Why the Ugly Duckling is a very modern parable for Anti-Bullying Week

ugly-ducklingI have always turned to The Ugly Duckling at some point in Anti-bullying Week.  Not only is it a clear cut example of repeated abusive behaviour, but for young children transferring the aggressive words and actions onto animals make it an easy option with little ones. I say that as a good thing, as hard topics often need easy ways in.

However, I would use The Ugly Duckling with older children too.  The basic meanness stemming from disapproval of appearance and apparent non-conformity, makes Hans Christian Anderson’s story a very modern fable. For me this is not about it being a happy ending if you become what others want you to be, but a cautionary tale about our willingness to treat people differently depending on their feathers.  Is the Duckling different in swan-form rather than as a duck? Only on the outside.

533 years after it was first published, The Ugly Duckling becomes a parable about behaviours in a world of selfies and clickbait inviting us to judge people as “you won’t believe what they look like now!”.

The Duckling is happy to gain approval but in this approach it is the bullies we focus on.  Are they going to spend their whole lives forming relationships based on appearance?

When Anderson published this story it was the first not to have “told for children” in the title.  It was also the story that he claimed as his biography as an adult, after being the victim of bullying as a child.

It is true that there are difficulties in using it from the perspective of the Duckling. Unless you are a lauded author like Anderson you might not get the same result as the protagonist, and I am certainly not advocating conformity as a reaction to bullying.  But here we have to remember that a story is a good starting point, but even most young children understand that a story is not real.  Discussing this openly is just as valid as saying this is a good ending in real life.

If anything the discussions that open up from The Ugly Duckling have become more important in a visual world where judgement is easy and encouraged. Anderson could not possibly have predicted the world we live in now, but given his interest in some of the darker emotions many of his characters experience, I doubt he would have been surprised by it.