Rags to rhinestones – Dolly Parton’s anti-bullying coat & free books for children

Has anyone ever made fun of you? Or have you watched someone being bullied and did nothing to help? Perhaps you were the one laughing at a person who was ‘different’?

If your answer is yes, then you’re not alone. But imagine if you could turn negatives like these into a popular song and help lots of people by sharing your experience?

That’s what Dolly Parton did! And in the process, she showed us how music (and books) can be used to change lives and make the world a better place in which to live.

Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colours

In her 1971 hit song ‘Coat of many colours’, Dolly (Ms Parton) describes an incident from her childhood when she was picked on for wearing a patchwork jacket that her mother had made to keep her warm. Dolly's coat by Bekka Dec 2014 Instead of being embarrassed or upset like some kids might have been, Dolly was confused. She simply could not understand why the other kids were being so rude about her precious coat.

In fact, Dolly was so happy and confident (despite her family not having much money) that she tried to explain to her peers that you only have to feel poor if you choose to and can instead be rich in other ways.

I recommend listening to the song – even if you don’t like country and western music. (There are lots of versions on Youtube, e.g. here with Dolly singing alone or here with Shania Twain.) The lyrics have also been published as an illustrated children’s book (here).

Dolly’s jacket sewn with rags and a whole lot of love is now proudly displayed in the Chasing Rainbows museum at her theme park, Dollywood. Dolly_Parton_in_Nashville_2 This remarkable woman continues to fend off sexist and potentially insulting interview questions – despite her success as a singer, songwriter, businesswoman and philanthropist. In so doing, she demonstrates the value of having a positive attitude, loads of self-confidence, and a good sense of humour.

For example, when asked if she ever gets tired of dumb blonde jokes, she cheerily responds “No, ‘cause I know I’m not dumb and I know I’m not blonde!”

I’ve just read Dolly’s latest book ‘Dream More’ (2012), and heartily recommend it to anyone who would love a speck of Dolly’s energy, enthusiasm, wit and wisdom to rub off on them (here).

A story with many applications

Teachers all around the world have used Dolly’s song as a prompt to educate their students about emotions and social skills, sticking up for themselves and their values, and the need for tolerance and respect for others.

Some fantastic colouring-in templates and lesson plans are available on the internet on this topic so you don’t have to start from scratch.

Free resources such as these can easily be used by parents who are concerned that their child may be being bullied at school or online but don’t know how to start the conversation. They would also work really well as a creative and educational activity during school holidays. coat_of_many_colours_by_turiel And there’s no need to stick to the templates provided. Why not take some inspiration from this fabulous collage of Dolly’s ‘Coat of Many Colours’ by a Canadian artist – with its 94 colourful hearts arranged in the shape of a jacket and ‘bound’ together by buttons and a giant needle and thread?

Or create a life-size patchwork ‘coat of armour’ that kids can picture themselves wearing whenever they need protection from bullies in future? (Check out this truly magnificent technicolour coat – here.)

(There’ll be lots more ideas like these in my next post.)

Other coats of many colours

The original ‘coat of many colours’ story dates back to Joseph in the Book of Genesis.

Instead of growing up in a loving family like Dolly’s, Joseph had lots of brothers that were jealous of the magnificent coat that their father, Jacob, had given to his favourite son. They threw Joseph in a pit and then sold him into slavery. (Fortunately, they were convinced by the eldest brother not to kill him.) joseph dreamstime_m_158025 Against the odds, Joseph ended up becoming a great ruler and a dream that he had years earlier of his brothers bowing before him eventually came true.

Many creative souls over the years have used and adapted this theme in their literature, songs and artwork, including Andrew Lloyd Webber in his musical ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’.

In Carole King’s song ‘Tapestry’, a passerby also had a coat of many colours. However, he appeared to be lost, could not grasp something golden hanging from a tree, and turned into a toad (e.g. here). Green & golden bell frog Both Joseph’s and the ‘Tapestry’ traveller’s stories remind us that there are worse things that being laughing at.

But when you are young, being singled out as being different can be a traumatic experience that may result in long term adverse impacts on a child’s self-esteem and influence their future success and happiness. Bystanders can also be affected.

