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By Kelly DiPucchio


Gaston tells the story of a young bulldog who was raised in a family of prim poodles, and then encounters his biological bulldog mother and the young poodle with whom he had switched places. After they meet one another in the park, Gaston and the poodle, Antoinette, decide to take each others’ places once again so that each is with the family that they look like, i.e. their biological family. However, after spending some time with each family, Gaston and Antoinette decide to switch back and remain with the families in which they were raised.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Elizabeth Zhu and Abby Walker

Gaston brings up a number of intriguing questions on the nature of parenthood, namely, what makes someone a parent, and what are the rights and responsibilities associated with that designation? Thus, the book may allow students to consider how they, and others, define parenthood - whether it comes from notions of biological relationships, the role a person has played, a person’s intentions to have a child, or any other philosophical or logical basis. Before introducing this module, one should consider whether or not the classroom or students involved have the level of understanding or maturity to engage in a discussion which includes topics such as sperm donation and reproduction. If necessary, the facilitator may choose to remove topics or questions that are deemed too sensitive, inflammatory, or advanced for the particular students. Also, the facilitator should consider that the material discussed may be sensitive in that it deals with relationships between parents and children, both biological and non-biological. It may be useful if the facilitator of this module could use experience with non-genetic parents (if applicable) - either because they themselves are adopted, or because they know someone who is - to either add a new perspective to the students’, assuming none of them are adopted, or to make students who are adopted feel more comfortable with the discussion.

The first two question sets push students to begin to explore their own understandings of what makes someone a parent, and what sort of inherent connection a person may or may not have with their biological parent. Many of the questions specifically reference the book, so as to give the students an example to think about, other than their own parents. The first question allows students to begin to think about what they consider to be a "real" or "true" parent. Following from this, the next two questions walk students through the book a little bit more, so they may consider what - if any - significance a biological relationship with one’s parent may have to a child. Questions four through six get students to think about why Gaston and Antoinette made the decisions they did about parenthood, and how those decisions and opinions changed at the end. They also allow students to evaluate whether Gaston’s and Antoinette’s implicit understandings of parenthood align with students’ own conceptualizations of what it means to be a parent. Then, questions seven through ten focus on thinking about whether there is something inherently valuable in being raised by one’s biological parent, as some philosophers have suggested. Although someone’s well-being may arguably be the same, are they still missing out on something - a piece of their identity - that they can only attain through a relationship with a biological parent? Finally, the questions in the following section ask students to consider what it is exactly that makes a parent a parent. It may help students to think about what makes their own parent their parent. If the discussion is deemed appropriate for the group of students, the facilitator may ask students if they would still think of their parent as their parent if they were not biologically related, or did not put effort into parenthood, or did not want to have a child - these lines of inquiry reflect a few of the predominant philosophical theories on parenthood (i.e. genetic, gestational, or intentional bases of parenthood). The facilitator may take this line of thinking even further by asking students to consider themselves as parents: what would it take for them to feel like they were the parent of a child? Once again, it may be useful for the facilitator to reference examples such as biological ties, effort put into parenthood, etc.

The third and final question set lets students use what they’ve just discussed to consider how rights and responsibilities to and for children are and should be assigned, through a couple of scenarios. The first question discusses the idea of a community raising every child together. Does it matter that the children are raised by some people who are not biologically related to them? Do these other community members have less of a responsibility to the children? Do they have less of a right to call themselves parents? The second question brings up the scenario of baby redistribution (described in the question) and asks students to think about whether or not biological parents who produce a child have a right to that child simply by virtue of being genetically related to it. It also encourages students to reflect on the importance of biological ties. The goal of this question is to challenge students' previous conclusions on what makes a parent a parent and their view on biological ties by bringing in different examples and applications. Finally, the third question tackles the morality of sperm donation. Is it right that a man who donates his sperm does not legally have to care for that child? Should he have any responsibility for it? Why do we generally think that a man who accidentally produces a child (not through sperm donation) is responsible for that child? This question pushes students to once again consider the importance (or non-importance) of biological ties in determining parenthood.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

What makes a parent a parent?

Gaston was raised by a poodle family, and although he always tried hard to act the way they did, he always did things a little bit differently.

