Rudolph the Bullied Reindeer

It’s mid-December, and that means there’s Christmas music everywhere. Some traditional Christmas songs have come under scrutiny lately, and conversations about whether Baby It’s Cold Outside is a song about date rape (and the song’s relationship to rape culture) have proliferated in recent years. I want to talk about another Christmas song—Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

You know Dasher, and Dancer, and
Prancer, and Vixen,
Comet, and Cupid, and
Donder and Blitzen
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all

Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
had a very shiny nose
and if you ever saw it
you would even say it glows.

All of the other reindeer
used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
play in any reindeer games.

Then one foggy Christmas eve
Santa came to say:
“Rudolph with your nose so bright,
won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

Then all the reindeer loved him
as they shouted out with glee,
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,
you’ll go down in history!

In the story, Rudolph is taunted by the other reindeer because of his unusual nose. They exclude him from their games and laugh at him and call him names. When Rudolph’s nose turns out to be useful, the other reindeer suddenly love him. It strikes me that this is a retelling of a very specific dynamic—a bullied child hopes that maybe someday they’ll do something especially heroic and get noticed for their bravery, whereupon they will suddenly be included by the other children.

Here’s the problem: I don’t like that narrative. It’s a false narrative. Real life doesn’t work that way. It’s a fiction, a fantasy, a pipe dream.

Earlier this year, my daughter ran into a bullying problem at her school. By the time I found out, her teacher had already identified the problem and begun to address it. I was asked whether I would be okay with my daughter seeing the school social worker for strategies for responding to bullying assertively on her end. Schools take bullying seriously today in a way they did not thirty or forty years ago.

Let me pause to pose a question. Why didn’t Santa tell the other reindeer to stop making fun of Rudolph? Surely he noticed what was going on. Did he think the reindeer should just work it out on their own? Did he think the bullying was partly Rudolph’s fault, for not standing up for himself and telling them to knock it off, and that that was a lesson he needed to learn for himself? If Santa thought these things, he was not unlike many educators a generation or two ago.

What has changed? For one thing, the research. As the LA Times reported:

The long-term effects of being bullied by other kids are worse than being abused by an adult, new research shows.

Among a large group of children in England, those who were bullied were 60% more likely to have mental health problems as adults than were those who suffered physical, emotional or sexual abuse. And among a large group of children in the United States, the risk of mental health problems was nearly four times greater for victims of bullying than for victims of child abuse.

Every year, my daughter has a bullying prevention unit at her school. The teachers use a program created for this purpose, and walk the children through things like the bystander affect. Children are taught what bullying is, why it’s wrong, and what to do if they see it happening. And they are expected not to bully. Teachers like my daughter’s are quick to watch for, identify, and intervene when it happens.

The changes in how bullying is treated are one reason I am so dismissive of “kids these days” comments—“kids these days” are taught to treat each other with kindness and compassion and are expected to act accordingly. Imagine a generation of children knowing that if they are bullied, admin will support them. Imagine a generation of children standing up for kids who are picked on. Imagine a generation of children being taught—explicitly—not to treat each other differently based on appearance or class other factors.

I am no dewy eyed idealist. I know that children will always be human, and that not every school handles bullying well. There are still holdovers that stonewall parents and don’t take bullying seriously, and there will always be children who are unkind, or otherwise compassionate children who mess up.

Still, when the lyrics of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer grate because of how out of step they are with the both expectations we hold for children today and current best standards for handling bullying, it’s clear that something has changed.

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