(The following excerpt from Moral Lessons from Story Time by Fran C.Blumberg, Ph.D., recently appeared on psychologytoday.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
Hardbound story books may be going the way of the pay phone but clearly not the act of parents reading to their children. For example, a recent Pew Research Center survey (Miller, Zickhur, Rainie, & Purcell, 2013) indicated that 58% of parents read daily to their preschool-aged children; 50% read daily to their children aged 12 and under. What parents read to their children probably includes stories adapted from the newest animated movie or as my co-blogger, Ariel Blum and I remember, classic stories that communicated a moral message. So, how likely it is it that this message will be received? Work by Lee, Talwar, McCarthy, Ross, Evans, and Arruda (2014) provide some insight.
In one study, three- to seven-year-old Canadian children heard one of four classic stories: Pinocchio, The Boy who Cried Wolf, George Washington and the Cherry Tree, or The Tortoise and the Hare (which served as a control story). In all stories but the last, the protagonist told a lie. In the case of the Pinocchio, and The Boy who Cried Wolf, the protagonist lied and suffered negative consequences for having done so. In George Washington and the Cherry Tree, the protagonist initially lied but experienced positive consequences for having been honest afterwards. Before hearing one of the stories, the children played a guessing game with the experimenter in which they were to identify two toys based on their characteristic sound (e.g. a quack for a toy duck). Before children were supposed to identify a third toy, the experimenter briefly left the room, placed the toy on the table, and told them not to peek at it. Unbeknownst to the children, their behaviors were video-recorded to determine whether they had peeked. When the experimenter re-entered the room, she covered the toy and then read one of the stories. Children then were asked whether telling lies was appropriate and whether they had peeked at the toy. Findings showed that most children had peeked. However, children were less likely to peek with age. Notably, children told the George Washington story were less likely to lie about having peeked than those who heard the control story.
This finding was maintained in a similar follow-up study with the same aged children. Here, children were told the control story, the original George Washington story, and a modified version of it in which the negative ramifications of telling a lie were emphasized over the positive ones for having confessed the truth. These patterns of findings showed that stories emphasizing the virtues of being honest were more inclined to facilitate children’s honesty in the experimental situation than those emphasizing the negative consequences of having lied.
So, what’s the moral of Lee and colleagues’ research? Well, let’s just say that maybe when it comes to encouraging young children’s honesty, there’s something to be said for happy endings.