Kid Logic

by Sherwood Smith

One way to instantly entertain a toddler if you’re stuck somewhere with no toys, is to haul out the hand people.

Pinchies were invented in desperation when we were riding in the car as children. I, at twelve, was frequently responsible for my toddler brother, riding in my lap (no car seats in those days, much less seat belts) and if he cried, my dad would get angry. Believe me, you did not want my dad angry.

So I invented crawling hand people, or pinchies, and used them while babysitting through my teens, and again when governessing, and finally with my own kids. Pinchies talk in a high voice, and the kids would invest them with personalities and even stories. I am told there are thirty year olds who are now introducing pinchies to their kids.

For some reason it’s easy to believe in the separate existence of pinchies. Kids—including my own—have insisted that I hand off the phone to the pinchies, when called long distance. I have received postcards addressed to the pinchies.

My daughter was eight when she finally figured out that pinchies were hands, attached to arms. Woe and grief! But she began using them when she started babysitting.

This led to an event a while back when she put her hand inside a new stuffed turtle she bought as a surprise for the six year old child of a friend. My daughter made the turtle walk about and talk, which the child watched in fascination, then she frowned and declared, “You didn’t fool me! You’re not talking, turtle! It’s the pinchie talking!”

I was thinking back to the schoolyard of my youth, specifically schoolyard songs. Many have talked about how certain ones were never taught in classrooms. Were discouraged. But they still spread across the country without any help from adults. Like “Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts.” But the one I was thinking about was “Don’t Ever Laugh.”

Now, when it hit our campus, I was in fourth grade. What we learned was Don’t ever laugh when a horse goes by, or else you’ll be the next to die. They’ll wrap you up in a bloody sheet and throw you in a hole about sixty feet deep… Etc.

After the delight of learning the verses and getting the EEEUW creds from singing it to those who Weren’t In The Know, I pondered the words. Don’t ever laugh when a horse goes by. Why a horse? I couldn’t quite resolve that to my satisfaction, except that the horse’s feelings might be hurt if you laughed at it. But how would you die from it?

A couple years later a teenage babysitter corrected us from her lofty position of knowledge, telling us the word was ‘hearse.’ We didn’t know that word. I think it was considered vulgar at that time. If we saw a funeral cortege go by on the road, the adults would say repressively ‘That’s a funeral car.’ When you heard that tone of voice, you knew better than to ask any more questions.

The floor dropped on that one when I finally read about the plague years, and various memento mori songs, of which this was one, surviving for centuries. That made sense at last . . . but I have never forgotten that horse, and how we kids reasoned things out on our own when the adults wouldn’t communicate, therefore we either turned to the schoolyard for the real skinny, or else figured it out with kid logic.

Anyone know of things that kids figured out about the world with kid logic?

Sherwood Smith is a member of Book View Cafe



Kid Logic — 31 Comments

  1. When I was a kid, we were curious about where things came from. We knew were told that dogs and cats “had” puppies and kittens, and we knew that the maggots crawling on the garbage pails were from flies. [This was pre garbage disposal days.]

    So, applying this logic, we decided that comics were baby books, motorcycles baby cars, and bushes were baby trees.

    I distinctly remember wondering where crayons came from. Who “had” crayons?

  2. I just found the Grown-upverse utterly incomprehensible–mostly because of the “do as I say not as I do” attitude of some adults.
    I know there were kindly, just, and rational adults out there. It’s just that I did not have much contact with them, so I pretty much dismissed anything a grown up said as irrelevant.

  3. I love the pinchies. That’s a great idea.

    As for kid logic, a nice example was my experience with a US mall Santa at the age of five. Santa arrived at the mall on a tank on loan from a nearby military base. Even though – this was the 1970s and military toys were frowned on in Germany – everybody knew that toy guns and toy tanks and toy soldiers were bad and that kids weren’t allowed to play with them. So the tank riding Santa was a bloody hypocrite and very likely a fake and con man. So I set about to expose him and told him in German what I wanted for Christmas. I figured that if he was the real deal, he would understand German, because Santa had to know every language in the world to be able to do his job. If he didn’t understand me – well, got you, fake Santa!

