What do we owe our fellow human? Ethics in children’s books.

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Without meaning to, I picked up from the library two books whose plots are in some ways very similar and in other ways very different. The books provided us with a framework for some interesting ethical discussions.Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose is a fun Dr. Seuss book, but it can also be the basis for great discussion about ethics and politics.

One of the books is Dr. Seuss’ Thidwick The Big-Hearted Moose. In that story a kind moose agrees to allow a bug to hitch a ride only to find himself soon burdened down by a whole crowd of animals. When hunters draw near he escapes only by throwing off his horns and running on his own. The animals are not so lucky.

The other book is called The Rescue Bunnies by Doreen Cronin (author of Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type and Diary of a Spider). A young bunny is going on her field test with the rescue bunny team. Their mission is to rescue a giraffe but they are in hyena country so the order eventually comes to evacuate. Instead of obeying the young bunny ties herself to the giraffe’s neck so the others cannot abandon it. They pull the giraffe out just in the nick of time.

The stories have several ethical dilemmas. In both stories there is some sort of taboo or rule the main character are breaking. In Thidwick’s case, he keeps talking about how a host has to be nice to his guests. In The Rescue Bunnies story the rabbit is disobeying orders. A whole conversation could happen around the question of when obedience (whether to rules or social norms) is necessary and when it is best to break them but I choose to direct my children’s attention to a different issue.Doreen Cronin's Rescue Bunnies provides an interesting contrast to Dr. Seus' story of a Moose.

I wanted my children to see how both stories deal differently with the question of when it is time to bind one’s fate to someone elses’ and when is it time to cut and run. Thidwick survives by abandoning the other animals. The young bunny saves the giraffe by not doing so. The main character’s actions are, in each story considered the right ones. So I asked my children what the difference is between the stories. Why is Thidwich right to cut and run, and the young bunny right to not do so?

We found many differences between the stories but the main ones are as follows:

1. The the rescue bunnies meant to be rescue bunnies and to take risks, while Thidwick had not made any sort of commitment. He had volunteered only to carry a bug, not a whole crowd and he certainly had not agreed to give up his ability to make his own decisions. But then how much did the rescue bunnies really agree to? The rules of their group includes evacuating, so the bunnies didn’t really agree to take unlimited risks. Or is having a responsibility for others a part of life? If a small elephant walked past the giraffe first, would the elephant have had any responsibility to help the giraffe or not?

2. The  giraffe did not choose to get stuck in the mud and could not get out on his own, while the other animals choose to ride on Thidwick and could have avoided the hunters on their own. In other words, the giraffe actually needed help that the other animals didn’t (until perhaps at the very last minute).

3. The possibility for success was different in the two books.  The bunny’s stunt is praise-worthy because it worked but what if they really couldn’t get the giraffe out of the mud? What if The Rescue Bunnies ended with all the bunnies and giraffe being eaten by hyenas? The trainee tying himself to the giraffe could have cost them all their lives. Or what if the other bunnies had abandoned the trainee as well as the giraffe? There is an assumption in the Dr. Seuss story that Thidwick really could not have outrun the hunters without abandoning the other animals. What if that was not made so clear? What if he was running comfortably and he just turned and ditched them anyway?

As we talked about the stories I could not help thinking about the facebook memes I have seen recently regarding welfare and social assistance. In some ways “those on assistance” are like the animals needing help and those with jobs are like either the rescue bunnies or Thidwick. They can lift their neighbours out of poverty or perhaps put everyone into poverty trying. Which is it?

Each of the issues discussed above come into play. Some people would probably say that the government taxing people to provide assistance is like the animals forcing Thidwick to carry them. The people should have the choice of giving to charity of course, but they shouldn’t be forced. I disagree with this on the basis that charity is an inefficient and often demeaning way of solving the problems of poverty, and that I believe that governments (and thus the people in general) have a responsibility whether we like it or not.

Some people would say that those who are in poverty are there by their own choices. Like the animals in Thidwick’s story, they choose to ride on his horns when they could have chosen to make their own way in the world. Others would say that poverty is like a mud pit innocent people can get stuck in (and perhaps that social or political factors are making the pit bigger and bigger). Does it make a difference how the person got into trouble? Does it make a difference also how frequently they do? If the giraffe kept walking back into the pit, would the bunnies be justified in abandoning him to his fate? Or do we assume there must be some problem with the giraffe (because all giraffes would stay out if they could) thus that he still needs or deserves protection?

