New research has found that a moral story that praises a character’s honesty is more likely to get children to tell the truth than a story like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
While these stories have been around for centuries, told to teach children moral and cultural values, there has been little research into how effective they are, according to the researchers.
“We should not take it for granted that classic moral stories will automatically promote moral behaviors,” said Kang Lee, Ph.D., of the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study, which was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
“As parents of young children, we wanted to know how effective the stories actually are in promoting honesty,” added co-author and researcher Victoria Talwar, Ph.D., of McGill University. “Is it ‘in one ear, out the other,’ or do children listen and take the messages to heart?”
To find out, the researchers conducted an experiment with 268 children between the ages of three and seven. Each child played a game with a researcher that involved guessing the identity of a toy based on the sound it made.
In the middle of the game, the researcher left the room for a minute to grab a book, instructing the child not to peek at the toy, which was left on the table. For most children, this temptation was too hard to resist, the researchers found.
When the researcher returned to the room, 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 researcher 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 honesty than a fable unrelated to honesty, such as “The Tortoise and the Hare.”
Only the tale about a young George Washington seemed to inspire the kids to admit to peeking. Children who heard the tale in which the first president is praised for confessing his transgression were three times more likely to tell the truth than the kids who heard other stories, according to the researchers.
A second experiment indicated that the positive focus of the George Washington story was responsible for honest behavior. When the researchers changed the ending so that it took a negative turn, children who heard the story were no longer more likely to admit to peeking, the researchers found.
According to Talwar, the original story is effective because it demonstrates “the positive consequences of being honest by giving the message of what the desired behavior is, as well as demonstrating the behavior 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,” Lee added. “This may apply to other moral behaviors as well.”
While the researchers caution that more research is needed to determine whether these stories influence behavior over the long term, at least one admits it has changed her own parenting practices.
“It really seems to work,” Talwar said. “I use this now with my child.”