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If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

by Laura Joffe Numeroff


If You Give a Mouse a Cookie can prompt discussion about a variety of topics including free will and altruism.

This story describes a set of events that occurs after a boy gives a mouse a cookie. Once the mouse is given the cookie, he asks for a glass of milk, which ends up leading to a series of additional requests. Each event that occurs makes the mouse want something new, creating a seemingly endless stream of demands. In the end, the mouse asks for another glass of milk, which makes him want another cookie. The reader is left with the impression that the mouse is going to go through this loop again.

Read aloud video by The Teacher’s Library

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Although If You Give a Mouse a Cookie may initially seem like a simple book, it explores some pretty complex philosophical topics. Some of these topics may be pretty perplexing for earlier grades, so instructors should try to avoid sophisticated terms and place those topics into real-life contexts.

Free Will and Determinism

At the beginning of the book, the mouse is given a cookie. This sets off a series of events, each leading to another. For example, after the mouse is given a cookie, he feels thirsty. Naturally, this leads him to ask for a glass of milk. This gives us an opportunity to discuss determinism. Determinism is the idea that the facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth about the future. We could present the following equation to students and ask them to contemplate whether it is true: what happened in the past + laws of nature = what is going to happen in the future. We could ask the students to look at this equation and try to see if there are any loopholes. Is what’s going to happen in the future determined by more than just the past plus laws of nature? If so, how? Because this is such a complex concept, it is important for the instructor to follow the logic of the children and ask them successive questions based on their current understanding of the topic. If students do not understand the equation, we should encourage them to ask questions.

In addition to determinism, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie can be used to discuss the idea of free will. Do we actually have the ability to make our own decisions, or is free will an illusion? If the equation we discussed is true, can we actually make our own choices? Why or why not? We could also ask the children to consider whether feeling like you have free will means that you actually have free will. For example, if you are hungry and there is an apple in front of you and you eat it, did you make the choice to eat that apple? Or did you have to eat it because you were hungry and it was the only food in front of you? Additionally, when we do something, can it be similar to a tree that falls over in a strong wind in that the tree falls as a consequence of the wind blowing? Did the tree have a choice? Do we have a choice to eat an apple? If so, what’s the difference between us and the tree?

Friendship v Parent/Child

Determinism and free will are interesting concepts, but If You Give A Mouse A Cookie also gives us some simpler ideas we can explore. For example, the book gives us an opportunity to discuss the nature of the relationship between the boy and the mouse. Throughout the story, the boy does a lot of things for the mouse. Whenever the mouse wants something, the boy gives it to him without asking for anything in return. One might argue that this closely resembles the relationship between a parent and a child. Talking about this parallel can give children the chance to reflect on their relationships with their own parents, making light of the fact that parents often do a lot for their children without asking for anything in return. Alternatively, one might argue that the relationship between the mouse and the child resembles a friendship. Children can discuss the friendships in their own lives and whether or not they are similar to the friendship between the mouse and the boy.


As mentioned earlier, the boy often does things for the mouse without expecting anything in return. Because of this, children can use the relationship between the mouse and the boy to discuss altruism. We can question why people help others without asking for anything return. Do we gain anything when we help others, even when they don’t do anything for us? Additionally, children can explore the line between when it is a good thing to help someone without asking for anything in return and when helping others without getting anything back is unfair. Is it always good to help others? Students can reflect on selflessness and its application to their daily lives.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Determinism vs Free Will:

If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. When you give him the milk, he’ll probably ask you for a straw. When he ‘s finished, he’ll ask for a napkin….

  1. “What happened in the past + laws of nature = what is going to happen in the future.” Is this true? Why or why not? Can you think of any examples where this isn’t true?
  2. Did the mouse choose to have a glass of milk after eating the cookie? Or did he have to do it because he was thirsty?
  3. Could the mouse have asked for something else to drink? Why or why not?
  4. When do you feel like you are the one making a decision? When do you feel like someone else is making decisions for you?
  5. What did you do when you woke up this morning? Why? Did someone tell you to do so? Or did you just decide to do it?
  6. When we do something, is it like a tree that falls over in a strong wind? In other words, are our actions only consequences of previous events or causes?
  7. Did the tree have a choice? Do we have a choice to eat an apple?
  8. If so, what’s the difference between us and the tree?

Friendship vs Parent/Child

He’ll probably ask you to read him a story…

  1. What is the relationship between the mouse and the boy like?
  2. Are the mouse and the boy friends? Why or why not?
  3. Does the boy act like the mouse’s parent? How so?
  4. What else could this relationship be if they are not friends and neither parent nor child?
  5. Does the mouse ever do anything for the boy? Should he? Why or why not?
  6. What do your parents do for you? Why do you think they do those things?
  7. What do you do for your parents? Why would you do, or not do, something for your parents?
  8. Do you think the boy cares about the mouse? Does the mouse care about the boy?


You’ll have to fix up a little box for him with a blanket and a pillow…

  1. Why does the boy help the mouse?
  2. What does the boy gain from the mouse?
  3. What does the mouse gain from the boy?
  4. Is it good to help people who don’t do things for you in return? Why or why not?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Nicki Polyakov and Dylan Zeng. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

Download & Print Email Book Module Back to All Books
Back to All Books Illustrated book cover for If You Give a Mouse a Cookie featuring a mouse in overalls holding a cookie. Behind him is a piece of paper and a red crayon. The paper has two cookies and the book's title drawn on it. Download & Print Email Book Module

About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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