  1. Who is Gaston’s [real] mom? What makes you say that?
  2. While Gaston is growing up in Mrs. Poodle’s family, do you think he ever wondered why he looked different than his three sisters? Do you think he was uncomfortable with that?
  3. Do you think there would be a difference for Gaston between being raised by Mrs. Bulldog or being raised by Mrs. Poodle? If he lives a happy life being raised by Mrs. Poodle, do you think it is necessary for him (or any of the puppies) to be raised by his biological mom?
  4. Why do you think they decided to switch places when they first met at the park? Did it “[feel] right” for you when they switched places?
  5. Why do you think they switched back after just one day of living with their biological family? Did it “[feel] right” for you after they switched back again?
  6. Do you think they made the right choice by switching back to their non-biological family? (Gaston stayed with the poodle family and Antoinette stayed with the bulldog family)
  7. Living with their non-biological family, do you think Gaston and Antoinette will still feel uncomfortable at some point in their life about not being a biological child of their mom and being different from everyone else in the family?
  8. If they will, then is it better for them to live with their biological family in the long term? Why or why not?
  9. Given the discussion about the questions above, more generally, encourage the students to think: Does it matter if Gaston and Antoinette are raised with their biological parents?
    1. Is Gaston missing out on anything by not being raised by the bulldog family?
    2. Is there something important about being raised by one’s biological parent? Why or why not?
  10. If you were Gaston or Antoinette, do you think there is a difference between being raised by your biological parents and non-biological parents, given that you will live an equally good life living with either of them? Why or why not?

Further discussion on what makes someone a parent.

  1. Thinking further, what do you think it is that makes someone a parent? Is it putting effort into raising the child (like Mrs. Poodle did for Gaston)? Or being biologically related (like most of you likely are to your parents, or like Gaston is to Mrs. Bulldog)? Or anything else?
  2. Think about your own mother or father:
    1. Would you still consider them your parent if they were not biologically related to you?
    2. Would you still consider them your parent if they hadn’t put effort into raising you, or they did not put enough effort to give you a good life?
    3. Would you still consider them your parent if they didn’t want to be your parent?
  3. Think about yourself (what makes you a parent when you grow older):
    1. Suppose you produce a child but for some reason you do not raise her (perhaps you give her up for adoption), would you still consider yourself to be her parent?
    2. Suppose a child is not biologically related with you but you adopt her and put effort in raising her up, would you consider yourself as her parent?
    3. Suppose you did not intend to have a child but somehow you caused her existence, would you consider yourself to be her parent if you originally did not intend to be a parent?

Biological Ties and Parental Rights & Responsibilities: Scenarios

Depending on the intellectual and perception level of the student body, you could choose to incorporate the following scenarios to lead further discussion on biological ties and parental rights.

  1. In today’s world, there are communities where babies are being raised up communally in the community. The whole community puts efforts into raising each child (giving them love and care, necessary material supply and education, etc). None of the children have a specific parent and everyone in the community raises each child, whether or not they are biologically related to them.
    1. Do you think the children raised in this community will have an equally good life as most of you (who are raised by your parents)? Do you think they would feel uncomfortable about not having specific parents? Do you think they will encounter problems in their life by being raised in this environment?
    2. Do the parents in the community who are not biologically related to the children have less of a responsibility to care for the children?
    3. Do the parents in the community who are not biologically related to the children have less of a right to call themselves parents?
    4. What does this tell us about [the importance of] biological ties?
  2. Imagine a world in which we want to allow people who couldn’t have children of their own to easily have children. In such a world, we redistribute babies evenly around to all of the families in the country. This would mean that all parents would give their biological children away to other families and they will receive children from other families who are not biologically related to them.
    1. How do you think people would react to this? How would you react to this?
    2. What does this tell us about how people feel about biological ties?
    3. In this scenario, does a person have a right to parent the child that they biologically produce or the child they rear, or both? What gives them this right?
  3. If students have certain knowledge on gametes and how they work, you could try to describe the case of sperm donation: Sperm donation is a process in which a man donates or sells his sperm to an agency so that other people can use it to have children. Often, the donation is anonymous, leaving the mother and the produced child with little to no information about their biological father.
    1. Often, children produced through sperm donation try to find out the identity of their biological father. Why do you think this is? Does this tell us anything about the (intrinsic) importance of biological ties for human-beings?
    2. Does a man who donates his sperm but does not intend to have a child of his own have the right to parent the child? Does he have a responsibility to care for the child?
    3. On the other hand, if a man accidentally produces a child (similarly, not intending to have a child of his own), does he have a parental right to the child and does he have to take care of her?
    4. What makes these two situations different? What does this tell as about the relationship between biological ties and parenthood?

This book module deals with parenthood and family ethics. You can buy this book on Amazon.

Creative Commons License This website was developed with the assistance of the Squire Family Foundation.