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The Ugly Duckling

by Hans Christian Andersen


This classic story raises questions about bullying, discrimination, and the importance of being true to yourself.

The Ugly Duckling looked very different from his siblings, who made fun of him and treated him horribly because he didn’t look like them. He wished he was beautiful like the swans he saw flying in the sky. By spring, he was fully grown and tried to join a flock of swans. The young swans treated him like one of their own. He was surprised that such beautiful creatures would want to be with him. However, then he saw his reflection and saw that he too was a beautiful swan.

Read aloud video by Storytime with Nana

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The Ugly Duckling is discriminated against by members of his family because he does not look like them. He is constantly teased, bullied, and even physically harmed by the ducks and the members of any other group of animals he tries to find a home with, like the hen and cat. Even humans are mean to him. His situation is much like that of a child being bullied by a classmate in the playground. The bullied child is verbally and/or physically abused for what are perceived by the bully to be unacceptable differences such as wearing different types of clothing, having a different way of thinking, or simply for looking physically different. This constitutes a form of wrongful discrimination. While some forms of discrimination may be unintentional, the form that it takes in the story, as is the case with the schoolyard bully, is conscious and intentional. Discrimination is a form of prejudice, which includes feelings of hostility, antipathy, or indifference, as well as belief in the inferior morals, intellect, or skills of the targeted person or group of people. The story lays out a case of persistent, aggressive prejudice in a way that makes the harm of such discrimination very clear.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

  1. Why did the other animals call the Ugly Duckling ugly? What did they mean when they called him ugly? Does looking different make someone ugly?
  2. Why would someone tease/bully/make fun of people who look different from them?
  3. Is there any situation in which it is acceptable to judge someone by their appearance? What makes these different from the case of the Ugly Duckling?
  4. Do you have to look like the people around you to fit in with them?
  5. Why did the Ugly Duckling have to find birds that looked like him to know and be comfortable with who he was?
  6. Does the way someone looks on the outside determine who they are?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Melanie Stuart. 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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