    As for misheard lyrics, there is a whole book (in German) devoted to misheard lyrics called “Der weiße Neger Wumbaba” (the white black person Wumbaba), because the author always misunderstood the verse “der weiße Nebel wunderbar” (the white fog is wonderous) from the classic German lullaby “Der Mond ist aufgegangen” (The moon has risen). Lullabies are particularly prone to misinterpretations, because most of them are very old and have been around for centuries. I always mangled the lyrics to that other classic German lullaby “Schlaf Kindlein schlaf” as a small child.

    Talking of actually very creepy traditional songs, “Maikäfer flieg” (cockchafer fly), which shares a melody with “Schlaf Kindlein schlaf” and is often used interchangeably (indeed, my mangled version was a combination of both), actually dates from the Thirty Years War and includes a verse about Pommernland, which has burned down.

    Another creepy song I remember from my childhood was called “Warte, warte nur ein Weilchen” (Only wait a little while”) which goes on to say that someone called Hermann would come with his little axe and then he would turn you into sausage. The big question of course was who was Hermann and why was he turning people into sausage.

    Later I found out that this one used to be a popular song in the 1920s with perfectly harmless lyrics without axe-swinging sausage makers. Meanwhile, “Hermann” was really a reference to Fritz Haarmann, a notorious serial killer who preyed on young men and teenage boys in Hannover, was apparently a cannibal and rumoured to have used his butcher shop to dispose of his victims. The Haarmann case made huge headlines in the 1920s and someone changed the lyrics of the song. Ironically, it was the altered version that was passed on from generation of kids to generation of kids, probably due to the Eeuuw factor while the knowledge of the context gradually faded. I didn’t even know the original lyrics, which led to the rather embarrassing situation of being at a party for the 80th birthday of my grandaunt full of little old ladies who liked to sing a lot and singing the “Haarmann” version of the song out loud, because I didn’t know any other version.

  4. Sometimes kids do bizarre things with words in songs. I remember learning one at a very tender age (kindergarten?) that was about spring. There was a line about crocuses popping out of the ground, and that the crocuses would get you if you didn’t watch out!

    I apparently missed the definition of crocus, or the teacher assumed we all knew what they were. I knew the plant, but not the name. I skulked home, and my mother was quite upset at how late I was (this was back when kids actually walked to school.) Since I was still asking her about things at that point, she had to explain to me that crocus were the tiny baby tulips, and would not get me or anyone else!

  5. One of the things I’ve enjoyed is seeing how the kids songs that I learned have morphed to the versions my godchildren know, both over time and over distance. One of the common ones is “Susie had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell. Susie went to heaven, the steamboat went to Hell-o Operator, etc.” Though sometimes Lulu, not Susie, had the steamboat, and so on. Also, the ending to “Jingle bells, Batman smells” has variable endings.

  6. The term for the misheard song lyric is ‘mondegreen’. It’s from the old song,
    Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
    Oh, where hae ye been?
    They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
    And Lady Mondegreen.

    Of course that last line is “And laid him on the green.” There a lots of web sites collecting these things; the most famous one in my schooldays was “… and for Richard Stands.” We never figured out why Richard was in the pledge of Allegiance.

  7. Karen: I remember Jingle Bells, Santa Smells in the fifties, but my favorite was We Three Kings and the exploding cigar.

    Brenda, I can never remember that word, mondegreen, though I love the explanation–and hearing about them.

    For us it was Witchit Stands.

  8. My mother, who went to church every Sunday as a child, was convinced that the lyric to one of her favorite hymns celebrated “the constipated cross-eyed bear” (it was, I believe “The Consecrated Cross I Bear.” This confused her significantly…what were bears doing in church?

    My kids, when they were small, were always appalled when they’d bring home a schoolyard rhyme and I’d not only know it, but have other lyrics to add. So not dignified of Mama.

  9. Fillius says that when he was a little boy he always wondered why the Three Wisemen came from only two countries: “We three kings of Orrie and Tarr…”

    I missed hearing the “horse” song on the playground; I probably missed it because I was off in a corner reading a book.

    But I do recall mishearing The Star Spangled Banner: “…and the rocket’s red glare, atoms bursting in air…” It was the Fifties, so it sorta made sense.

  10. @Catholic Bibliophagist: by the time I was in school. o’er was so long out of use, that I just couldn’t figure out the star spangled banner’s last verse, does that banner yet wave or the land of the, huh?

  11. With us it was

    While shepherds washed their socks by night
    All seated ’round the tub
    A bar of soap went floating by
    And they began to scrub.

