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The Little Red Hen

by Margot Zemach


The Little Red Hen asks important questions about when we are obligated to help one another.

A red hen finds some seeds on the ground and decides to plant them to grow wheat for 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 to help. The little red hen responds, “Then I will do it myself.” This cycle continues until the hen finishes baking the bread. When she finishes her bread, they all chime and agree to help her eat the bread, but the little red hen decides to eat it all herself.

Read aloud video by C.S.

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 ask 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 not to 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 a 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.

To start a discussion about rights and privileges, have the kids consider what makes the bread belong to the hen and how the distribution of bread morsels would change depending on the amount of work the other farm animals put into making the bread. Afterward, pose a scenario where the lazy farm animals are hungry and, despite their lack of contribution, need some morsels of bread for sustenance. How does this change how we view the hen’s concept of “justice and mercy”? 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?” Try some hypothetical situations: imagine a bully not bringing his lunch to school and asking for half of his victim’s sandwich. Should the victim do what she wants to do (refuse the bully’s request) or what might be morally better (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 the hen without expecting a reward?
  6. Should the other animals help the hen 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 always 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 in 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 the hen owe them bread then?
  4. When does the hen owe the other characters 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?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Kennyi Aouad and Noah Someck. 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 Cover image for The Little Red Hen with an illustration of a pig, a cat, a goose and a red hen all dressed in formal human clothes like vests and top hats. They are seated around a table playing cards. The hen appears to be walking away from the table, but is turned back to look at the other three. 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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