Instead of wrapping kids in cottonwool and pretending that bad things don’t happen, we need to encourage kids to embrace difference and feel good about themselves and provide practical skills to help them deal with bullying and other difficult situations.

We should also teach kids about respecting others and help them to understand that their individual and combined words, actions and other choices have consequences – so that they are less likely to become bullies or bigots themselves.

Perhaps we can even stop a few potential stars and future leaders from turning into toads!

A scheme of many books

As storytelling and books are very effective tools for building self-confidence and exploring complex and sensitive issues, such as bullying, it makes sense that Dolly is passionate about inspiring kids to read more. (I only just found out that she is known as ‘The Book Lady’!) Dolly re reading Dolly’s incredibly generous Imagination Library (here) provides young kids with access to high quality age-appropriate books free of charge.

Initially set up to benefit children in her home county in East Tennessee, this program has now expanded throughout the USA, Canada, UK and Australia and has sent out more than 70 million books so far.

All it takes is someone who is willing to partner with Dolly to support the scheme locally. Children in the region can then register to receive a book every month from birth up to the age of five, regardless of their families’ income.

The rationale for the program was based on Dolly’s observation that many children are already behind the pack when they start school if their family is not willing or able to expose their children to books from an early age.

(In Dolly’s case, her father never learnt to read or write but her mother often read and told stories to her twelve children.) 7ac3f834-690d-4e30-ab3a-4576e938975e A long journey of many small steps

Creating a culture of tolerance and respect takes time and effort. We can all help to make it a reality by taking action, such as:

  • Setting an example of tolerance and respect ourselves and lifting people up rather than knocking them down.
  • Taking a leaf out of Dolly’s book and resolving “to dream, learn, care and be more”!
  • Buying a copy of ‘Dream more‘ to read or giving a copy to someone we care about. (Here)
  • Checking if the Imagination Library scheme operates in our region and encouraging parents and guardians with kids up to five years old to register. Or finding out how to set up a local Imagination Library. (Start here)
  • Reviewing our school, workplace and other relevant anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies to make sure that we understand what sort of behaviour is and isn’t acceptable in different contexts, and know where we can seek advice and support or refer others (if required).
  • Wearing a beautiful patchwork coat or other colourful item of clothing to arouse people’s curiosity and give us an opportunity to share Dolly’s coat of many colours story.
  • Sharing this post (or writing your own) to help spread the message that bullying and discrimination is not okay.
  • Looking out for my next post with its links to templates, lesson plan and other ideas for learning from and being inspired by Dolly’s humble patchwork coat.

Cinderdolly angel Related posts



Image credits: 

Categories: Personal development, Philanthropy

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12 replies

  1. Well written Pip. Looking at Dolly’s childhood coat, I can’t help but think it would suit today’s styles of block colours, if not in mainstream perhaps the so-called Hipsters, but even that is not the point. Passing judgment and bullying is very unattractive to those participating and we would all do well to remember that behavior is more about the bully than those they target (who are not victims unless they choose to be,of course). Thank you Pip.

    • Hi Ardys – You’re right that you could wear it now and none would probably even give it a second glance. She was a few decades ahead of her time as I remember lots of patchwork dropped waist and pinafore dresses in the 80s. One of my most prized items back then was a patchwork skirt – perhaps that’s why Dolly’s story appealed to me? You make an interesting point about the person being bullied choosing whether or not to see themselves as a victim – echoing Dolly’s comment about not thinking of her family as being poor. Cheers Pip

  2. Thanks Pip for this really thoughtful blog. Right now this issue is also playing out in the whole community in relation to widespread booing of Adam Goodes the indigenous AFL player. Listening to various responses and explanations shows it is a complex situation but clearly bullying is one aspect. Choosing how we respond to this is telling as some say he should just stop whinging and “suck it up”. Not very compassionate and also revealing about one part of our culture which discourages difference, speaking up or challenging mainstream views. I hope we can all reflect on our own responses to this complex situation, including trying to understand different opinions!

