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The Gift of Nothing

by Patrick McDonnell


The Gift of Nothing considers two main subjects: the concept of nothing and the value of friendship.

What do you give a friend who already has everything? Why, you give them nothing at all!

Read aloud video by AHEV Library

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The Gift of Nothing illustrates just how puzzling the notion of nothing can be to both the philosopher and the layperson. After all, if nothing does not exist, how can we meaningfully talk about it? Doesn’t nothing have to be a something in order for us to think about it? What does it mean when we say, “Oh, that’s nothing to worry about?” In the book, Mooch decides that nothing is just what Earl needs. How can this be?!

Philosophers have puzzled a great deal over what the concept of nothing means. Some have argued that it is not a real concept at all. Thus, we really should revise our ordinary ways of speaking to avoid the apparent paradoxes involved in talking about nothing. Others have asserted that we need to admit odd realms of existence in which nothing can actually be something. Clearly, this is a difficult notion to fully comprehend.

In discussing this book, it is helpful to stress the pleasure of thinking about the paradoxes surrounding the notion of nothing. Although this is a topic for serious philosophical discussion, it also involves brain-teasers that children can enjoy thinking about. Keeping this in mind can help make the discussion of this book really fun!

The Gift of Nothing also explores the meaning of friendship and the meaning of gifts. Questions can be posed as to what a friend is and what a gift is. Such questions can be used to get children to explore the idea that things might not be what actually make them happy. Perhaps it is the people and their relationships with them that really make them happy. It is, therefore, helpful to encourage children to think about holidays and birthdays and why we give gifts on such occasions. Is it to show that we care about the person and that we are happy to be with them? If so, is the gift truly important or could the real gift be spending time with them?

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

The meaning of nothing

“But in a world filled with so many somethings, where could he find nothing?”

  1. Why did Frank say “There was nothing on TV”? Wasn’t there something on TV?
  2. What does it mean when someone says there is nothing to do or nothing to buy at the store?
  3. How can we put nothing in a box? Can you capture nothing?
  4. What is nothing? Is it something?
  5. Can you think of nothing or think about nothing? Do you always have to be thinking of something? Is thinking about things that do not exist thinking about nothing?
  6. What was inside the box that Mooch gave Earl? How do you know?
  7. If you cannot see something, does that mean that nothing is there? What might an example be?


  1. Was Mooch being a good friend when he gave Earl nothing?
  2. Might there be another gift that Mooch gave Earl? How do you know?
  3. Do you think Mooch gave Earl friendship rather than nothing as his gift?
  4. Do you have a good friend like Mooch?
  5. What makes someone a friend?
  6. What makes someone a good friend?
  7. Do you have friends who you are friends with for different reasons?
  8. What are the reasons you are friends with someone?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Courtney Cioffredi and Thomas Wartenberg. 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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