The Exclamation Mark can’t fit into sentences, and he doesn’t sound or look like any of his friends, who are all periods. He tries everything he can to make himself change, but nothing works. Just when he suspects he’ll never find his place… he meets a curvy question mark who helps him see the world a little differently and find his own potential.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
By Madeleine Lifsey
Uniqueness: Virtue or Vice?
Exclamation Mark is a story about a particular punctuation mark who, as the first page explains, “stood out from the very beginning.” He goes through the whole story trying so hard to make himself just like all his friends. He even tries to squash himself into a ball to make himself more like the others, but this doesn’t help either (and probably hurts). It isn’t until he spends some time with his curvy Question Mark friend, who is just as unique as he is, that Exclamation Mark learns that being an individual could possibly be a virtue. Because Question Mark learns to value his uniqueness, he can be a powerful example for children to identify with. After what feels like an eternity of battling with internal feelings of inadequacy, the book’s protagonist finds his own identity, not in spite of his differences, but because of them.
Just like our exclamatory friend, many - perhaps most - children growing up today in Western culture struggle to appreciate themselves for who they are, rather than compare themselves to others. Movies and magazines feature airbrushed, sculpted images of the standards of beauty they push us to emulate. One notable Cheerios tagline quips, “More grains; less you.” The message could not be clearer: It is best to literally take up less space in the world, and to match ourselves as closely as possible to someone else’s standard of beauty.
These contradictory messages can be confusing, especially because both perspectives tend to lack sufficient logical reasoning to back up their positions; they just tell us that one perspective or the other is correct. In fact, there are valid arguments for both sides. Proponents of individuality could explain that we need diversity is important for a community, and that we need to learn how to do things in different ways in order to be competent in a variety of situations. A skill that works in one situation may be useless in another. Since everyone gravitates towards different skills, some people argue that the bet thing to do is cultivate your own strengths, however different they are from conventional norms.
Conversely, others point out that sometimes being like someone else is a good thing. A second grader in a philosophy discussion actually raised the point that when we are struggling with a particular skill, watching how our role models have mastered that skill and trying to imitate them can be a helpful way to master it ourselves. Others may say simply that if we look up to someone, it is natural for us to want to resemble them as much as possible. In order to engage in intelligent discussions around these issues, children need to be able to ask abstract questions. What does it actually mean to be an individual, and is there anything inherently good or bad about it? These questions will help children develop a better understanding of what reasoning the media and society uses to convince us that we should change ourselves, and decide whether or not there even is a one size fits all answer.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
By Madeleine Lifsey
"It seemed like the only time he didn’t stand out... was when he was asleep."
Freedom and Personal Identity
"And as he pushed himself a bit more, he discovered a world of endless possibilities. It was like he broke free from a life sentence."