Thidwick’s where some will lose out no matter what and it is a question if everyone loses or if some are given the freedom to run on their own. I don’t believe that everyone can have the exact same style of life but I do believe we are capable of having a society with more equality than we have now. There are all sorts of statistics about how fifty years ago the difference between a CEO and the average employee was a lot smaller than it is now.

Of course the issue of our responsibility to those living in poverty is a bit of a distant one for children but the stories could also be used for talking about the responsibility children have to include others. If one child is younger than the other children do they have a responsibility to try to include the child in their play? Or are they justified in leaving the child behind, because the child’s age would hold them all down? There are many possible topics for discussion.

Another avenue for discussion would be the limits of democracy and the right to possession of one’s own body. In Thedwick’s story the animals vote on whether Thedwick can follow the other moose to the other shore of the lake. Since there are more of them than there are of him, they win the vote and insist he can’t take their home away. What’s wrong with that way of applying democracy? Should people be able to vote to insist that all women wear dresses? Or that a person change his name (as was proposed in response to Stockwell Day’s referendum formula)?

Children’s stories can provide a wonderful window for looking at ethical situations. By comparing two stories we can spot the underlying issues and assumptions. We can also learn to see things from the other people’s points of view. Finding these two stories together at the library was an unexpected gift.

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13 thoughts on “What do we owe our fellow human? Ethics in children’s books.

  1. What a brilliant post. Apart from your excellent discussion of the ethics (and the differing ethics) I like the fact that you take two simple books I presume aimed at younger children and take the ideas to places much older children might find challenging.

    I am great believer that you can use younger children’s books to extend the thinking of older children without over-whelming them. Use the simple book to generate the complex idea – or I suppose differentiation by outcome. I’ve successfully used Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins with much older kids than the intended audience to teach the concept of dramatic irony before tackling Macbeth.

    I came here via the Kid Lit Blog Hop, but I’ll certainly be back. I’m delighted to find your site.

  2. I’ve noticed too that some action considered ‘right’ in one children’s book is the opposite of ‘right’ in another book. Must be confusing to the readers! Thank you for sharing such an insightful look into the ethics of kid lit with the Kid Lit Blog Hop!

  3. This is so spot on. It’s an important point that parents need to consider as we read to our kids. using the books to engage in conversation and thought is essential when it comes to teaching our kids. I’d love for you to share this with my cozy book hop (opens every Thursday morning) as I know my little circle would love it.

    Thanks – hope to see you there
    Marissa

  4. I think parents should read and discuss these kinds of books with their children. Helps keep communication going while thinking about others in different situations and doing what is right or wrong.

  5. Very interesting that the two books overlap in general themes, yet have completely different outcomes. I can see how the combination of the books would raise many important discussion questions for children. One of the things I really like to do is get the kids to think through alternative endings. It’s like you say… what if the bunnies had abandoned the giraffe? What if they couldn’t rescue the giraffe in time? What if they hadn’t wasted time arguing about the decision? How do people weigh out benefits and costs for themselves versus others? I can see how this is relevant to the issue of poverty and I like the parallel you make. I think the world would be a much better place if people understood that for what amounts to a small cost to an individual who is middle class, there is a great benefit to someone living in poverty.

    Thanks for linking your thoughtful post in the Kid Lit Blog Hop.

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  7. Wow Christy, I would never made the parallel to deep social issues. I would have asked more simple minded questions like, was the moose justified in throwing everybody to the curb to save himself? What do you think and why?

    Interesting that you took two completely different books and found parallels with complete opposite endings. I like the idea of analyzing children’s books to find a deeper meaning – to an extent. Not that I’m saying any way is good, bad or indifferent – but I find children’s books to be fun.

    Thanks so much for sharing on the #homeschoollinkup!

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  9. I LOVE this post.
    And I love that I am not the only person who thinks about this kind of thing (I’m usually accused or overanalysing/overthinking everything.)

  10. “Children’s stories can provide a wonderful window for looking at ethical situations. By comparing two stories we can spot the underlying issues and assumptions. We can also learn to see things from the other people’s points of view.”

    This is so true! What an important insight. The whole piece about underlying assumptions in the books that we choose for our kids is critical, I think anyway. It’s important that we see these as adults and talk about them with our kids.

    Well said.

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