When you’re a kid, you spend a lot of time trying to figure out how the world works. Inevitably, you’d ask your parents. If you were lucky, you’d get a useful answer; if not, you’d get…well, something else.
“My dad used to say that people lost in the desert had to drink their camels’ pee, and that’s how mustard was invented,” Tom, a 34-year-old marketing manager, tells Urbo. “And that when their camels ran out of pee, they drank their blood, and that’s how ketchup was invented. I half-believed it.”
Parents, as it turns out, love making up stories to confuse their kids.
“My left ear happens to be distinctly pointed, for no other reason than a genetic oddity,” says Sarah Muller, development and marketing assistant of non-profit EAC Network. “When I asked my mom about it, she told me that it’s because my family is part elf. I, of course, fully believed her, because why would my mom lie? I went around telling people this for at least a year. My mom still thinks this is hilarious.”
As kids, we believe anything our parents tell us, which leads to some pretty bizarre assumptions about the world as a whole. We decided to look into some of the most common misconceptions of childhood to try to figure out how they started—and whether there’s any truth to any of them.
Belief #1: Eating watermelon seeds will eventually cause a watermelon to grow in your body.
This widespread urban myth was popular enough to be featured in an episode of Rugrats, and most of us have heard some variation of it: Swallow a watermelon seed, and you’ll grow a watermelon in your stomach.
“We unfortunately have no historical archive of when or where this myth started, but it sure is a fun one,” Stephanie Barlow, spokesperson for the National Watermelon Promotion Board, tells Urbo. But she presumes the myth is closely associated with pregnancy—at some point, some little kid asked a mother-to-be about her growing belly, and she responded with an on-the-spot myth.
“With the happy, healthy glow that pregnant women beam out, it’s no wonder the myth exists,” Barlow says. “A round belly bump and a sweet smile both say ‘watermelon’ to me.”
While the National Watermelon Promotion Board would say positive things about watermelons, that sounds pretty reasonable to us. For what it’s worth, watermelon seeds pass harmlessly through your system, and they’re pretty nutritious when dried or cooked; according to nutritional info from Self Nutrition Data, they’re an excellent source of calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
“We can factually say watermelon needs both sunshine and bees to grow,” Barlow says, “so it’s completely impossible for anything other than digestion to happen in the stomach. But keep buying those cute shirts for your pregnant friends; they give us all a giggle.”
Belief #2: If you swallow your chewing gum, it stays in your body for seven years.
Or eight years. Or a decade. The exact number varies, depending on how much your mom wanted you to spit that gum out.
Obviously, it isn’t true, but bubblegum certainly isn’t as nutritious as, say, watermelon seeds.
“It is true that your body is unable to digest the synthetic portion of the chewing gum,” wrote John Vaughn, MD, for Ohio State University Student Health Services, “but it doesn’t stay in the stomach for an extended period of time.”
Your body passes gum out of its digestive system within a day or two, although your exact mileage might vary. The Mayo Clinic’s Michael Picco, MD, noted that extremely large amounts of chewing gum can cause intestinal blockages in small children, but only in rare circumstances.
Parents, go ahead and tell your kids to spit out their gum—but if they swallow it out of spite, there’s no need to worry about catastrophic consequences.
Belief #3: People in the past lived in black and white.
“I always assumed that the past wasn’t in color,” Lucy, a 31-year-old hospital worker, tells Urbo. “I guess it’s obvious, but old television shows are in black-and-white. To a kid, the most reasonable explanation is that everything used to look like that.”
Finally, a myth that didn’t start with someone’s parents. Oddly enough, there’s also a grain of truth to this one, if you look at it sideways: While people in the past didn’t live in black and white, many of them dreamed in black and white.
A 2008 study led by researcher Eva Murzyn at the University of Dundee looked at the dreaming habits of 60 subjects, half of whom were over 55 and half of whom were younger than 25. Only 4.4 percent of the younger group’s dreams were in black and white, while participants in the older group dreamed in monochrome about 7.3 percent of the time.
Here’s where things get interesting: Among participants who grew up without access to color televisions, colorless dreams were much more common; this group dreamt in black in white about 25 percent of the time.
