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Just My Friend and Me

by Mercer Mayer

Summary

Just My Friend and Me is a story about loneliness, friendship, and dealing with friends that bully you.

One day, a boy asked his mom if he could have a friend over because he didn’t want to play alone. They climbed trees, played baseball, and rode bikes, but his friend was not very nice to him. At the end of the day, he was happy just to be alone.

Read aloud video by Storybook Nanny

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The first question set addresses the issue of loneliness and what it means to be lonely. Loneliness can be described as the discrepancy between the amount of social interaction a person wants and what is currently available. Whether a person is alone or not does not necessarily determine whether or not they are lonely, as it is possible to be lonely in the middle of a crowded room or not lonely while in complete solitude. Jean Paul Sartre believed that loneliness is a fundamental part of the human condition because of the paradox between man’s desire to have meaning in life and the isolation and nothingness of the universe. Just My Friend and Me introduces the topic of loneliness immediately, as it is the reason why the boy invites his friend over to play. When discussing this with the children, ask them to draw from personal experience and give an example of a time they felt lonely. This will allow them to better relate to the concept and consider why the boy did not want to be lonely. The topic of loneliness is philosophically interesting because, as humans, we do not always want company, nor do we always want to be alone. The children will be able to consider why it is important to have a balance between these two states by thinking about when they like to be alone and when they do not. The question of whether it is possible to feel lonely in a crowded room challenges the idea that to feel lonely is to be alone. Ask them what the difference is between being with people that don’t make them feel lonely and being with people that do. They may suggest that physical interaction is not enough and that it is emotional interaction that prevents humans from feeling lonely.

The second question set allows for a discussion of the nature of friendship and what makes someone a good friend. This is significant as friendship is an integral part of society and crucial for our welfare. This sentiment is mirrored by Aristotle: “Without friends, no one would choose to live, though he possessed all the other goods.” Students will find this topic easy to understand and relate to as friendships are formed from a young age and play a large role in their lives. These questions will allow them to reflect on who their friends are, why we have them, and what makes them their friends. There are many reasons to be friends or have a relationship with someone. It could be because you have similar interests and enjoy one another’s company, or a friendship can be based on utility and exist simply for the benefit of one or both parties. Did the boy truly enjoy the company of his friend, or did he simply fill a void to prevent him from being lonely? Students may mention that the boy does not appear to be happy or having fun when they are together. When you ask the students why, they will probably talk about all the things that the boy’s friend does, such as drive his toy car into the water, break his bike, and fail to help clean up their mess. A good question to ask then is why they think the boy is friends with him and why he invited him over. You may then move on to discussing the nature of friendship by asking if the boy and his friend are similar in any way and whether this is necessary to be friends with someone. You will likely receive many different views on this matter, and it is always helpful to ask for examples from the children to support their opinions. For example, if it is put forward that you have to share qualities with someone to be their friend, ask if anyone has a friend that they feel is very different from them. Establishing some of the criteria for friendship allows you to better discuss the abstract idea of what friendship is and what makes someone a good friend.

The third question set introduces the idea of competition and whether competition is good or bad. Competition is an act that stems from a desire to succeed. People (especially children) can be naturally competitive and might often compare themselves to others. Throughout the course of the book, we observe the boy playing with his friend. They spend their time competing with one another. To encourage the children to think about the motivation behind the competition between the two characters in the book, ask the children whether the boy in the story could actually “climb higher,” “get the ball” or “jump a hundred times” or whether he was just saying that. Why did he feel the need to compare himself to his friend? Finally, ask if any good can come from competition. Some children may say yes, arguing that competition builds self-esteem and is a strong motivator. However, others may argue that competition is harmful as it damages self-esteem when it makes ‘winning’ the main goal and reduces others to obstacles to be overcome. If the children feel competition is always harmful, you could mention that competition can encourage you to try harder. Present the counterexample that if two students are competing to get the best mark on a test, both their marks are likely to be higher due to the competition. Ask them about their thoughts on this and whether competition could actually be good.

