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Rudolph and the Gift of Empathy


The sweet story of a unique and bullied reindeer-turned-hero is beloved by generations. With its rich history, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” provides a well-known context for exploring the roles of bullying—its causes and perhaps, proactive solutions—with many social and emotional learning gifts for us to unwrap.

“Called him names,” the situation and roles of bullying

At the start of the story of Rudolph, we all know the other reindeer “used to laugh and call him names.” Name-calling is known as social aggression, which is any negative behavior designed to embarrass and/or affect another’s social network. In addition to name-calling, the other reindeer were also “excluding” Rudolph as they would not let Rudolph join in any reindeer games. Being excluded is another common and hurtful form of bullying. These are classic types of bullying and for very classic reasons: for being different (Rudolph’s red nose).

It is helpful to understand the common roles involved in bullying in order to address it. They are target, aggressor, bystander, and hopefully, an ally or allies. In the story of Rudolph, because he was the one being called names, he would be the “target” of the bullying. The “aggressor” is the person or persons doing the bullying, which in this case, sadly, would be “all of the other reindeer.”

Unanimous bullying is rough and definitely the stuff of legend. Reindeer apparently are prone to a herd mentality. A bystander is someone who notices the bullying but does not encourage or discourage it, a kind of neutral bullying role, like “Switzerland.” We can only assume with all the name-calling and excluding going on at the North Pole, someone would have noticed, most likely the elves. You might make the excuse that the elves were very busy making toys, but since they are Santa’s reindeer caretakers and are known for their keen sense of hearing, they must have known. So, for our story, the elves were the “bystanders.” However, do not get too upset about the elves, they clearly did not join in on the bullying as there is no mention of them also calling Rudolph names or excluding him. Many people are bystanders and perhaps they did not know what to do to help Rudolph, which is the whole point of this article.

A surprisingly cold overall reindeer climate at the North Pole

Another worrisome part of the story is that Rudolph did not seem to know what to do to advocate for himself. The North Pole at the time definitely needed to put both proactive and reactive systems in place. A reactive system would be if all reindeer and reindeer supervisors were educated about the roles involved and what to do after the bullying had started. A proactive anti-bullying system would be something that may have prevented the bullying altogether, such as teaching the reindeer skills for responding to others, taking someone else’s perspective, showing empathy, and advocating for others.

If a strong system was in place perhaps the elves would have acted as allies, and they could have done a lot of things to help instead of being bystanders.

There are common ways to be allies. They could have been “confronters” and stood up for Rudolph; even something small, like saying, “that is not a jolly thing to do,” may have stopped the bullying. They could have been “supporters” by comforting him after the bullying and helping him work through the problem. The elves could have been “distractors” by distracting the reindeer when bullying, by changing the topic or telling a holiday joke. Some things they might have said to distract would be, “I hear there is a snowstorm coming in. Do you think we will be able to do the delivery run?” or “Have you heard the joke about why Santa is so jolly?”

Rudolph also might have known some tips for a target. He could have stood up for himself by stating in a strong but non-threatening way, “I feel hurt when someone bullies me, so stop it!” Rudolph could have spoken to a friend, parent, or leader about the problem. Rudolph, however, was a wonderful role model as he did not let others’ negativity prevent him from being himself and shining his light.

Santa, the ultimate ally

Rudolph is eventually saved in the story by perhaps the ultimate ally, Santa. It is very possible Santa knew about the bullying and looked for a reason to give Rudolph a leadership role. The fog was possibly just the opportunity he was hoping for in order to turn things around for Rudolph. Perhaps there was an elf or a reindeer that did notice the bullying and reported it to Santa. Regardless, Santa is the perfect ally as a respected leader of the reindeer who had the vision to see what made Rudolph different as a strength rather than a weakness. This is a powerful way to turn around bullying and a wonderful way to see a difference. What if we asked ourselves when we notice someone is different, how that difference is a strength? Better yet, what if we all tried to help them make that difference a strength?

“Poor Rudolph,” empathy the antidote

The author invokes a critical bullying antidote with the passage, “They would not let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.” By saying “poor Rudolph,” the author was trying to get the reader to feel some empathy. In fact, he was also doing it by just telling Rudolph’s story, as it helps us enact two key parts of empathy, (1) noticing how another is feeling and then (2) seeing it from their perspective. The third part of empathy is feeling with someone or feeling at least a little bit of what they are feeling. This would be different for every reader, but the emotional side of the story from poor Rudolph to going down in history surely evokes empathy in us all.

Without this appeal to our empathy, a reader might have thought all of this bullying behavior could be warranted for flaunting his red nose, a kind of, “Who does he think he is walking around with his red nose all stuck up in the air?” This is exactly why empathy is so important. When we recognize how others are feeling, see things from their perspective, and feel a little of what they are feeling, we are putting ourselves in the position of another. Doing this is putting ourselves in another’s shoes or in this case, horseshoes, and if we were in those shoes, we would not want to be called names or excluded.

Rudolph for grown-ups: “Going down in history”

Empathy is at the core of our humanity and relates directly to the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have done to you.” Without a perspective of empathy, we are prone to “other” or to distance ourselves from another person or group of people; to make them different from “us.” This psychological distance allows us to be callous or unfeeling towards them. Bullying and exclusion starts with othering someone for their difference. The small comments grow into a rationale for exclusion or social aggression, “Othering” taken to broad extremes has allowed horrors such as native American removal, slavery, the Holocaust, and many more throughout time. In fact, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was written by Robert May, who was inspired by his own painful childhood experiences as a Jewish boy targeted by bullying. The story was created during a time of great personal sadness for May, during a global background of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Smothering othering with empathy using Rudolph

Empathy is really seeing ourselves in another, and it breaks down “othering” as it forces us to think about how we would feel and how we would want to be treated. Empathy can change bullies to bystanders and bystanders to allies. This is why the work of teaching empathy is so critical to creating safe inclusive communities and a better world. So, this holiday season as you share the story of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” talk about the gift of empathy within the story. For younger children ask them what they think Rudolph might be feeling at each stage of the story. Talk about bullying and how to be an ally. For older children consider adding the deeper history of the story. But most of all, use the story to remind all to see what others are feeling, put themselves in their shoes, and act from a place of compassion.

Perhaps the lesson of Rudolph can help make us all go down in a more empathetic, peaceful, and inclusive history.

This essay was featured in the December 22nd edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.


I am a social and emotional learning teacher, speaker, and author. I am named Rudolph, after my grandfather, who dramatically escaped the Holocaust on “Kristallnacht” and immigrated to America. He then worked in a warehouse and sent most of what he earned to help family members and friends escape. My mother, out of concern for me being bullied, nicknamed me Keeth, which is what I have been called all my life. Now I know more of my grandfather, and I embrace Rudolph both in my name and in my work. I am a co-author of School-Connect, a research and evidence-based social and emotional learning curriculum that is now in over 2000 schools.