  12. Whistle while you work,
    Khrushchev is a jerk,
    Eeny meeny bit his weenie
    Now it doesn’t work.

    My father once got very upset at a TV variety show. “Why the hell are they singing about Michael Rose buying a store?” (Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.)

    My kid-logic story concerns the starter button in our old 1950 Mercury when I was 4 or so. Pushing it was a big no-no (the car would jerk horribly, since there was no ignition interlock as in later models). But since no one bothered to explain that (it was just “don’t touch that!”), I decided that it was a corpse-collection device. When you saw a dead person in the road (’cause if you ran out in the street without looking both ways a car would get you), you pushed the button and this kind of grapnel affair shot out of the front of the car and bundled the person up against the bumper. Then you had to drive to a police station.

  13. This is riffing off your mis-heard lyrics thing, but…

    As a kid, I thought there were two times: the safternoon and the smorning. Or maybe three, but we didn’t do many things in the seevning.

    Oh, and my sister and I used to talk about liking this or that clo. It was the singular of clo(the)s.

  14. One of my favs way back when.
    Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school
    We have tortured all the teachers
    We have broken every rule . . .

    Somehow i feel differently now.

  15. For a very long time, I thought that the famous Händel choral “Tochter Zion” (Daughter Zion, “Thine be the glory” in English) literally referred to a girl called Zion whose father told her she should be happy that it’s Christmas. I also assumed that the “Hosanna” from many chorals was also a reference to a woman.

  16. Kid versions of songs, particularly the irreverent versions of culturally important ones, are always fun. I still remember when I was in Sunday School and we were practicing for the Christmas program, and several of the more fun-minded kids sang the exploding-cigar version of “We Three Kings,” to the shock and horror of the very prim choir director.

    I’ve even worked a bit of that into the world-building of one of my sf worlds, in which there’s a song celebrating the Mercury 7 astronauts. The official version is a dignified account of heroics, while the kid version is full of typical kid potty humor. One can guess which version most kids call to mind when it’s time to list the Mercury 7 in flight order for a history test.

  17. Many of these sound familiar!

    The most misleading song lyrics for me were to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” At seven, I seriously debated whether Christmas Communion would come with grape jelly or strawberry jam, thanks to “Bread and jelly hosts proclaim/Christ was born in Bethlehem.” Clearly it was going to be special!

  18. Another mondegreen, this time mine:

    “I’m your fetus, I’m your fire. At your desire.”

    Took me months of hearing this in an aerobics class to finally hear:

    “I’m your Venus…”

  19. The fiery fetus made me laugh.

    And I still hear them as an adult, too. For example, I thought for years that the Bruce Springsteen song “Brilliant disguise” was called “Brick in disguise”, which also explains why the marriage is failing. After all, she married a disguised brick.

    Another one I misheard for years was “Everlasting love”, a sixties song which was covered in the late 1980s by a German pop star with a highly questionable pronunciation. I always thought that lyrics went “Hearts gone to space, leaving Earth when they go” when it’s really “Hearts gone astray, leaving hurt where they go” I still like my version better, because hey, it’s about spaceships.

  20. As a toddler my daughter had a flock of imaginary ducks, who would escort her everywhere and have elaborate imaginary adventures. The main duck was named Cindy. She was thrilled when Sting had a song on the radio about Cindy; the chorus ran “Cindy-rado S O S.”


  21. On the subject of misheard words, my brother had a gem when he was little. He listened pretty well in church, but apparently the Easter story was a bit of a problem for him. On the back side of a page full of orange circular scribbles labeled “ornges,” the family witnessed what precisely he had heard. My brother’s illustration of the Easter story was a group of cylinders and a line meandering between them. When asked, my brother informed us that he had drawn “the path to Jesus’ tube.”

    That scrap of paper still lives in my mother’s desk, and probably will remain there forever.

  22. Speaking of Church, my dad was raised Mormon, and he was terrified to turn eight, because then he would have to eat people. When the bishop asked him why he thought this, my dad, crying, said it was the bishop who told him when he turned eight, he would become a cannibal. Cue the bishop cracking up and explaining to my dad what the word “accountable” meant. He was very relieved.

  23. My learned spouse used to think the Rolling Stones song “Beast Of Burden” was about “Pizza Burnin’.” You’ve got to love a man who has his priorities in order. [Of course, this same man describes Klingons as having “baseball gloves on their heads.”]

    Here’s a Lady Mondegreen you’ll always remember; Seanan McGuire’s the one on the far right: