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The Little Red Hen

By Margot Zemach


Module by Kennyi Aouad and Noah Someck

The Little Red Hen is centered around a red hen who finds some seeds on the ground and decides to plant them so as to ultimately make bread. For each of the steps required to make the bread, she asks the other farm animals—the pig, goose, cat and duck—for assistance, but they all decline. The little red hen responds, “Then I will do it myself.” This cycle continues until the hen finishes baking the bread and asks the unhelpful animals one last time if they will help her eat the bread. This time, they all chime and agree to help her eat the bread, but the little red hen declares that she will eat it herself and does so.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The book seems to promote two central ideas. The first is that when you work hard, it pays off and you get to reap the benefits of your hard work. The second is that when you don’t help someone do something, you can’t expect to reap benefits from that thing when it’s finished. In the discussion with the children, the readers should try to get the children to think about whether these two ideas are true and whether they ought to be true.

The discussion should begin with the theme of “morality versus self-interest.” In other words, try to promote a conversation regarding when someone should act to benefit oneself and when someone should act in ways that are best for everyone. First, ask the children whether or not the farm animals should have helped the hen throughout the process of making the bread. Using this as a basis, move on to asking the kids when they think one should help another. Try to come at this question from different angles by offering different reasons. Is it okay to help only if one benefits from helping? Remember, try not to persuade them to say “no” to this answer. There are situations where some may argue that people shouldn’t help unless they will absolutely benefit from it. One example of this could be that a single parent is barely making enough money to feed his children, and a friend asks the parent for help to move stuff into his new home on a day when the parent should be working. It would definitely be reasonable for the parent to not help unless his friend paid him. In fact, one could even argue that the parent shouldn’t help unless he gets paid, because he is sacrificing valuable time. Proceed to ask questions about when one should help another, perhaps because it is the nice thing to do or because the other person can’t do something alone.

In addition, ask the children to think about why the hen gave the farm animals so many chances to help her—was it because she needed it or was it to give the animals a chance to redeem themselves? After asking the question regarding the hen’s “selfishness,” have them ponder characteristics of sharing (ask them how they would define sharing and generosity so that they can begin thinking about how to define selfishness). It would be nice to ask them whether objects are the only things that you can share and ask if it is possible for one to share love, time, affection, sincerity, etc. Then, try to connect it to the book and see if the kids think that while the hen could have shared the bread, the other animals could have shared the work to make the bread. Finally, ask the children if there were ever times that they did something in their own self-interest even though it was wrong. Include an example, such as hogging the glue stick for arts and crafts when someone else needed it.

Proceed by evoking thoughts about rights and privileges by having them wonder what makes the bread the hen’s and how the distribution of bread morsels would change depending on the amount of work the other farm animals put into making the bread. Afterwards, pose a scenario where the lazy farm animals are hungry and, despite their lack of contribution, need some morsels of bread for sustenance in order to tackle the concept of “justice and mercy” for the red hen. It would be advantageous to explain justice as receiving one’s “just desserts” (getting what you deserve) so that the kids can better understand the concept of justice better. Use the earlier questions about justice and mercy as a guide to lead up to more complicated questions, such as “Where do justice and mercy conflict?” A hypothetical situation with a bully not bringing his lunch to school and asking for half of his victim’s sandwich should get at what the victim wants to do (refuse his request) versus what he maybe should do (exercise mercy).

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Morality versus Self-Interest:

  1. Should the animals have helped? Why or why not?
  2. Should you only help if you get something out of it? Is this the right thing?
  3. Can you help someone but for the wrong reasons?
  4. Should you help because it is a nice thing to do?
  5. Should the other animals help her without expecting a reward?
  6. Should the other animals help her if she is making the bread to be eaten at a party?
  7. Why did the hen continue asking for help even though the result was the same?
  8. Should the hen have been more forgiving?
  9. Do you consider the hen no better than the lazy farm animals for acting so selfishly toward the end?
  10. How could the hen have handled the situation better?
  11. What makes something selfish?
  12. What kinds of things can people share?
  13. Can you think of a moment where you did something for yourself even though it was wrong?
  14. Can you think of a time where you did something for yourself instead of someone else and it was the right thing to do?

Justice and Mercy:

  1. Does the bread belong to the hen? If so, what makes it her bread?
  2. Should the hen have shown mercy by giving the other animals bread?
  3. What if the animals were extremely hungry? Does she owe them bread then?
  4. When does the hen owe the others bread?
  5. If the farm animals were to contribute an equal amount towards preparation, would the hen deserve an equal amount or more because she found the seeds?
  6. Can you share something that is not yours (perhaps a class paintbrush)?
  7. What if you bring lunch but someone else doesn’t? Does the other have a claim to your lunch? Should you give them some of your lunch? Do they deserve it?
  8. Does it still count as sharing even if you have to do so? Or does sharing have to be generous?
  9. Why would you want to give someone what they deserve (justice)? What are the benefits?
  10. What are some characteristics or justice? Mercy?
  11. Is justice truly served even if the same person repeats his/her mistake?
  12. Can you think of cases where getting what you deserve (justice) and receiving mercy conflict?

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

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