Positive reinforcement powerful tool in kids’ stories

By Amanda Bloye on September 30, 2014

It’s been proven that spending time reading with your kids builds bonds, can increase vocabulary and can boost communication skills. But, did you know that it could also motivate kids to be honest?

According to research from the University of Toronto recently published in Psychological Science, “a moral story that praises a character’s honesty is more effective at getting young children to tell the truth than a story that emphasizes the negative repercussions of lying.” Thus, classics like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, “Pinocchio” and “The Tortoise and the Hare” may not be effective cautionary tales.

To find out just how well stories can teach kids about morals and honesty, Kang Lee of the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto, Victoria Talawar of McGill University and colleagues rounded up 286 children ages three to seven.

Each child played a game that required guessing the identity of a toy based on the sound it made. Midway through, the experimenter left the room and asked the children not to peek. For most of the kids, the temptation was too much. When the experimenter returned she read one four stories (see right). When the story was finished, kids were asked say whether they peeked at the toy.

In the end it was only the story of “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” that inspired little ones to admit to peeking. Kiddos who heard the story about the future president were three times more likely to tell the truth than their peers who heard other stories. The difference: in the story, George Washington is praised for confessing his transgression rather than being punished for it, as was the case in the other tales.

The moral of this story: there’s more to learn with positive reinforcement.

Truth-telling Tales: Stories with positive outcomes can keep kids truthful – honest!

  • Pinocchio (Carlo Collodi): When puppet Pinocchio tells a lie, his nose grows and other troubles ensue. In short, lying and straying from the right path gets him into trouble.

  • The Tortoise and the Hare (Aesop): The speedy and boastful hare challenges plodding tortoise to a race. Over-confident that he will win, hare takes a nap halfway through the race and wakes to eat tortoise’s dust.

  • The Boy Who Cried Wolf (Aesop): A shepherd boy continuously tricks the villagers into thinking that a wolf is attacking his flock. Eventually they cotton on to his antics and ignore him, so when a wolf actually does come, no one responds to his cries.

  • George Washington and the Cherry Tree (attributed to Washington’s biographer Parson Weems): Six-year-old George ruins his father’s prized fruit tree, but owns up to it when confronted. Rather than punish him for his transgression, his father praises him for telling the truth.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2014.


By Amanda Bloye| September 30, 2014

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