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Why Did We All Have the Same Childhood?

Children have a folklore all their own, and the games, rhymes, trends, and legends that catch on spread to many kids across time and space.

Illustration of the "cool S"—a blocky, graffiti-style letter "S"—in multiple colors, overlapping
The Atlantic

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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.

As for what kinds of things become popular, Alex Mesoudi, who studies cultural evolution at the University of Exeter, in the U.K., pointed me toward two main forces that influence whether a particular chunk of culture will spread. One, which you could call “catchiness,” is whether the content of the lore itself is likely to be “remembered, passed on and adopted by others,” he told me in an email: For instance, a pithy song that rhymes and repeats is probably more memorable than a long, winding one. The other is the context in which you learn about a thing, and how high-status that context is—it could be the hot pop-culture trend of the moment or just associated with the popular kids at school. I’ll call this “coolness.” (And, of course, the allure of naughtiness cannot be overstated. Anything adults have deemed taboo is a hot commodity in kid society.)

When kids latch on to something, boy, do they latch on. Talking with Roud and reading his book, I was amazed at how many shared references we had despite being from different generations and different countries. We reminisced about the classic “Jingle bells, Batman smells” parody, which he called “perfect.” “That’s the power of folklore,” he told me. “It’s known all over the English-speaking world, because it works. That’s all it boils down to.”

Where we diverged, however, was on the second line of the song. For me, it’s “Robin laid an egg.” But Roud grew up singing, “Robin flew away.” That, he told me, demonstrates a central tension of folklore—between similarity and variation, tradition and invention.

Although some elements of childlore last and last, others come and go with the culture of the moment. But even then, Willett told me, kids often build on what came before, whether they realize it or not. For instance, COVID-19 has shown up in many kids’ games, including coronavirus tag— which is, of course, built on one of the most classic kids’ games there is. (Roud suspects that in Victorian times, European children played cholera tag or something similar.) Another example Willett gave, from one of her studies, was a game based on the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who—monsters that can move only when you’re not looking at them. Even though the game was inspired by pop culture, Willett noted that a game where you creep up on someone while they’re not looking is a very old structure. One such game, Grandmother’s Footsteps, dates back to at least the 1900s, she writes.

This brings me to an issue that apparently really cheeses people who study childlore: Adults, it seems, are in a perpetual state of worry that Kids These Days just don’t play like they used to, probably because of whatever technology was most recently introduced. Roud and Willett both independently brought this up to me and insisted that it’s not true. As Willett’s research shows, technology and media do influence kids’ play—but that doesn’t mean play itself is in jeopardy.

Willett thinks grown-ups can be overly focused on “children as becoming,” worrying about their development and preparing them for the adult life they will one day lead. And in the process, she thinks, we can miss “children as being”—the complex society and culture they inhabit right now. Childlore is a shared language among children, and although adults may remember it fondly, we aren’t fluent in it anymore. We don’t always know it when we see it, because it isn’t for us. “All you see is kids running around screaming,” Roud said. “You don’t realize that they are playing a game.”

And so, as we come of age, we may lose an understanding of something we once knew in our very bones: that typing 8-0-0-8-5 on a calculator is not just naughty and fun, but important. The rebellious thrill, the intense comradery, the urge to pass the knowledge along (and pretend you came up with it yourself)—all of these things fade with time. But that’s okay. The kids will keep the tradition alive.