Parents should not expect that classic children's stories with a moral will encourage honest behaviour, researchers claim
Tales such as Pinocchio and The Boy Who Cried Wolf may seem to impart good moral lessons about the impact of lying, but they are unlikely to make children behave more honestly, researchers have found.
Academics discovered that only stories which have honest characters encourage youngsters to behave with more integrity
“We should not take it for granted that classic moral stories will automatically promote moral behaviours,” says lead author Dr Kang Lee of the Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto.
“As parents of young children, we wanted to know how effective the stories actually are in promoting honesty,” adds study co-author and researcher Victoria Talwar of McGill University.
“Is it ‘in one ear, out the other,’ or do children listen and take the messages to heart?”
The team tested the honesty of 268 children between three and seven in an experiment which asked them to guess the identity of a toy based on the sound it made.
In the middle of the game, the experimenter left the room instructing the child not to peek at a toy that was left on the table. For most children, this temptation was too hard to resist.
When the experimenter returned, she read the child a story, either “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “Pinocchio,” or “George Washington and the Cherry Tree.”
Afterward, the experimenter asked the child to tell the truth about whether he or she peeked at the toy.
Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” — which associate lying with negative consequences, such as public humiliation and even death — were no more effective at promoting honest behaviour than a fable unrelated to honesty, in this case “The Tortoise and the Hare.”
Only the apocryphal tale about a young George Washington – in which he confessed to damaging his father’s cherry tree- seemed to inspire the kids to admit to peeking.
However the researchers changed the ending so that Washington’s father scolded him, rather than praising him for telling the truth, children who heard the story were no longer more likely to admit to peeking.
Talwar believes that the original story about George Washington is effective because it demonstrates “the positive consequences of being honest by giving the message of what the desired behaviour is, as well as demonstrating the behaviour itself.”
“Our study shows that to promote moral behavior such as honesty, emphasizing the positive outcomes of honesty rather than the negative consequences of dishonesty is the key,” said Dr Lee “This may apply to other moral behaviours as well.”
The research suggests that stories such as Harry Potter, Cinderella and Postman Pat would encourage children to copy the integrity of the central characters.
Dr Talwar added: “It really seems to work. I use this now with my child.”