Discussion on ethics in the classroom: 3 fairy tales to spark debate

What better way to spark a lively classroom discussion about ethics than by exploring the complex messages often found in fairy tales?

Children enjoy a cozy familiarity with fairy tales. By basing a discussion of ethics on fairy tales, you are starting from common ground. Children eight and older are often primed for more substantive ethical concepts, concepts that border on the gray areas of lesser evils or relative priorities.

Below are some suggestions drawn from the land of fairy tales for turning the wheels of your students’ thinking.


In the classic French fairy tale “Puss in Boots”, a clever cat devises a succession of deceptions and lies for the benefit of his master. As a result, his master eventually marries the king’s daughter and appoints Puss in Boots prime minister. All parts live happily ever after.

You can print a text version of Puss in Boots from the Internet. A well-illustrated version of the story is also available at The golden book of fairy talesby Marie Ponsot (Golden Books).

The story begins with the introduction of a young man whose poor father died and left him with nothing but a cat named Puss in Boots. The cat demonstrates tireless devotion to its master and begins by delivering a sequence of gifts (rabbits, pheasants, and other prey) to the king and queen. Each time, Puss in Boots announces that the gifts are from the “Marqués de Carabas”. Naturally, the king comes to believe that the Marquis of Carabas is a person of great importance.

Here, you might ask young readers, “Was Puss in Boots wrong to lie to the king and cheat on him?” The sheer quality of honesty can be compared to the overriding urges of loyalty and friendship.

After several clever tricks, Puss in Boots leads the king and his lovely daughter to a castle owned by an ogre. Running ahead of the group, the playful feline challenges the ogre to transform into a mouse. When the ogre successfully transforms, Puss in Boots pounces on the hapless creature and devours it. That allows his young master, who arrives moments later with the king and his entourage, to claim that the castle is his. In doing so, the young man secures his nuptial prospects with the king’s daughter.

Here, you can further challenge your students: “Was the cat wrong to trick the ogre and then kill him?” The young people who previously argued that the king was not affected in any way by the verbal deceptions and exaggerations of Puss in Boots must reckon with an act that leads to an untimely death.

Finally, ask this question: “Is cheating ever justified?” Challenge students to support their positions, whatever they may be, with convincing arguments.


This classic story offers a twist on honesty. We all know the story of young Jack, whose impoverished mother is left with nothing but the family cow. Jack is sent to the market to exchange the cow for as much money as possible. Jack is tricked into trading the cow for a handful of beans. Desperate, her mother throws the worthless beans out the window.

Overnight, a giant bean stalk grows in the sky. When Jack climbs to the top of the bean stalk, he finds the home of an evil giant. Narrowly escaping the giant with his life, Jack runs up the bean stalk with two treasures stolen from the giant: a goose that lays golden eggs and a magic harp. Thus, Jack happily secures the future for himself and his mother.

You can start by reiterating that Jack faced imminent danger in the giant’s house (“Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman!”). Ask: “Since the giant wanted to eat Jack, was it okay for Jack to steal the giant’s goose and harp?”

Listen carefully to the arguments raised, for and against. You can continue with this comment: “Jack was an intruder in the giant’s house. Since Jack chose to enter the giant’s house, does that change your opinion?”

This exercise is also recommended: “Pretend you are the giant. Describe what happens when Jack comes home and how you feel about it.”

In a 19th century version of Jack and the Beanstalk, a fairy is featured when Jack is climbing the bean stem. The fairy informs Jack that Jack’s father used to be a wealthy and prosperous landowner, but an evil giant killed the father, stole everything his father owned, and reduced Jack’s mother and young son to poverty. That giant, according to the fairy, is the one that lives at the top of the bean stalk. By destroying the giant, Jack will restore his family’s wealth.

This version of the fairy tale opens up another line of questions: “In the story where the giant had stolen everything from Jack’s father, do you think it was okay for Jack to give it back to him?” Most young people will agree.

Continue with this question: “What if it was the giant’s father who had stolen everything from Jack’s father? Would it still be okay for Jack to take the treasures?” Then ask, “What if it was the giant’s grandfather who had stolen everything from Jack’s grandfather?” And then ask, “What if it had been 100 years before the giant’s ancestor had stolen everything? Do you think it would still be okay for Jack to take the treasures?” Try to find the amount of elapsed time required, according to the students, to justify Jack taking the treasures. Challenge them to defend their point of view.


There is a Tibetan folk tale, “From the Elephant Pit,” that raises the question of whether compassion is always a good idea.

The story tells the story of a hunter who dug holes to catch and catch wild elephants. One day, he arrives at the pit and discovers that a man, a lion, a mouse, a snake and a hawk are trapped inside the elephant pit. The lion warns the hunter not to rescue the human. Says the lion: “I and the other animals will be grateful to you and help you for your goodness towards us, so rescue them. But, please, leave the man in the pit, because I warn you that he will forget your goodness and do you you do harm “. However, the hunter rescues all the animals and man.

The other animals, in fact, later return kindness to the hunter. As the lion had predicted, the man betrays him. At the end of the story, the man’s betrayal is revealed, the hunter is appointed the king’s chief hunter, and all ends well.

Children are asked this question: “Do you think the hunter was better because he rescued the man from the well? If you think so, why? If you think not, why not?”

Below is a sample of the responses from the youth who responded:

  • “Yes, you must always save someone who needs it.” – Vance, age 10
  • “No, because if I had quit, I wouldn’t have been through all that trouble.” – Tara, 11 years old
  • “No, because the man deceived the hunter and ruined his life.” – Newt, age 9
  • “Yes, because he did something very nice, which is the best reward you can get.” – Laura, 10 years old
  • “Yes, because he became the king’s best man.” –Shawn, age 7


  • Before beginning a lesson that will lead to a discussion on ethical issues, tell the children that you are going to read a story and then ask them some questions about the story.
  • At the end of the story, give the children time to consider their personal responses to their questions and ask each child to write their answer.
  • Divide the class into small groups to discuss. Then have a general discussion. You may want to list the arguments cited, for and against, on different sides of your blackboard or blackboard.
  • Continue to look for opportunities in the stories to pose questions for ethical discussion. Your best source of material will be stories that children already enjoy, such as fairy tales and folk tales. However, modern stories and popular TV shows and movies also provide opportunities for discussions about ethics.
  • Here’s a final rule of thumb: If kids enjoy a story, consider it a candidate for an ethical debate! Over time, as you keep those discussions alive, your ability to understand the complexities of ethical issues will grow.

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