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Llama Llama Red Pajama

How a popular children's series addresses the hot-button issue of 'bullying'.

By Emily Cherkin

Emily is a full-time mother to Max, age 5, and Sylvie, age 2, and works part-time with 7th graders, teaching an anti-bullying and media literacy curriculum at a private school in Seattle, WA. When she finds free hours, she likes to blog about parenting and eat food from her garden.

October 15, 2013

My family has long loved the Llama Llama Red Pajama series by Anna Dewdney. They are sweet, beautifully illustrated, well-told stories. So when I saw her latest book, Llama Llama and the Bully Goat, I was intrigued. As both a mother and a middle school teacher, I wanted to see how Dewdney would address what has become a hot-button issue for students, staff, and parents: bullying.

There is no question—we are much more aware of incidences of bullying than ever before. Because of this, abusive behavior is less likely to go unnoticed or unaddressed. But on the other hand, with fears about bullying running high and more flexible interpretations of the term’s definition, sometimes it seems we are too quick to sound the alarm. We are blurring the distinctions across a range of schoolyard interactions, from resolvable conflicts to horrific abuse.

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In March 2013, writer Emily Bazelon tried to address this misunderstanding in a New York Times Op-ed by clarifying the true definition of bullying, as used by Dan Olweus and countless other researchers and mental health professionals. She defines it as “physical or verbal abuse, repeated over time, involving a power imbalance” and makes it clear that to call behavior “bullying,” it must meet all three of these criteria. Bazelon also pointed out that the “bully“ label carries a “stigma that is hard for a child to escape… mak[ing] a child seem permanently heartless, rather than capable of feeling empathy, which almost all [children] are.” Thus we must be particularly careful in applying this loaded term.

In Llama Llama and the Bully Goat, the protagonist Llama Llama and his friend Nelly Gnu find themselves in the not-so-unique position of having a classmate (Gilroy Goat) who does not play by the rules. Throughout the story, Gilroy Goat mocks the other children, name-calls, and expresses rage on the playground—kicking sand, throwing dirt, pushing Llama’s toys over, and stomping on Llama’s coat. This leaves Dewdney (and Llama Llama) to conclude: "Gilroy is a BULLY GOAT!" The kids tell Gilroy they do not like it and to stop it, and the teacher gives him a “long time out” before asking Gilroy, in front of the other students, "Can you be a friend?" Gilroy, reformed, sits by the teacher and sings along at the next Circle Time. The book concludes with Gilroy waving to Llama Llama, with the words: "Tomorrow has more games to try/See you then! Friends wave good-bye."

First, here is what I like about this book:

1. Llama llama and his friend Nelly stick up for themselves. We want to teach children to do this when they can. 
2. After they confront Gilroy the "Bully Goat," the students report the incident to a teacher—also a good example to set.
3. The teacher responds to the students’ concerns and addresses Gilroy’s behavior. We want our teachers to be responsive. We want them to follow up in appropriate ways.

But this story falls short in several important ways. According to the definition that Bazelon and countless others use, what Gilroy Goat is doing is not really "bullying." Gilroy’s bad behavior may be intentional, but is not repeated (it is a singular occurrence, as far as we know) and does not involve a power imbalance. For all we know, Gilroy could have just had a bad day. A situation like this one certainly needs to be addressed, but rather than calling it "bullying," I think labeling it "conflict" or "meanness" or “drama” would suffice.

Unfortunately, Dewdney pigeonholes Gilroy in a worn-out, tired old stereotype. When I ask my students to describe what they picture when they hear the word “bully,” they say this: “a bigger and/or older boy on the playground, kicking or punching or stealing some other kid’s lunch money.” Does this happen? Yes. Can this constitute bullying? Yes. But by peddling this clichéd image of a “bully,” Dewdney misses a chance to go deeper and to talk about all the other kinds of cruelty children visit on each other. Even with a young audience, we can do better than resorting to a stereotype. 

I also do not believe in bullies; I believe in bullying behaviors, which are unacceptable and must be addressed immediately (for further information, see the recent issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine). Often “bullies” are previous targets. When we talk about these issues, I remind my students that: “Hurt people hurt people.” To be very clear: hurting people is NOT okay, but when we pin students who bully into a certain role, we deprive them of a chance to make right or explain their own big feelings. (And what a teachable moment for a children’s book—to be able to address the big feelings we ALL have at some point!) Shouldn’t we be exploring the reasons that drive a child to hurt another child? Isn't it in the best interest of all children to explore this further? Don't we want to promote empathic thinking—even towards those who do us harm?

Finally, the conclusion of this story reinforces the old belief that ultimately adults are responsible for resolving conflict between children. When adults demand friendship as a solution to resolving a bullying situation, we do young people an incredible disservice. Not only do we imply that both targets are somehow equally culpable (when often they are not), but we also miss an opportunity to build empathy and connection by helping children to resolve the conflict among themselves. My five-year-old’s reaction to the conclusion of the story—which assumes that the teacher’s intervention magically solved everything—was telling: “They’re not friends now!” he exclaimed, exasperated. In her New York Times Op-ed, Bazelon points out that, “most teens identify bullying behavior as different from ‘drama,’ of which there is a lot.” When we teach children to understand and identify true bullying behaviors, we can then equip them with tools to address the other, much more common experiences of drama, teasing, and conflicts.

I believe that stories have to authentically reflect human relationships in a way that is meaningful, realistic, and honest. While I will continue to share Dewdney's other books with my children, Llama Llama and the Bully Goat is staying up on the shelf.