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The Big Box

by Toni Morrison


Three children get locked in a box by a group of adults for failing to follow the rules. The Big Box encourages readers to question what makes for true happiness: material pleasure or freedom.

Read aloud video by Ms. Janet

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The Big Box is about three very energetic children “who just can’t handle their freedom.” To make these children abide by their rules, the grown-ups create a world inside a box, a world with toys and games, treats and gifts, and all kinds of stuff they think kids need to be happy and carefree. There are three locks on the door, which opens only one way.

The first set of questions is designed to elicit discussion regarding life in the box. Life in the box, depending on how you look at it, may be a happy place for the children. The children can be who they are and have no one judge or punish them. They are free to do what they want in that confined area. On the other hand, the box could be an unhappy place for the children. The children are given everything that adults assume would make the children happy. Are the children happy with all the clothes, toys, and candy? What makes us happy? Is there a conflict between happiness and what people perceive as happiness? Some children consider happiness to be the freedom to say and do what they want. Other children may be happy with materialistic things. The questions make us think about what truly makes us happy. If you were put into the box, what would you choose to put in the box with you? Why do the children stay in the box? Some may say they are scared to go out and face the rest of the world. Others may say that they are happy in their own little world.

The second set of questions explores the meaning of rules. These questions allow us to evaluate whether rules are important in our communities. What would happen if our society did not have rules? Rules are important for structure, organization, and safety in society. Do the rules we have make our communities perfect? Even though we have rules, we still have the freedom to make our own decisions.

Freedom is the last topic of discussion. There are at least some cases where we make decisions, and in making them, we are free and hence responsible for these decisions. We cannot imagine what it would be like to live in a community in which there is no such thing as responsibility. On the other hand, does freedom actually exist? With a lack of resources, are we still free to do as we wish? Freedom appears to be impossible in a world where everything runs its ordinary course, and no irregularities happen. But why is that so?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Life in the Box

  1. What is a one-way door?
  2. Does our classroom door open two ways or one?
  3. What are the locks for?
  4. What’s good about life in the box?
  5. Do kids need toys, snacks, and cool clothes?
  6. If they have cool toys, clothes, snacks, and other stuff in the box, why aren’t they happy?
  7. What would we need to give you that would make you happy to live in the box?
  8. Why do they stay in the box?

The Meaning of Rules

  1. Do we need rules in our homes, classroom, school, and community? Why?
  2. Who makes the rules?
  3. Who has to follow them?
  4. What if there were no rules?
  5. Would you like to go to a school with no rules?
  6. What would be good about it? What might be bad about it?
  7. What are some good rules that you like at home or at school?
  8. What rules did the kids follow?
  9. Did anyone even notice what they did right?
  10. What are the appropriate consequences for breaking the rules?

The Concept of Freedom

  1. What do the adults mean when they say to the kids, “You simply can’t handle your freedom”?
  2. What if parents decided that their two-year-old could handle her freedom and just let their baby go free? What would happen?
  3. What if the parents decided you could completely handle your freedom and just told you to go free? What would happen?
  4. When you are 18 years old, do you think you will be ready to “go free”? Why or why not?
  5. When you are free, do you still have to follow some rules?
  6. Why do people call the United States of America a free country if there are rules here?
  7. If a two-year-old cannot handle freedom, what would make someone older ready to handle freedom?
  8. What does the older person know or have that the two-year-old doesn’t?

Original questions by Mary Cowhey and Thomas Wartenberg. Original guidelines for philosophical discussion by Taryn Hargrove. 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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Back to All Books Illustrated book cover for The Big Box featuring a color picture of a large cardboard box. Three children--two black girls and one white boy--sit in the box with their heads peeking out. The box is surrounded by a few cute woodland creatures. Download & Print Email Book Module View en Español

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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