How Did Childhood Folklore Spread Before the Internet?Historians in the News
tags: anthropology, folklore, childhood
You might not think of typing “BOOBS” on a calculator as cultural heritage, but it is. The custom has been shared, preserved, and passed down through generations of children sniggering in math class. This sacred communal knowledge, along with other ephemera of youth—the blueprints for a cootie catcher, the words to a jump-rope rhyme, the rhythm of a clapping game—is central to the experience of being a kid.
When children are together, they develop their own rituals, traditions, games, and legends—essentially, their own folklore, or, as researchers call it, “childlore.” That lore can be widespread and long-lasting—the mind boggles to think how many generations of children have played tag, for instance. Even seemingly more modern inventions, such as the “cool S”—a blocky, graffiti-ish S that has been etched into countless spiral-bound notebooks—are a shared touchstone for many people who grew up in different times and places in the U.S. How is it that so many children across time and space come to know the exact same things?
Children themselves probably couldn’t tell you where their lore began. If you ask a kid where a particular game or rhyme came from, they’ll likely tell you they invented it, Rebekah Willett, a professor at the Information School at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied childlore, told me: “They cannot trace it, and they have no investment in tracing it.” Indeed, thinking back to the lore of my own youth, I have no idea how my friends and I thought to give each other “cootie shots” with the lead of a mechanical pencil, or why everyone in my elementary-school art class would smear their hands with Elmer’s glue, wait for it to dry, and then methodically peel it off (other than the fact that it was super fun and I would do it again right now if I had some glue nearby). These things were almost like analog memes, micro-bits of culture that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere.
Also like memes, where childlore comes from is arguably less important than how it spreads and why it gains traction in the first place. The main way childlore spreads is, perhaps obviously, by children teaching it to one another. Older kids mentor younger ones both at school and at home, where siblings play a vital role in passing jokes and games down through generations. As for how childlore spreads geographically, there are a couple of key players. One is the new kid, who shows up at school with a pocketful of lore from elsewhere. The other is cousins, who are many kids’ closest peers who don’t attend their school.
Adults have a role to play in perpetuating childlore as well, albeit a supporting one. Parents and teachers share nursery rhymes, folk songs, and games with kids, and adults create the movies, books, and TV shows that kids consume. Our nostalgia for our own childhood shapes what kids get exposed to. But Steve Roud, a British folklorist and the author of The Lore of the Playground, emphasized to me that folklore is by its nature not handed down by an authority. It is of the people, by the people—even if those people are children. So although kids may crib from pop culture and adopt things they learn from adults, making something their own and using it for their own purposes is what transmutes it into childlore. PAW Patrol is not childlore; a game that kids invent on the playground using PAW Patrol characters is.
As Iona and Peter Opie, two pioneers in the childlore field, wrote in their 1959 book, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, “The scraps of lore which children learn from each other are at once more real, more immediately serviceable, and more vastly entertaining to them than anything which they learn from grown-ups.” And some information—such as how to summon Bloody Mary in a mirror or guarantee a snow day by wearing your pajamas inside out—you simply cannot rely on grown-ups to impart anyway.