelle May 23, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    Agreed. I remember loving my childhood adventures, and wish my kids could live those too. I still fail to see how they were that dangerous, or how they could have turned us into serial killers. I strongly believe that these were challenges that we needed to test our metal, and which gave us strength, confidence and independence. No matter how hard “they” try to convince me that kids are forced to grow in padded rooms wearing straight jackets because it’s the best way to protect them, what I truly believe is that they are forced to grow up this way so society can control how much, or how little to be more accurate, they develop in strength, confidence and independence, to limit, stunt our kids, not keep them safe.

  3. Andrea May 23, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    This is very, very interesting, but I used to say the “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye” thing when I was a kid and never once did I even think about what the words meant. It was pure ritual for me, even though I have a huge phobia about things getting stuck in my eye. So there’s the other side of this issue — kids play games with words, and life goes on. We don’t need to freak out about it.

  4. squishymama May 23, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    Within the context of the show “My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic” the Pinky Pie Promise is the most serious oath a pony can take. If you Pinky Pie Promise and then break it, you will lose the trust of your friends, FOREVER! For the characters in the show (and for my little girls watching it) that is deadly serious stuff.

    We use the Pinky Pie Promise in our house, and I take it as seriously as they do. The look of disappointment in their eyes would be too much for me to bear should I ever break one.

  5. Warren May 23, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

    Did the same blood brothers oath myself. Parents these days would be running the kid to the hospital demanding HIV, HEP, and all sorts of tests run on the blood. LOL.

    There would be less debate about the My Little Pony promise, if the writers had not based their promise on the traditional one. In this day and soceity of censoring and editing arts and entertainment to protect the kiddies, it is understandable as to why alot of people jumped to that conclusion.

  6. Crystal May 23, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    I did the “blood brother” (or is it siblings if you’re opposite gender?) thing when I was a kid with my childhood crush. It was a very fond memory. Interesting article — thanks for posting.

  7. Havva May 23, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    I remember in the 90’s when at least to me as a kid, there was a lot more controversy about dumb-ing down the old fairy tales and rhymes to be “kinder and gentler” (said with a sneer, of course by the opponents). I guess it has been going on so long now that people have gotten accustomed.

    And the passing reference to how kids integrate concepts like death. I think parents started suppressing that development in the 90’s or perhaps earlier too. In high school (16-17 years old) my class was I guess unusually silent about a poem involving a wake. Our English teacher started prodding to no effect. And in frustration finally asked for a show of hands how many of us had ever been to a funeral. 3 hands went up. He asked how many had lost a grand parent in their life time. Almost all the hands went up. But one of the 3 hands (mine) went down. Also I was the only person who had been to more than one funeral.

  8. Ted May 23, 2013 at 5:12 pm #

    “After I read this, I was thinking about the things we used to do. My brothers and I would end up in protective custody today, I’m sure of it.”

    I think it’s important to remember that while we are fighting for a free-range childhood for every kid here, there are many kids still playing out, doing things, building explosives and succeeding at being free-range. Just as we fight to keep realistic statistics in mind when discussing risks to our kids, lets also keep in mind that there are still lots of kids in tolerant communities who have the lives that we did when we were kids. We just don’t hear about them.

  9. Amanda Matthews May 23, 2013 at 5:42 pm #

    In My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, they also say “anypony” instead of “anybody.” It’s not meant to be taken seriously.

    The young ponies in the show are very free-range.

  10. toconnor May 23, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    I vow that my parenting shall never be influenced by “My Little Pony”- cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye

  11. hineata May 23, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    @Havva – that’s interesting, about the wakes/funerals. Around where I live that sort of thing – kids not going to funerals – has actually lessened since the 70’s and 80’s, when I was one of the few kids/teens in my little area who’d been to viewings/open coffin funerals (actually, any kind of funeral). Some of that has been because people are adopting more the Maori view of death, as in, it’s happened, better get to grips with the reality of it – others maybe getting in touch with their Irish/Celtic roots (okay, not 100% sure, but I think wakes are an Irish thing?). Lots of Pakeha these days seem to keep the body at home until the funeral, invite people to visit etc, whereas it used to seem only a Maori thing to do. I wonder if the same thing is happening in North America? From an English friend, I gather the Brits seem to still try to shelter kids, but that’s only hearsay, might be just her community.

    Love the idea of kids doing rituals etc, and they seem to be alive and well in my school, and not soppy ones either, so rest assured, the ‘bloodthirsty’ element of childhood still exists, LOL! As kids we said all sorts of things, but didn’t tend to seal things with our own blood. Instead, we did unmentionable things to insect pests, or drew blood by hurling stones at the neighbour boy (with his sister’s full approval). And we were supposedly ‘nice’ children……if adults only knew!

  12. bmommyx2 May 23, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    Enjoyed your perspective. I never really thought about it much until I realized the old rhymes have been changed

  13. Donald May 23, 2013 at 9:28 pm #

    Interesting for sure! Pinky swear, becoming blood brothers and spitting into one’s own palm before shaking hands sounds ridiculous at first. The more I think about it the more it looks to me like an early stage in learning how to be honorable, trustworthy, and able to keep your word.

