Do stories like Pinocchio really keep our kids from lying?
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.
25 responses to “New Study Reveals the Problem with Pinocchio”
We’re not to moral rights and wrongs yet, but I wish I had a tape recording of me saying, “We sit down on the couch. No, we don’t stand on the couch because we could fall down and get hurt. Sit down on the couch…” to play over and over and over and over again.
Hahaha, that would be helpful, wouldn’t it???
At the core, we focus on Respect and Responsibilty. Those are tag teamed with Love and Compassion. Everything else grows from these.
My hub’s teen son knows his R and R. Others are in awe of him for it. (Must love text messages from across the country reaffirming one’s parenting.)
That is so awesome! Love it!
This makes a lot of sense; praise has always had a more profound effect on me than punishment. I have to think about the way we’ve been trying to teach Jack and whether it’s been more about avoiding the negative or praising the positive.
I think most parents probably do a combination of both, but this study shows how much more effective it is to let the positive outweigh the negative.
Interesting study! Our five-year-old is familiar with Pinnochio, but the stories we read most are more modern. We really like Max Lucado’s Hermie the Caterpillar Series. They teach great values without the emphasis on punishment.
So interesting. Positive reinforcement is always preferable to negative, in my opinion. I wish I could say I stick to that, but I do try!
Sometimes it’s much easier said than done!
How interesting, Katie! Thanks for sharing the article. I’m a fan of positive parenting so I’m not too surprised. What is surprising though is how the negatively-themed story was pretty much ineffective. Goes to show that we are much more likely to respond to positive messages than scoldings.
Right! I assumed the negative story would be effective, just not AS effective. But that’s not what the researchers found.
I try to use positive parenting too. I can’t say.. it’s always perfect, though. At all! I like the idea in my head, though! I would think the consequences stories might scare the kids, and not necessarily stop bad behavior, but just make it worse, possibly!
Good point, Tamara! Fear is certainly a powerful motivator, but not always in the right way.
This is the kind of thing I needed to read today. It affirms my instinct to praise the correct behaviors. I often tell my kids, that bad behavior will get them in trouble, but lying about bad behavior will make it double!
SO TRUE! Lying about bad behavior is just a wrong on top of a wrong.
1. this is a far cry from the tactics used culturally, more so with my cousins than my sister and I. Hispanics often tell a kid the cocoyoyo will get them if they do something bad. When you’re a kid, the cocoyoyo is nothing to be messed with.
2. The best way to teach right from wrong is to demonstrate it. It’s not always easy that way. I remember Elise as a baby being with me when I found a bag full of groceries in a parking lot, left in a cart. Pre-dad me might have snagged it as my own. I decided to take it in, figuring I needed to get used to modeling, even if she didn’t remember it.
3. As the kids get older, I have told them stories about my youth, when I was faced with some of the same things they deal with. It’s indirect, and gives them something to think about. For some reason, they seem receptive to listen to it if it’s a true story.
I love all of these points, especially number 2. No story can come close to being as powerful as seeing mom or dad actually model the behaviors they’re promoting.
That’s very interesting. We cannot avoid reprimanding the bad behaviors, but it is important that we remember to praise the good ones, too.
I wouldn’t have thought about it this way, but I can see how it would be true, especially in today’s society, where we all live for praise and a sense of accomplishment. Great write up!
This was REALLY interesting. My son has just started with some recent small fibs (nothing big- but I am trying to figure out the best route) so I was reading this for your tips and advice! Thanks!
Glad you found it relevant!
Even as an adult in the workplace, positive reinforcement always wins out over negative. It makes sense that children would respond better to encouragement and praise vs. scare tactics or negative responses. Of course, bad behavior needs to be recognized, and there should be consequences, but always with a positive message at the end. One of my friends gave me this great advice for our children. Put them in time out, talk about what they did wrong and why it was wrong, but always reinforce that you love them. Words to live by, time outs and beyond!
Agreed 100%, Nicole!
I stressed to mine that they always needed to tell me the truth. “I love you more than anyone in the world and I will always be in your corner, but you need to make sure I have the facts. I know this can sometimes be scary, so if you are afraid I might get mad start talking with ‘ mom please don’t get mad….’ and I promise not to react with knee jerk anger”
this worked for us, although it would scare the heck out of me when they started a conversation with “Mom, please don’t get mad”. Even though it was never really that bad, but I braced myself and kept my side of the bargain.
I really love this idea. I actually used to start conversations with my mom with those exact same words (heck, I still do!). Thank you for this comment!