Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Legend: Child takes mother's exaggerated warning to younger sibling literally and acts on it.
Origins: We've all said in a fit of anger something we never meant to be taken literally, words we later came to rue. Sometimes such exclamations come back to haunt us, especially when they're repeated out of context. (A classic example is the innocent defendant on trial for murder in a "Perry Mason" courtroom drama, who tries desperately to explain under relentless cross-examination that even though he once shouted "I'm going to kill you!" at the victim in the course of a heated argument, he didn't really mean it literally.)
A straightforward reading of this legend presents an extreme example of this phenomenon, involving a child who is too young to understand that a threat made by her exasperated mother wasn't meant literally and acts on it, with tragic results. This version serves as a warning to parents: Watch what you say around your children, because they don't possess an adult's ability to comprehend the subtleties of oral communication — they understand (and act) on a much more literal
But is that all that's really going on here, a simple warning to parents to watch their language? That both examples presented above involve a mother (but no husband) and a daughter who maims or kills her younger brother brings some interesting psychological interpretations to mind. Perhaps this legend addresses male fears of (literal) emasculation in a world dominated by women. Maybe the daughter is identified as the older of the two children to emphasize that she really knows her mother's threat isn't a literal one, but she acts on it anyway out of sibling rivalry. Could this tale even have something to do with — dare we say it — penis envy?
Another possible interpretation — the suppressed desire of the harried mother to be free of her maternal responsibilities — surfaces in variations in which both children are harmed:
[Dale, 1978]This legend bears some similarities to "The Nurse and the Wolf," one of Aesop's fables:
. . . there is another harrassed mum with two children — the small boy and the larger girl. This time, she shouts: 'If you don't go to sleep
"Be quiet now," said an old Nurse to a child sitting on her lap. "If you make that noise again I will throw you to the Wolf."In 1994, the Chinese newspaper Guangxi Daily reported a fantastic story reminiscent of a cross between this legend and the Fatal Telegram: They wrote that a man from the Henan province was fined
Now it chanced that a Wolf was passing close under the window as this was said. So he crouched down by the side of the house and waited. "I am in good luck today," thought he. "It is sure to cry soon, and a daintier morsel I haven't had for many a long day." So he waited, and he waited, and he waited, till at last the child began to cry, and the Wolf came forward before the window, and looked up to the Nurse, wagging his tail. But all the Nurse did was to shut down the window and call for help, and the dogs of the house came rushing out.
"Ah," said the Wolf as he galloped away, "Enemies' promises were made to be broken."
Those tempted to be shocked by that story should remember that Chinese newspapers are not quite the bastions of veracity their Western counterparts are.
Last updated: 22 January 2001
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