Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ethics in Children's Literature

Since I'm usually posting about activities from class, it's hard for me to think of some topics to post during the summer. I thought I might post some ideas for stories to use when incorporating the concept of Ethics. This is actually an easier concept for the kiddos than I had imagined. The hard part is getting them past the part of wanting to give you the "right" answer. When we have class discussions about it, I usually play the other side and ask needling questions and they don't know how to answer because it's like they are trying to predict what answer I am looking for. They apply the concept pretty readily after that. I had a student who took something from the backpack of another and instead of getting mad at her the victim announced that this was "ethics"! It was wrong for her to do that.

Some ideas for books that provide fodder for ethical discussions:

The little boy is told by his father not to go in the water or away from the lion he drew in the sand. He wandered quite far but made the lion's tail very, very long so he wouldn't stray from the animal. Sounds like a loophole to me, one of those moments where the child knows what the parent means by their request. Was this the right thing to do? What are some examples of ways kids blur the lines a little bit when listening to their parents.

Now some people in education do not like this book, but I think it's a perfect example of karma in action! The princess is a complete brat and asks for pet after pet because they don't live up to her expectations. If she doesn't get what she wants she throws a complete fit so the nanny tries to pleas her. In the end (and this a spoiler, just FYI) the last choice of pet eats her. Somehow you don't really feel sorry for her. It can easily fuel a discussion on right and wrong.

I know, a classic! So much is wrong in this story though. The kids let a stranger inside, he trashes the house, they may not tell their mom. When you talk ethics the kids actually do sometimes see the other side and that is the children had fun. An interesting discussion can ensue.

Oooh-lots of right/wrong going on here from throwing the bucket of water on the Wicked Witch to the Great and Powerful Oz being a phony.

However you feel about this book it amazes me how the kids see it. They will agree it's wrong to take and take and take but many will point out (which may have been Silverstein's point to begin with)-that it's right in the eyes of the tree.

There's a lot of grey area when it comes to ethics and it's fun to see the kids really start to understand that. Their world is really black and white until they start to think about other factors that may influence a character's decisions.


  1. the giving tree. so wrong. it goes FAR beyond the "wrongness" of the child taking vs the tree "ok-ing" the taking -- the darn tree commits suicide! Duh.
    Whether solicited or unsolicited by the child, that fact alone advocates a codependent relationship between the two life forms and complicit participation in the suicide of another life form. if you want to be militant, doesn't this book advocate that it's ok to murder another life form?

    whether or not you agree or disagree with my personal take on the book, the point of this discussion is raising ethical arguments through literature with children. my main point is, are the ethical questions raised by this particular book truly age-appropriate for this group at all?

    the profound wrongness of the book's ultimate action --at the very least -- renders it as inaccessible for "easy" dialog with a small child. a complete discussion of the book's ethical questions would certainly defy the average attention span of a child of this age. then it becomes a question of the ethical nature of the person presenting this material in an incomplete fashion.

  2. Hmmm. An interesting take on it. I do think we can introduce the concept of ethics-right vs. wrong with young children in an effective way. Basically they hear a lot that on a daily basis-it's wrong to just take the book out of your friend's hand, etc. With this story, the ethical arguments that are raised are about giving and taking. The activity is a way to get them to think deeply about characters and themes of a story. You and I probably can read much more into that story-but even many adults see it as a beautiful tale of giving all of yourself to help another.