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Classic Children’s Stories May Discourage Honesty in Children

Classic Children’s Stories May Discourage Honesty in Children

Let’s face it, classic fairy tales are pretty morbid. There is usually at least one dead parent, leaving behind another that is often less than supportive. This sets the scene for a child to learn a very important life lesson, usually at the hands of some evil adult who wishes the child dead. Of course, the child would never have run into the evil adult if he had never made some mistake, like running away or lying. Lack of honesty seems to have the greatest repercussions, resulting in physical deformity and shaming (Pinocchio’s growing nose) or death (“there was no wolf, little boy – now you must die!”).

There has been a great deal of research showing that reading to children is important for language development and bonding with caregivers. There has been no research, however, as to how effective the moral teachings of these stories truly are. Parents and teachers alike have used these stories for generations to highlight important life lessons. Have these terrifying stories actually worked?

Not in the way we think, the latest experiment from Dr. Kang Lee suggests.

Dr. Lee is a professor and researcher at the University of Toronto. He has focused for decades on deception in children, studying the underlying issues of trust and the role of biological, situational and social influences on children’s honesty. His latest research sets out to answer whether or not the classic moral stories that have been passed down through generations help children be more honest.

So Dr. Lee tempted them to lie.

His experiment with 268 3-7 year old children in Canada consisted of the children being asked to identify a toy by its sound.  The child sat at a table, with their backs turned to the researcher. She would then place toy on the table and push a button to create a sound that would identify it (i.e. a quacking duck). If the child correctly identified it, they would be rewarded. This would be repeated. Before playing the sound for a third toy placed on the table, the researcher would say she forgot a storybook in her car and had to go get it. She would then leave the room while another researcher watching via camera recorded whether or not the child peeked at the toy.

Most children looked at the toy.

The researcher conducting the guessing game would return one minute later, not knowing whether or not the children had looked at the toy. She would tell the children to keep their backs turned and cover the toy.  She then had them turn around and would read them one of four different classic tales, Pinocchio, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, George Washington and the Cherry Tree, and The Tortoise and the Hare – the latter being a “control” story. Afterwards, she would ask the children whether or not they looked at the toy after she left the room. The prompt was altered based on which story they heard. In the case of Pinocchio and The Boy Who Cried Wolf, she would say, “I don’t want you to be like the boy in the story and to tell the truth.” For George Washington and the Cherry Tree, she altered it and said, “I want you to be like George Washington and tell the truth.” For the Tortoise and the Hare, they were simply asked to tell the truth.

The results showed that in spite of being encouraged to tell the truth, children that heard the first two stories were less likely to be honest about looking at the toy. Even though these two stories highlighted the negative consequences of lying, and the children understood that it was not okay to do so, the stories seemed to not encourage them to tell the truth. In the other two stories, particularly George Washington and the Cherry Tree, the number of children who were honest about looking at the toy increased significantly. The message of George receiving approval from his father for being honest about his transgression was particularly influential for young children who so often wish to please adults.

In other words, highlighting the positive virtues of being honest had a greater impact than highlighting the negative consequences of lying.

Dr. Lee notes that his experiment only measures the immediate effects and more studies are needed to determine what long-term effects may occur from more positive moral stories. He also suggests that for young children, dire consequences like death are still beyond their comprehension. Still, the implication is that the highlighting of prosocial behaviors has a beneficial effect on children’s moral behavior.

Dr. Lee notes there is also another important implication from the results. In his conclusion he writes, “People must not blindly accept that classic moral stories are educationally beneficial simply because of their long history of use. Empirical studies are needed to ascertain their true educational value.”

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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299 comments

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4:26AM PDT on Sep 1, 2014

Wonderful comment, Eternal G. please don't forget that an {ugly duckling} ( actually a cygnet) becomes a swan...that was my favourite.
Birgit, Elizabeth and sarah, did you read [Struwwelpeter} auf Deutsch ? .
It did help me learn some...and there is 1 good story: remember how 1 chap who laughs at Africans is dunked in ink ? That's a worthy tale.
LIke many here, i tend to agree this so-called research, however, is not worthy of funding. AS someone pointed out, 1 so-called researcher himself fabricates, about a book left in his car...leading by example, ya ?