The fourth question set addresses the issue of bullying. The children will be able to use the situation presented by the book to determine what makes someone a bully. Bullying is thought to be both an abuse of power and a learned behavior. It is prevalent among children and adults, and is extremely detrimental to an individual’s wellbeing and development. First, begin by asking the students to draw on personal experience and think about whether they have ever been bullied. Bullying is a very personal and sensitive issue, so I suggest that you only ask the children to think of an experience and keep it to themselves unless someone volunteers to share their experience. Ask them what makes someone a bully, and then relate back to the story by asking if the boy’s friend was a bully. This then raises the question of whether someone can be both a friend and a bully. Discussing the questions that follow should allow children to create a more clear definition of what they feel defines bullying by answering whether someone could be a bully by accident and whether there is a difference between bullying and teasing. Finally, ask for their thoughts on why someone would choose to bully others. A more complete understanding of bullying will result from determining the motivation behind the action.

The fifth question set raises questions about respect and using others. The main philosophical idea that this question set seeks to explore is, “What is respect?” From an early age, children are taught to respect their parents, teachers, elders, rules, and the feelings of others. Situations presented in Just My Friend and Me allow them to reflect on their understanding of what respect is and its importance. 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant put respect for persons (including oneself) at the center of moral theory and argued that “persons are ends in themselves with an absolute dignity that must always be respected.” During their day together, the boy’s friend breaks the boy’s bike and seemingly does not care that he has done this. Ask the students if this was a mean thing to do and how they would feel if they were the boy. Ask them to relate to this concept by questioning whether they have ever let someone treat them badly. Their answers to this question will allow you to breach the topic of self-respect, and how having self-respect may lead you to not accept poor treatment from others. Then ask the children how their respect for themselves may impact the respect that they have for others. Discussing the friend’s actions towards the boy will allow the students to speculate whether his friend is using him and whether you can use someone while maintaining a relationship and respect for them. Finally, ask whether the boy’s friend respects him. Perhaps bring up specific examples to aid in answering this question, such as when his friend does not help him clean their mess. Was this showing respect? Ask the children to come up with more examples and state whether his friend was respecting him in each case. Discussing all of these questions will give the children a more clear idea of what respect is, and from this understanding, they will be able to more easily answer why respect is important in our society.

The sixth question set raises issues regarding wants and needs. It is intended to further the children’s understanding of wants and needs before addressing the more abstract, final question set. First, begin by asking the students to explain the difference between a want and a need and ask which they feel is more important. They will likely answer that needs are more important as they allow for our survival. Discussing the next question of whether having all your needs met is enough to make you happy will likely lead them to the conclusion that merely surviving is not enough. Next, ask whether they will ever have everything that they want. The students will probably say no, and that this is impossible. Then why do we seemingly strive for things? And would they truly be happy if they were to achieve this and have everything that they want? Some students may answer yes, but some may suggest that having everything you want gives you nothing to look forward to or work toward. Speaking thoroughly about these questions will allow children to connect to the following question set.

The final question set addresses the more abstract concepts introduced specifically by the statement made by the boy at the end of the book: “Sometimes it’s great just to be all alone.” It appears that the boy has learned a lesson regarding his own uninformed preferences, that he may not actually want what he thinks he wants. Ask the children to reflect on this concept by considering things they have wanted and how much they knew about them, and inquire if they have ever wanted something that was bad for them. This is philosophically interesting: while it seems to go against basic ideas about self-preservation, most people will report wanting something that was bad for them. Some may have known it was bad for them all along and still wanted it, or they may have later learned that it was bad for them either through personal experience or information. In the latter case, did they still want it once they knew it was bad for them? This question allows us to address the importance of information when it comes to decision making and whether it is ever possible to make a fully informed decision. Can you ever know everything about something? At the end of the book, the wants of the boy seem to have changed. In the beginning, he did not want to be alone. But after enduring a day with his friend, he seemed okay with the idea. Ask the students why the things that they want might change. They could suggest that in the moment, our self-awareness is not what it could be or we do not know enough about what we want. Gaining more information or experience could cause one to change one’s mind and make a more informed decision. Finally, ask the children if they have ever gotten something they wanted, and then regretted wishing for it. For example, it could be a toy that they really wanted for Christmas because it looked really awesome in the catalog, but upon receiving it, they did not enjoy it as much as they had expected to. Discussing these final, more abstract questions in relation to the book allows children to speculate why it is human nature to want things despite knowing little about them.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Being Alone

