These 5 Cautionary Tales Kept Generations of Kids in Line

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Raising kids is no joke, and finding ways to make them actually listen to your well-intentioned warnings and help keep themselves safe can be a tall order.

Which is probably why, since time immemorial, people have been telling their kids stories meant to capture their attention and scare them into walking the straight and narrow.

That said, some of these 5 stories take things a bit too far, in my opinion, because there’s just no way kids who heard these stories weren’t scarred for life.

Although they probably stopped sucking their thumb…

#5. The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb

Der Struwwelpeter (known in English as Shock-Headed Peter) was written by a German psychiatrist named Heinrich Hoffmann in 1845. The book is full of ghoulish tales of children misbehaving and then suffering pretty disproportionately bad fates. This one is about Conrad, also known as Suck-a-Thumb.

One day, Mamma said: “Conrad dear,
I must go out and leave you here.
But mind now, Conrad, what I say,
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away.
The great tall tailor always comes
To little boys that suck their thumbs,
And ere they dream what he’s about.
He takes his great sharp scissors out
And cuts their thumbs clean off, and then,
You know, they never grow again.”

The next time Conrad sucks his thumb the tailor shows up, chases him with a pair of scissors, and cuts off both of his thumbs.


#4. Max and Moritz

This book, written and illustrated by German Wilhelm Busch in 1865, contains seven tales of the two badly behaved boys. Max and Moritz terrorize various people in their small town before being caught by the farmer, who stuffs them into bags of grains…

….then sends the bag through the mill, grinding them to bits.

Then he feeds the bits to the ducks.

It’s the circle of life, I suppose.

#3. The Cry Baby

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Also written by Hoffman, Slovenly Betsy had a special English edition published for American audiences in 1911. One of the stories cautions children against crying too much – lest they literally cry their eyes out.

And now the poor creature is cautiously crawling
And feeling her way all around;
And now from their sockets her eyeballs are falling;
See, there they are down on the ground.
My children, from such an example take warning,
And happily live while you may;
And say to yourselves, when you rise in the morning,
“I’ll try to be cheerful today.

I guess they weren’t so much for validation and emotional intelligence.

#2. Rebecca, Who Slammed Doors For Fun and Perished Miserably

In 1907, Hilaire Belloc published a satire called Cautionary Tales for Children: Designed for the Admonition of Children between the ages of eight and fourteen years. It contains many gems, but none so morbid as the tale of the “rude,” “wild,” and “aggravating” Rebecca, who died after she slammed a door and a marble bust “laid her out.”

The sermon at her funeral “showed the dreadful end of one who goes and slams doors for fun.”

#1. Little Red Riding Hood

The best is for last.

In the original tale, little Red and her grandmother are not rescued by the woodcutter at all, but eaten and digested (and you can take it from there). And then we get this moral:

“Children, especially attractive, well-bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say ‘wolf,’ but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.”

Child-rearing sure has changed for the better, I think.

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