Forty-two years ago this month, our first book: One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of American Children was published by W.W. Norton. As was their custom, they submitted their newly published books to The Today Show, hoping that they would select one to be featured. Much to our publisher’s surprise (and ours), they selected our book!
Before the Today Show would book me for the eight-minute interview, however, I had to audition. I don’t remember much about it, but I do know there was a wait of several weeks before I appeared on the show, during which time I lost ten pounds.
I had been given the questions and practiced in front of a mirror (with daughter Sarah’s coaching), but apparently Jane Pauley didn’t get the memo. Nevertheless I managed to deal with the unexpected turn of the interrogation, and the interview was deemed a success by the publisher and my co-author.
Still eight minutes is hardly enough time to explain why children’s folklore is worthy of serious consideration when it seems so trivial. Who can take “King’s X” or “liar, liar, pants on fire” seriously?
As we watched children playing we discovered that the traditional customs—the rhymes, sayings, games, and stories that children teach each other and that have been passed down for generations without the mediation of adults —play a critical role in their social and emotional development.
From the book:
Unsupervised children playing together learn how to govern themselves. They learn how to deal with cheaters and cry babies. They make sophisticated juridical distinctions that strike a fine balance between the self-interest of individuals and the good of the group.
They are competitive, but winning is not their goal. They come together voluntarily for a good game. Thus they learn the joy of team play without suffering from the depersonalization and bitterness that mark fiercely competitive supervised contests where the goal has been reduced to mere victory.
They let off steam, releasing tensions created by the repressive atmosphere of the school.
They play with the emotion of fear, thus becoming less fearful.
In all this, they are guided by their folk tradition.
Is there still a playground culture? Today children have so little opportunity for unsupervised play that it seems doubtful that it flourishes to the extent it did 42 years ago. On the other hand, we sometimes see evidence that it has not disappeared altogether: a tell-tale hopscotch diagram chalked on the sidewalk, two little girls playing a clapping rhyme on a cross town bus.
Certainly kids have learned by observing their elders’ attitudes to clean up some of the politically incorrect or racist rhymes that we collected. It’s very doubtful that today any publisher would publish a trade book recounting the history of childlore that included these rhymes.