7:40AM PDT on Aug 29, 2014

A negatively-inclined lesson is surely simply more patronising/tiresome?

9:59AM PDT on Aug 28, 2014

(cont'd) ...didn't approve of after hearing this story, and that can obviously go either way, good or bad, depending on what kind of people your parents are (thankfully my parents treated me kindly). And Tortoise and the Hare- I kind of felt distant from this story because I was not good at athletics at all, but I did get the message from it that fastest is not always the best, and that you shouldn't be arrogant if you think you're more likely than someone else to win. Looking back, I think the message against arrogance was more important than the oft-quoted "slow and steady wins the race," because the turtle was just doing things his own way, and the hare should not have thought poorly of him just because he was different. Anyway long story short, I think children need to understand both positive and negative consequences of things, because that's really important to decision-making. But I don't think that classic children's stories are always a good way to test children for certain traits, because there can be distracting details in the story like fantasy elements or anthropomorphized animals which kids (like me) might find more significant than the actual moral of the story itself.

9:58AM PDT on Aug 28, 2014

"People must not blindly accept that classic moral stories are educationally beneficial simply because of their long history of use."
-I do agree with this; just because something is traditional or a classic doesn't necessarily mean it's good. But this particular test to me seems kind of iffy, I don't know. I don't think kids all have a set reaction to certain stories because even at a young age like 3, you can already have very different interests, experiences, and memories than other children your age. If I think back to my initial childhood reactions to the four stories mentioned, I get this: Pinocchio seemed kind of distant from myself because he was a wooden puppet, and I was not, so I didn't know how life felt for him in general. But the growing nose was portrayed as socially undesirable and made me think "I don't want that to happen to me," so I wanted to avoid lying in order to avoid that kind of humiliation. But it also felt like there was more to that story than just a message about not lying, like that was only one part of the story. The Boy Who Cried Wolf- I was actually interviewed at age 5 by my local TV news when there was a big reading of this story at my school, and when asked what I learned from the story, I said "Don't tell lies." So I guess that story got the point across to me in some way. George Washington and the Cherry Tree- I didn't really understand why he chopped down the tree, but I felt fear of being reprimanded for doing things my parents

6:17PM PDT on Aug 26, 2014

I don't buy it. When I was a kid, I lied for only one reason - to try to avoid punishment. (I say try because Mom always busted me.) I read dozens of fairy tales from many countries and never got into lying, evil spells or any other bad behavior because I read about Pinnocchio doing it. The one conclusion I DO agree with in the study is that reading stories of honesty having good consequences is important, and not just for kids. Growing up, I read a lot about saints' lives like St. Catherine of Siena and Mother Theresa and reformers like Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day. The news doesn't show enough good honest people and these are stories that show children that the truth can change things for the better and lying can't.

12:54PM PDT on Aug 26, 2014

another doctor with his head up you know where

3:42AM PDT on Aug 26, 2014

For goodness sake, you're talking experiments on young children! Surely, this is tantamount to cruelty? Crikey..........it's human nature to take a peek at something that's being hidden from you......think of the days when you tried to find your Christmas pressies before the big day!?
I think we're all getting the wrong end of the stick! Let's teach responsibility and values, instead of silly stuff!

3:26AM PDT on Aug 26, 2014

Thanks for the article)

8:22PM PDT on Aug 25, 2014

Reflection of life for many children? They don't need books to see it, they experience it daily ... both the good and bad.

Discussion after reading, if it has to be read, should center on what was wrong, why, and how it can be made better. Counter-balance is always a good thing ... and kids at that age are most open to it.

Another waste of research money that could be better spent on immediate needs



7:40PM PDT on Aug 25, 2014

The same actions do not apply to all. The only action I know that apply to all: Do Not Reward Bad Behavior and Acknowledge Good Behavior. This has nothing to do with fairy tales.

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