Fables and other stories that carry a moral lesson are often told to children to teach them certain values, but a recent study found that some might be better than others at helping children choose honesty as the best policy.
Legend has it that as a young boy George Washington cut down a cherry tree in his family's garden. When confronted by his father about it though he "could not tell a lie." (Image source: Frank Kovalchek/Flickr)
A study conducted by researchers from several Canadian universities found stories like "Pinocchio" and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," which emphasized the negative consequences associated with lying, were less effective at getting children ages 3 to 7 years old to tell the truth. Conversely, those that focused on the positive outcomes of truth telling, like "George Washington and the Cherry Tree," seemed to encourage the children to put the lesson into practice.
"When the 'George Washington' story was altered to focus on the negative consequences of dishonesty, it too failed to promote honesty in children," the authors wrote.
Here's how the experiment worked: Researchers sat across the table from the child who was facing away from them. On the table was a toy that made a noise, and the researcher asked the child to guess what it was just by the sound (a duck making a quaking sound, for example) without turning around to see the toy. At some point in the questioning, the researcher told the child they had forgotten a book in the next room and left to get it, asking the child not to turn around while they were gone. During this time, the child's actions while they were alone were recorded on video.
When the researcher returned, the child was read one of the moral stories. Then they were asked about peeking at the toy.
According to SciLogs, researchers phrased questions like, “I’m going to ask you a question, and I don’t want you to be like the boy who cried wolf. I want you to tell me the truth, OK?” or “I’m going to ask you a question, and I want like George Washington in the story. I want you to tell me the truth, OK?”
Once the child agreed to tell the truth, the researcher asked if they took at look at the toy. Those who were read the book about George Washington and the cherry tree — a story where Washington as a boy confesses to chopping down the tree and his father praises him for his honesty, despite his destruction -- were more likely to tell the truth about their actions than those read other stories.
The fable by Parson Weems about the young Washington made the line "I cannot tell a lie" famous.
The children's answers were compared to video footage. More than half of children, regardless of age, were caught on camera peeking. The younger the child, the more likely it was they were unable to resist the temptation to peek at the toy.
The moral of this study then, according to the researchers, is that stories meant to teach children the importance of honesty and other values should focus on the positive attributes of adopting such actions, not necessarily negative consequences.
These findings were published in the journal Psychological Science.