“I asked Mom if I could have a friend over, ‘cause I just don’t want to play alone.”

  1. Can you give an example of a time you felt lonely? Why did you feel that way?
  2. Why do you think the boy doesn’t want to be alone?
  3. Do you think the boy felt less lonely when his friend visited?
  4. Are there ever times when you want to be alone?
  5. Do we always like being alone?
  6. Is it possible to be lonely when you are surrounded by people?
  7. Why do we feel the need to interact with others?
  8. What does it mean to be lonely?
  9. Do you think loneliness depends on physical or emotional interaction?

Friendship

“There are so many things we can do- just my friend and me.”

  1. Look at the cover: How can you tell they are friends?
  2. Do you think the boy likes his friend?
  3. Are you friends with anyone you do not like?
  4. Does the boy share any values with his friend?
  5. Can you be good friends with someone who is exactly the same as you? Opposite?
  6. What is friendship?
  7. Are there different types of friendship?
  8. What makes someone a good friend?

Competition

“I could climb higher if I really wanted to.”

  1. Could the boy actually “climb higher,” “get the ball,” or “jump a hundred times,” or was he just saying that?
  2. How do you think the boy felt when they were playing together?
  3. Why do we compare ourselves to others?
  4. Who do we most often compete against? Can this result in someone’s feelings being hurt?
  5. Is it good to be competitive?

Bullying

“My friend says only babies use a ladder.”

  1. Have you ever been bullied? How did you feel?
  2. What is a bully? How do you know someone is a bully?
  3. Is the boy’s friend a bully?
  4. Can someone be a friend and a bully?
  5. Is it possible to bully someone by accident?
  6. Is there a difference between bullying and friendly teasing?
  7. Why do bullies take pleasure in hurting/demeaning/belittling others?

Respect & Using Others

“It’s only bent a little….”

  1. Was it mean for the boy’s friend to break his bike? Did he do it on purpose?
  2. If the boy’s friend breaks his toys and does not clean up after himself, why does the boy continue to play with him? Why is he okay with his friend treating him badly?
  3. Have you ever let someone treat you badly? Why?
  4. What is self-respect?
  5. Is it possible to respect others if you don’t respect yourself?
  6. Is the boy’s friend using him?
  7. Is someone still your friend if they use you?
  8. Have you ever used anyone that you still considered to be your friend?
  9. Does the boy’s friend respect him?
  10. What is respect? Why is respect important?

Wants Vs. Needs

  1. What is the difference between a want and a need?
  2. Which is more important?
  3. Is having all your needs met enough to make you happy?
  4. Will you ever have everything that you want?
  5. Would you be happy if you had everything you wanted?

Informed and Uninformed Preferences

“Sometimes it’s great just to be all alone.”

  1. At the end of the book, the boy was happy to be alone. Why do you think this is?
  2. Have you ever wanted something without knowing anything about it?
  3. Have you ever wanted something that was bad for you? Why? Did you know it was bad for you beforehand?
  4. Do we always know what is good/bad for us?
  5. Is it possible to make a good decision about something without any information about it?
  6. Is it ever possible to make a fully informed decision?
  7. Are our first impressions of something always right?
  8. Can impressions change over time? Why?
  9. Can the things that we want change? Why?
  10. Why do we sometimes fail to appreciate what we have?
  11. Have you ever got something you wished for, and then regretted wishing for it?
  12. Could this be avoided if we learned more about something before deciding that we want it?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Seanna Strong. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

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

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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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