Fact Check

Punished by Castration

Child takes parent's exaggerated warning literally and acts on it?

Published Jan 22, 2001

Legend:   Child takes mother's exaggerated warning to younger sibling literally and acts on it.


[Brunvand, 1986]

The most horrible tale I remember concerned "the little boy who wet." Depending on the version, he was two or three years old. Despite scoldings, he resisted toilet training until his exasperated mother warned: "If you don't learn, I'm going to cut if off."

Unfortunately, she was overheard by the boy's older sister. So one day, when the children's mother was away, the boy wet again, and the girl took up a pair of shears and cut it off. He almost bled to death.

[Dale, 1978]

At the beginning of the war, a young mother sailed for Ireland with her two young children, a girl of five and a baby of two. She was trying to settle them in their bunks for the night so that she could go off for dinner, but the baby refused to stop crying. In desperation, she shouted: "If you don't shut up, I'll put you out of the porthole." This seemed to quiet the child, and she went for her meal. When she returned, the porthole was open, the baby was gone, and her daughter slept blissfully.

Origins:   We've all said in a fit of anger

Cartoon of the legend

something we never meant to be taken literally, words we later came to rue. Sometimes such exclamations come back to haunt us, especially when they're repeated out of context. (A classic example is the innocent defendant on trial for murder in a "Perry Mason" courtroom drama, who tries desperately to explain under relentless cross-examination that even though he once shouted "I'm going to kill you!" at the victim in the course of a heated argument, he didn't really mean it literally.)

A straightforward reading of this legend presents an extreme example of this phenomenon, involving a child who is too young to understand that a threat made by her exasperated mother wasn't meant literally and acts on it, with tragic results. This version serves as a warning to parents: Watch what you say around your children, because they don't possess an adult's ability to comprehend the subtleties of oral communication — they understand (and act) on a much more literal


But is that all that's really going on here, a simple warning to parents to watch their language? That both examples presented above involve a mother (but no husband) and a daughter who maims or kills her younger brother brings some interesting psychological interpretations to mind. Perhaps this legend addresses male fears of (literal) emasculation in a world dominated by women. Maybe the daughter is identified as the older of the two children to emphasize that she really knows her mother's threat isn't a literal one, but she acts on it anyway out of sibling rivalry. Could this tale even have something to do with — dare we say it — penis envy?

Another possible interpretation — the suppressed desire of the harried mother to be free of her maternal responsibilities — surfaces in variations in which both children are harmed:

[Dale, 1978]

. . . there is another harrassed mum with two children — the small boy and the larger girl. This time, she shouts: 'If you don't go to sleep I'll . . . I'll . . . cut off your willie.' This threat seems to work, so she goes downstairs and relaxes with a suitable glass. Then there is a scream from withup, and she rushes to the foot of the stairs to be greeted with her angelic daughter, brandishing a pair of dressmaking scissors, saying: 'He didn't keep quiet, so I cut it off for you.' To the hospital quickly! Mum grabs him from the cot, wraps him in a blanket and rushes down stairs, shouting to her daughter: 'You'd better come with me so that I can keep an eye on you.' She runs out to the garage, opens the doors and lays her son on the back seat. Then she climbs in, reverses out of the garage, and runs over her daughter.

This legend bears some similarities to "The Nurse and the Wolf," one of Aesop's fables:

"Be quiet now," said an old Nurse to a child sitting on her lap. "If you make that noise again I will throw you to the Wolf."

Now it chanced that a Wolf was passing close under the window as this was said. So he crouched down by the side of the house and waited. "I am in good luck today," thought he. "It is sure to cry soon, and a daintier morsel I haven't had for many a long day." So he waited, and he waited, and he waited, till at last the child began to cry, and the Wolf came forward before the window, and looked up to the Nurse, wagging his tail. But all the Nurse did was to shut down the window and call for help, and the dogs of the house came rushing out.

"Ah," said the Wolf as he galloped away, "Enemies' promises were made to be broken."

In 1994, the Chinese newspaper Guangxi Daily reported a fantastic story reminiscent of a cross between this legend and the Fatal Telegram: They wrote that a man from the Henan province was fined 3,000 yuan after his wife gave birth to her third child (a son, after two daughters), in violation of China's 'one child per couple' population control laws. The father supposedly made a joke about the high cost of finally having a male heir, saying: "A 3,000 yuan fine just for this little penis! We should just cut it off." This prompted the two daughters to cut off the infant boy's penis with a paring knife and leave him to bleed to death while their father was away tending his fields. Upon his return, the father flew into a rage and clubbed the two girls to death with a shovel, then committed suicide by drinking insecticide. His wife "went into hysterics upon seeing the calamity, running naked through the streets screaming the names of her dead husband and children."

Those tempted to be shocked by that story should remember that Chinese newspapers are not quite the bastions of veracity their Western counterparts are.

Last updated:   22 January 2001

  Sources Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Mexican Pet.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.   ISBN 0-393-30542-2   (pp. 72-73).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Baby Train.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.   ISBN 0-393-31208-9   (pp. 68-71).

    Dale, Rodney.   The Tumour in the Whale.

    London: Duckworth, 1978.   ISBN 0-7156-1314-6   (pp. 151-152).

    Reuters.   "Penis Joke Triggers China Family Tragedy."

    26 November 1994.

    Sunday Mirror.   "Father's Joke Leads to Family Tragedy."

    27 November 1994   (p. 17)

  Sources Also told in:

The Big Book of Urban Legends

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 84).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.