    I also remember how we liked to scare each other such as a house with pealing paint is a certain sign of a witch that will eat children. As we matured, we outgrew that. I also notice today that many adults love to be scared. They can’t get enough of the sensationalized news. They crave to hear tragic stories. They have to watch stories about the Oklahoma deaths 500 times because 10 times is not enough. After they get tired of that, they tune into CSI to get their fix. These adults can grow out of this stage as well by working on their maturity.

  14. Brian May 24, 2013 at 8:28 am #

    I really like your take and agree with it. These lessons, especially making and keeping promises are really important as are things like being scared. The only way to let kids have these opportunities is to let them have time to play and develop them. No class, sport or tutor can teach them.

    One thing I take exception to in your post is your description of knights ” taking off for medieval ”Hangover”-like road trip called The Crusades” The crusades were a brutal cultural war involving torture, slavery, genocide and the intentional destruction of very important works of Western (and Eastern) culture including books, art and architecture. The horrors were not only inflicted on all of the people involved then. The results of that invasion reverberate in many of the problems in the Middle East today.

    800 years from now it will still be inappropriate to call the Vietnam War a “hangover-like road trip” regardless of the character building, “fun,” pot smoking, whoring, etc. Today, as we stand 800 years later we also should not dismiss the Crusades as such.

  15. Warren May 24, 2013 at 8:59 am #

    @Brian

    1. Do not be so freaking sensitive. Lenore is not the first to instill some form of humour into the crusades. Monty Python did it decades ago. And many others have done it since.
    2. If you are going to be upset, be upset over the proper topic. The crusades was not a war. It was invasion after invasion, combined with looting, and genocide. Warriors fighing a war, are soldiers. Those fightin in the crusades were state and church sponsored terrorists.
    3. And for the record, comedians have been using Vietnam as fuel for comedy since day one.

  16. Yan Seiner May 26, 2013 at 10:20 am #

    On the topic of historical revisionism:

    My 15 year old daughter is studying ancient China in high school. They are learning about the Zhou dynasty, which ruled from 1046–256 BC. The Zhou dynasty period was very influential in world history. Confucius and Lao Tzu both lived then.

    The dynasty eventually disintegrated and fell after several centuries of war, called the Warring States period. Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, was one of the first to write a manual of war, again, a very influential treatise that is read at all military academies to this day. Sun Tzu was one of the first to treat was as a science, and repeatedly made the point that war is a matter of state policy, not personal feuding, and should be studied and mastered. He also ties war expenses to the financial stability of the state, something that the US has apparently failed to understand when it launched the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Sun Tzu explicitly warns against such open ended warfare as we are engaging in over there.

    What is interesting (and shocking) is that none of the material that my daughter was given, her textbooks, or her classes, make mention of the Warring States period, Sun Tzu, or the nearly 3 centuries of continuous large-scale warfare that ended the dynasty. (And it was large scale; armies of 100,000 men were common and some were considerably larger than that.)

  17. hineata May 26, 2013 at 5:51 pm #

    @Yan – your daughter gets to learn ancient Chinese history?! Wow! Just be grateful she gets the chance to learn any of it. My husband knows some because he went to a Chinese-speaking primary school, but our friends from China appear stuck with the the post ‘Cultural Renaissance’ (what we would term the Cultural Revolution). I get your point, honestly, but on the upside at least she is getting to understand that China had a history.

    As for soldiers as state-sponsored terrorists, that terminology could be applied to most of the military engagements that have ever been undertaken. The British in India, the Japanese in China, the New Zealanders in Palestine, the Iraqis in Kuwait, the Americans in the latest Gulf war are just a few examples, and those just from the last couple of hundred years. Your viewpoint is generally determined by which side of the conflict you’re on.

  18. Yan Seiner May 26, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    @hineata: I grew up behind the Iron Curtain, so I know how that works. Our history started when our Great Russian Brothers liberated us from the clutches of capitalist imperialists – or was it imperialist capitalists? :)

    Never mind that we have a history that dates back at least to Roman times (as does most of Europe.)

  19. hineata May 26, 2013 at 7:33 pm #

    @Yan – you obviously caught up well then later on :-) (with history in general, knowing Sun Tzu etc). Good for you!

    You know, sadly it’s not just totalitarian regimes that don’t tell everything. We grew up being taught very little of our own history in school, most of what I knew then coming from my dad (and like a typical storyteller, wonderful tales but full of questionable ‘facts’ LOL!), and yet we did long projects on Bronze Age Britain. Like that was incredibly important to South Seas kids.

  20. Cin May 27, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

    Love the “communion” wafers before battle — my boys often cross themselves before water fights, lol.

  21. Natalie May 28, 2013 at 8:18 pm #

    This is a follow up post to a post that wasn’t well researched in the first place, and the topic doesn’t really amount to much. Stories have been sanitized for kids for years. Long before the helicopter fad started.
    It’s making a mountain out of a molehill.
    Hardly anyone knows how the original fairy tales ended. Or how about Pinnicchio? Disney has changed these stories a long time ago.
    These two posts are a non-issue.
    The conclusions and righteous anger, mocking etc are over nothing at all.