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The Pigeon Needs a Bath!

by Mo Willems

Summary

This story is about an argument revolving around questions of confirmation bias, absolutism vs. relativism, meaning, and priorities.

At the beginning of the book, a man claims that a pigeon is filthy and needs a bath. The pigeon, however, thinks differently and spends most of the book trying to justify why he shouldn’t have to take a bath. Finally, the pigeon takes a bath and realizes that he loves taking baths.

Read aloud video by The Reading Teacher

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Introduction

The many justifications that the pigeon employs to avoid taking a bath bring up a number of philosophical issues. Because the pigeon clearly does not want to take a bath, we see his confirmation bias, that is, his tendency to selectively pay attention to information that confirms his previous belief that he doesn’t like baths. The book also touches upon issues relating to absolute versus relative values when the pigeon states that in some cultures it is impolite to bathe. The meanings of words are brought up when the pigeon states that ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ are just words, suggesting that their meanings are open to interpretation. Finally, the pigeon talks about life priorities when he claims that life is so short and shouldn’t be wasted on unimportant things like taking a bath.

Confirmation Bias

Throughout the book we see the tendency for the pigeon to selectively pay attention to information that confirms his belief that he does not need a bath. Confirmation bias​ is the tendency for people (or pigeons) to seek out evidence that conforms to their pre­existing viewpoints, and subsequently ignore, or pay insufficient attention to, information that opposes them. Despite the dirt on him and the smell radiating from his body, the pigeon claims that he does not smell anything. Furthermore, he apparently thinks that all the flies surrounding him are purely coincidental; he ignores the possibility that they are hovering around him because he smells. You can begin discussing confirmation bias by asking the students if they have ever ignored that someone else wanted to play with a toy they had because they didn’t want to share the toy. They will probably be familiar with this experience, which will help them to better answer the question: why do you think that the pigeon doesn’t realize that he smells bad? Students will likely recognize that it is because the pigeon doesn’t want to take a bath. Additionally, you can also ask whether the pigeon would have noticed his smell if he loved taking baths. These questions will get your students to realize that the pigeon is only confirming his pre­existing beliefs, and not challenging them by trying new things. Other questions relating to the consequences of confirmation bias can be brought up. For example, you can ask whether it is a good thing that the pigeon finally realizes that he is dirty. In this case, it seems like it is good because the pigeon ends up realizing that he loves taking baths.

Absolutism and Relativism

You can get your students to begin to think about the idea of absolute values by pointing out that the man declares that the pigeon n​eeds ​a bath. Are there certain absolute values, such as the value of taking a bath when you are dirty, that everyone should uphold? Furthermore, who decides these values? The pigeon suggests that some rules are not absolute when he declares, “Y’know, in some places it is impolite to bathe.” While this scene is short, it raises a whole slew of philosophical questions that are relevant to children. Is there a concrete set of rules that all people have to follow? Or, instead, can different people justifiably follow different rules? These conceptually broad topics can be brought to the first­-grade level by asking more specific, relatable questions, such as: Does your friend have rules at their house that are different than the rules at your house? Which of these rules are the right ones? The children’s answers will likely get at the idea that different people have different rules, or that there are distinct rules in distinct places and that this is often okay. Students will likely start recognizing that rules and values often change depending on the culture and community in which they are in. On the other hand, other students might argue that some rules, such as being kind to other people or not bullying other people, are so important that everyone should follow them.

Meaning

A few pages into the book in attempting to avoid taking a bath, the pigeon says, “‘Clean.’ ‘Dirty.’ They’re just words, right?” This raises important metaphysical questions about the meanings of words. If the pigeon really feels like he is clean, does that mean that he is clean? The children’s answers could diverge, ranging from the conviction that if the pigeon feels ​clean then that is no different than actually being​ clean, to the belief that he is not clean because he is literally smelly and dirty. In order to make such discussion accessible and relatable, you might ask: Imagine you clean your room, and think it is ‘clean’; but your Dad doesn’t think it is ‘clean.’ Is one of you more right? By raising these questions, we will get the children to consider whether or not the words ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ each have single, fixed meanings.

Priorities

Another theme that Willems touches on in this book is priorities. The pigeon, disgruntled that people are telling him to take a bath, declares: “Life is so short. Why waste it on unimportant things? Like taking a bath!” After pointing the children to this page, you could raise the issue of whether or not taking a bath is an unimportant thing. This might generate a discussion about which things are important in life, hopefully covering little everyday activities like brushing your teeth and larger actions such as graduating high school or college. After getting them to establish some of the more important things in their lives, ask, Why don’t we only focus on doing the very important things in life? Why do we also do the less important little things? The students will likely articulate that while there are actions of great significance, such as graduating from high school, one would not be able to do those things without also doing the little things: getting rest, staying nourished, taking baths, etc. In this way, discussing priorities will allow you to get them thinking about the broad philosophical question of what makes things important in life.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Confirmation Bias

“What smell? I don’t smell anything … all of these flies buzzing around me are purely coincidental.”

  1. Have you ever ignored that someone else wanted to play with a toy you had because you didn’t want to share the toy?
  2. Why do you think that the pigeon doesn’t realize that he smells bad?
  3. Is it bad that he tells himself that he doesn’t smell? Why or why not?
  4. If the pigeon loved baths, do you think he would have noticed that he smells?
  5. Can you think of reasons why it might be okay for the pigeon to not take a bath and keep smelling?
  6. Should you pay attention to ideas that are different from your own? Why?
  7. If you think you don’t like something, but you’ve never tried it, should you try it? Why?

Absolutism and Relativism

The man says that the pigeon needs a bath, but does he really need one? The pigeon says: “Y’know, in some places it is impolite to bathe.”

  1. In your house, what are the rules for how often you have to take a bath? If one family has rules that you bathe every day, and another family has rules that you bathe every other day or every two days,­ which of these rules is more right? Are they both right?
  2. Is it always true that you should take a bath when you are really dirty? Why or why not?
  3. Are some rules so important that everyone has to follow them?­ What are some examples?
  4. Who decides that people need to take baths? Who decides the things that you should and shouldn’t do?

Meaning

“‘Clean.’ ‘Dirty.’ They’re just words, right?”

  1. If the pigeon feels like he is clean, does that mean that he is clean? Why or why not?
  2. Do the words ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ each have only one meaning?
  3. Imagine you clean your room, and think it is ‘clean,’ but your Dad doesn’t think it is ‘clean.’ Is one of you more right?

Priorities

“Life is so short. Why waste it on unimportant things? Like taking a bath!”

  1. Is taking a bath an unimportant thing? What about other little everyday activities like brushing your teeth?
  2. What are some of the more important things in your life?
  3. Why don’t we only do the very important things in life? Why do we do the less important little things?
  4. What makes something important in life?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Caroline von Klemperer and Andy Rodgers archived here. 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 Pigeon Needs a Bath! featuring a dirty, light blue pigeon retorting, "I do not," to the book's title, "The Pigeon Needs a Bath!" The pigeon's wings are crossed defensively. 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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