Scary stories won’t stop kids from lying

"We should not take it for granted that classic moral stories will automatically promote moral behaviors," says Kang Lee. (Credit: squishyray/Flickr)

Reading cautionary tales like The Boy Who Cried Wolf and Pinocchio to little kids might not be the best way to teach them to tell the truth.

New research suggests stories that praise, rather than punish, characters for being honest are more effective.

“As parents of young children, we wanted to know how effective the stories actually are in promoting honesty,” says Victoria Talwar of McGill University’s educational psychology department. “Is it ‘in one ear, out the other,’ or do children listen and take the messages to heart?”

“We should not take it for granted that classic moral stories will automatically promote moral behaviors,” says Kang Lee of the University of Toronto.

To find out which stories were most effective in motivating children to be honest, the researchers conducted an experiment with 268 children ages 3 to 7. Each child played a game that involved guessing the identity of a toy based on the sound it made. In the middle of the game, the experimenter left the room for a minute to grab a book, instructing the child not to peek at a toy that was left on the table. For most children, this temptation was too hard to resist.

Honest George Washington

When the experimenter returned, she read the child a story—either The Tortoise or the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Pinocchio, or George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Later the experimenter asked the child to tell the truth about whether he or she had 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 honest behavior than a fable unrelated to honesty, in this case The Tortoise and the Hare.

Only the story in which a young George Washington is praised by his father for honestly admitting to having cut down the latter’s favorite cherry tree seemed to inspire the kids to admit to peeking. The children who heard the apocryphal tale in which the future first president is praised by his father for confessing his transgression were three times more likely to tell the truth than their peers who heard other stories.

The father’s response to his son’s confession is to say: “My son, that you should not be afraid to tell the truth is more to me than a thousand trees! Yes—though they were blossomed with silver and had leaves of the purest gold!”

An additional experiment indicated that the positive focus of the George Washington story was responsible for kids’ 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.

“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 says. “This may apply to other moral behaviors as well.”

The findings appear in the journal Psychological Science.

Source: McGill University