One of the key ways parents teach their children right from wrong is through stories. Part of the continued popularity of Aesop’s Fables, which date all the way back to the sixth century BC, is that they’re an effective tool for instilling morals and values in our kids.
Well, it depends, according to a new study.
The research, which was recently published in the journal Psychological Science, looked at the effectiveness of moral tales to encourage young children to tell the truth.
The results demonstrate that stories focusing on the negative consequences of lying—such as your nose growing longer and longer with each fib—are a lot less successful at molding honest children than stories that praise a character for choosing to tell the truth.
The experiment involved a researcher giving a child aged 3 to 7 a temptation too good to resist: Telling said child not to look at a toy and then leaving him/her alone in the room. Not surprisingly, most of the kiddos looked at the toy.
Upon returning to the room, the researcher read the child one of four morality-themed tales—two of which associate lying with negative consequences (Pinocchio and The Boy Who Cried Wolf), one of which involves a character being praised for his honesty (George Washington and the Cherry Tree), and one of which is totally unrelated to the topic of truth-telling (The Tortoise and the Hare). Researchers then analyzed which of the kids confessed to looking at the toy and which didn’t.
The result? The fables involving significant negative consequences for lying—public humiliation via of an ever-elongating schnoz and death via a wolf’s jaws—were no better at encouraging honesty than the story that didn’t mention deceit at all.
The only tale that inspired the kids to confess to peeking at the toy was the one in which the future first president fesses up—”I cannot tell a lie”—and is subsequently praised by his dad for telling the truth. Children who were told this story were three times more likely to be honest than those who had heard the other fables.
The takeaway for us parents trying to raise honorable kids is that emphasizing the positive results of truth-telling is far more effective than highlighting the negative consequences of lying.
While scolding them for their transgressions is often necessary, commending their good behavior makes an even stronger impression. The satisfaction of being praised far outweighs the fear of being reprimanded.
Although I wouldn’t expect “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” to become “Say What’s True and We’ll Thank You!” anytime soon.