Keep making that face and it’ll freeze that way! Watch out for those cracks in the sidewalk! Don’t swallow your gum or it’ll sit in your stomach till you’re in college! Old wives’ tales, urban legends – everyone’s heard a few. As a parent, maybe you’ve told a few, too. But where do old wives’ tales come from? Are they detrimental to kids, or do some of these old sayings really have a point?
Old wives’ tales originate with myths and oral storytelling. Fairy tales, with their plucky, clever heroines and heroes, were morality tales for children of olden times. Women told stories to teach children lessons and make difficult concepts like death or coming of age easier to understand. Often, these stories tried to teach children not to do certain things that were unsafe or considered immoral. That’s why a lot of old wives’ tales sound like threats. “Don’t do A, or B will happen!” B is usually something really unlikely, kinda scary, and easy to remember.
Thus, many old wives’ tales serve a practical purpose. Gum doesn’t actually stay in your stomach if you swallow it, but that doesn’t mean kids should swallow their gum. Gum presents a choking hazard, so if kids think something bad will happen if they swallow it, they’re actually right. It’s just an issue of substituting a more compelling consequence (“Wow! Gum just stays there? I don’t want that!”) for an actually scary one (choking).
Some parents may feel uncomfortable “lying” to their children with outlandish old wives’ tales. That’s a valid point. Older children can stand to hear that they shouldn’t make funny faces all the time because it’s immature, not because their face will get frozen like that. But for young kids, old wives’ tales can be an effective and fun teaching tool. They’re memorable, and sometimes that counts more than being entirely honest.
Here’s a fun activity to do with your spouse or some fellow parents. You have the formula for the classic old wives’ tale (“Don’t do A, or B will happen!”), so why not make up some of your own? Think of some dangerous or unpleasant thing your child does. That’s A. Now come up with a consequence, B, the weirder the better. Next time you see your child doing A, lay your “new” wives’ tale on them. See how they react. Chances are they’ll give you that wide-eyed look – and think twice about going on an A spree anytime soon.
Of course, if your child becomes truly afraid of an old wives’ tale, it’s time to step in and tell them it’s not true. But for most kids, there’s a sort of pleasure in gradually coming to the realization that nobody’s going to die if they step on a crack in the sidewalk. You could call that sort of pleasure growing up.