For parents hoping to guide their offspring in the right direction, an innovative study points to stories with positive outcomes as a helpful tool.
The study, published in Psychological Science, concludes positive moral tales like George Washington and the Cherry Tree work better at instilling a sense of honesty than Pinocchio or the Boy Who Cried Wolf, in which the protagonists suffer the negative consequences of lying in the end.
Stories with morals intended to guide children and instill a sense of honesty are nothing new, but studies examining their effects are few and far between.
"We should not take it for granted that classic moral stories will automatically promote moral behaviors," says lead author Kang Lee of the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto.
Researchers from Canada worked with 268 children, ages 3 to 7, individually. During each interview, the child was asked to identify a toy hidden from view, based on the sound it made.
Next, the adult experimenter left the room for a minute and instructed the child not to peek at the toy. According to researchers, most of the children succumbed to temptation.
Upon returning, the adult read the child one of the following books: The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Pinocchio or George Washington and the Cherry Tree.
Following the reading, the adult asked the child if he had taken a peek at the toy, emphasizing the importance of an honest response. Kids who had been read George Washington and the Cherry Tree were the most likely to respond honestly.
Study co-author and researcher Victoria Talwar of McGill University says this is because the story "demonstrates the positive consequences of being honest by giving the message of what the desired behavior is, as well as demonstrating the behavior itself." But when researchers changed the outcome of the story, inventing a negative ending, kids were not more likely to confess their peeking.
Results surprised researchers, for moral tales with unhappy endings such as The Boy Who Cried Wolf and Pinocchio were no more effective at promoting honesty than ones unrelated to the subject such as The Tortoise and the Hare.
"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," adds Lee. "This may apply to other moral behaviors as well."
Both Lee and Talwar agree that more research is necessary, particularly to examine how these moral materials influence children's behavior in the long term.
Asks Talwar, "Is it 'in one ear, out the other,' or do children listen and take the messages to heart?"