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.”
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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