“It suggests there could be a critical period in our childhood when watching films has a big impact on the way dreams are formed,” Murzyn said at the time. “What is even more interesting is that before the advent of black and white television, all the evidence suggests we were dreaming in color.”
The trouble with the study, of course, is that it’s pretty much impossible to determine whether these people actually had monochrome dreams or if they simply remembered them that way. Still, it’s a fascinating take on a widely held myth of childhood.
Belief #4: There are alligators in the sewers, and they’re coming for you.
We’ve all heard this old chestnut: Don’t get too close to the sewer grates or rainwater cleanouts, or you might get nipped by an angry alligator. What could be more ridiculous?
Oh, wait, sorry—this one might be partially true.
Stories of alligators in sewers date back to at least the 1920s, and bloggers at British magazine New Statesman found several real news reports about alligators in the New York City sewers.
“Youths Shovelling Snow into Manhole See the Animal Churning in Icy Water,” one headline blared. “Reptile Slain by Rescuers When It Gets Vicious—Whence It Came Is Mystery.”
Alas, we have to throw cold water (or, at least, shovel some snow) onto part of the legend: Alligators can’t really spend much time living in raw sewage.
“I could cite you many cogent, logical reasons why the sewer system is not a fit habitat for an alligator,” New York sewer bureau spokesman John T. Flaherty said in a 1982 interview with The New York Times, “But suffice it to say that, in the 28 years I have been in the sewer game, neither I nor any of the thousands of men who have worked to build, maintain or repair the sewer system has ever seen one, and a 10-foot, 800-pound alligator would be hard to miss.”
We’d like to note that he referred to his career as “the sewer game,” which sounds like a prelude to the worst family game night imaginable.
Alligators unlucky enough to find themselves in a city’s sewer system probably won’t live long, and we think parents probably perpetuate the myth to keep kids from playing close to sewage. Still, we’re probably going to avoid reaching into any open sewer grates anytime soon (not that this is a huge change of plans for us).
Belief #5: Wearing a mask could make you a completely different person.
When you’re under a certain age, people with masks are absolutely terrifying. Most kids grow out of it; others come up with some explanations to justify their phobias.
“I was always freaked out by clowns, mascots, and anyone in a mask, regardless of whether the mask was supposed to be scary,” James, a 27-year-old contractor, tells us. “I was convinced that putting on the mask changed a person in some sinister way. My mom didn’t help; when I told her my theory, she said, ‘Oh, yeah, I always feel the evil spirits when I dress up.’ I didn’t sleep for days.”
This childhood fear, by the way, is an almost inevitable part of growing up. Masklophobia—a fear of masks, if you’re not good with figuring out prefixes—stems from a child’s inability to separate fantasy from reality. In older children, it can develop from a fear of strangers, which is perfectly healthy.
“Fears in childhood tend to correspond to varying developmental stages,” Emily Mendez, a mental health specialist with OnTheWagon and former private practice psychotherapist, tells Urbo. “For instance, infants are often afraid of strangers, toddlers are afraid of being separated from parents, preschoolers afraid of monsters and ghosts, and older kids afraid of a parent or themselves being hurt or injured in some way.”
“These feelings are healthy and necessary,” she says. “Fear helps kids behave in certain ways. For instance, stranger anxiety tends to keep infants clinging to parents, which is adaptive. Toddlers who are afraid of being separated from parents may be less likely to get lost or separated from parents in a public place.”
Physicians at the University of Vermont Medical Center recommend supporting kids who show signs of masklophobia, taking steps to limit anxiety (for instance, avoiding that photo-op with the Easter Bunny), and calmly explaining that the mask doesn’t change the person wearing it.
Of course, at a certain point, extreme phobias might require professional intervention.
“Fear or anxiety becomes a problem when it impacts the child’s functioning in some way,” Mendez says. “[In these cases,] it might be helpful for a parent to consider counseling for the child. A counselor can help a fearful child find ways to cope with the anxiety.”
But first things first: Parents, if a child is expressing anxiety about something, don’t make up a story that could make their anxiety even worse. We’re fans of the harmless myths of childhood—the watermelon seed myth, for instance, or the camel pee mustard thing, if you really want to get weird—but learn to recognize and address real fears in a supportive way.
Oh, and stay away from any open sewer grates. We can’t stress that enough.