    • Hi Ann
      I totally agree re Adam Goodes & loved The Weekly’s take on whether or not the booing is racially motivated. (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-30/charlie-pickering-weekly-adam-goodes-booing/6659532)
      I also wonder at what point the media treatment of things like Bronwyn Bishop & ‘Choppergate’ can be considered bullying. (Not to mention the photos of helicopters circulating on social media. When do these cross the line from funny to unacceptable?)
      What sort of example are politicians and commentators setting in the fight against bullying? How can we tell kids to behave more respectfully but allow our ‘leaders’ to spend their whole time hurling abuse in question time & demanding that people resign? (The Weekly did a great Kitty Flanagan segment on this as well.)
      What is the long term impact on indigenous kids considering a future in sport? Or someone contemplating a political career? Thick skins can help but there is surely a negative impact on society as a whole – not just on the high profile individuals being targeted.
      Definitely time for reflection and change.

  3. I’m only a state away from “Dollywood” but hadn’t thought of going, & even though I know she’s written some good music, I hadn’t thought of taking Dolly Parton seriously. Now you’ve piqued my interest. I believe I’m guilty of prejudice against such a strong southern accent — even though after living here so long I expect I have one of my own by now. (I hate to admit I’m so shallow! but at least now I know and can work on it) Thanks for making me think it through — Sandy

  4. I was bullied at school, for being a nerd and for wearing home made clothes, so I really liked the words of the song and the feelings behind them.
    Though after that experience, and also after my own experiences as a teacher trying to stop bullying of kids who were different, I still think my mother’s approach was the only one that really works. She taught me how to fight. She told me with a bully you always have to nip it in the bud by massively overreacting, aggressively, the first time. If you use tit-for-tat it escalates forever. If you ignore them they see you as the perfect victim – weak and stoical.
    And as a teacher I know that there’s pretty much nothing we can do to stop bullies, They ALWAYS know to lash out in that second that we’re not looking.
    So as a parent and a teacher, I would quietly tell a victim the same things my mother told me. She was bullied, but not for long, I was also bullied – again, not for long.
    Probably very disturbing words for some people! But I reckon not for the ones who know what it’s like to get kicked black and blue for no valid reason.

    • Sorry to hear that but pleased that you liked the song. I’ve heard of kids learning boxing & martial arts so they can defend themselves against bullies & develop their mental toughness. However, I hate to think that the person who fights back would end up in trouble. Non-physical bullying is just as (or more?) insidious & presumably even harder to spot. I like to think bystanders can help by making it clear that they will not tolerate it & supporting the person being bullied. I had a bully boss once &, after I resigned, my co-workers said they felt like the Mother Hen had been constantly pecking at one of the chicks. I still don’t understand how they could just watch it happen without doing or saying anything.

      • Yes, it’s amazing how many people will stand by adn then speak up after it’s to late. that’s happened to me too. My own experiences made me into one of those rare peolpe who ALWAYS speaks out, no matter what the cost to me.
        Non-physical bullying is harder to spot, though I think physical bullying always includes the psychological torment as well.
        I think when kid in the class is getting bullied the teacher always knows, you can feel it in the atmosphere. I’ve had colleagues who turned a blind eye as they didn’t care. I would never believe a teacher who claimed they were unaware one of their students was getting bullied.
        Maybe the only time a tacher might take a step back is if they simply don’t know what to do. I had a transsexual boy in my class once, he was only 9 but dressed as close as he could to a girl without actually wearing skirts. he had long hair, lilac outfits etc. He was my favourite kid in the class but I tried not to show it as being teacher’s pet never helped anyone! The girls loved him but a group of boys taunted him, using the feminine gramattical forms when they spoke to him etc. He identified as a girl and didn’t actually seem to care, he would always go with the girls not the boys when the class divided up, so I didn’t know whether to tell them off about it and insist they used masculine adjective forms etc – in other words make a big deal out of it – or just quietly ignore it like he did.

      • Yes, they don’t include that in regular teacher training! If I found myself in that situation again I wold take him aside pretty soon and ask him how he wanted me to handle it. He was such a mature and sensible kid, I wish I had realised sooner I could take my cue from him.

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