If you hope to teach honesty to your kids, maybe you should double-check what’s in their personal library. According to a recent experiment at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, University of Toronto, a child’s choice to tell the truth can be influenced by storybooks. But it doesn’t necessarily work the way you think.
In the experiment, when researchers read aloud the story of George Washington and the cherry tree – in which the young man is praised for his honesty – children were much more likely to tell the truth themselves about whether they’d peeked at a toy they were expressly forbidden to see.
But when they tested kids with the relatively more upsetting story of the boy who cried wolf, or Pinocchio, the literature had no effect on encouraging the kids to ’fess up.
In other words, scaring them straight doesn’t really work.
That’s bad news for the many generations of parents who relied on tales of elongated noses and brutal wolf attacks to traumatize – er, train their children to tell the truth. But it’s welcome news for moms and dads who might prefer to use more positive reinforcement to drive home the same lesson.
On a side note, it’s too bad this research wasn’t available for German psychiatrist and author-illustrator Heinrich Hoffmann in the 1800s, before he published Der Struwwelpeter, a gruesome collection of cautionary tales for kids.
Being of German descent myself, I owned a copy of this book as a child. And thanks to its contents, I was intimately familiar with the extremely dire consequences of everything from playing with matches (you’ll burn to ashes) to daydreaming (you’ll fall into a river and nearly drown) to refusing dinner (you’ll shrivel and die within a span of just five days) to thumbsucking (an evil tailor most certainly will appear out of nowhere, and use his oversized scissors to cleanly amputate your digits – the stumps of which, incidentally, will spurt blood).
Nice to know that gentler stories may have a much stronger influence on the moral development of our children. As we catch on to this new trend, perhaps we should be rewriting that old taunt, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” What do you think? I’m just free-flowing here, but how about “truth, truth, candy for your sweet tooth…”?