As a teacher, I know that all children will intentionally do the wrong thing, at some point. Recently I wrote about when my daughter told her first lie. If you think you have the golden child who doesn’t do the wrong thing, you are fooling yourself. I’m not saying all children are little monsters destined for a life of crime and punishment, but we are human after all and everyone, including children, make mistakes. The difference is whether or not they own up to their poor behaviour. So how do you reinforce in children the importance of being honest and owning up to their poor behaviour? This becomes increasingly difficult when they realise there are usually negative consequences for doing the wrong thing. According to recent research by the University of Toronto, it seems the rule of thumb is to keep it positive. Psychology professor Kang Lee conducted an experiment in which children were told to find a toy by using sound, rather than sight. They were instructed not to peak to look at the toy. After a period of time the children were read one of three classic stories which were thought to encourage the children to be honest. The stories read were either, “Pinocchio,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” or “George Washington and the Cherry Tree.” The children were then asked if they had peaked to look at the toy.
Classic moral stories were written to teach children about the virtues that society wishes to instill in them. The main character usually has to learn some kind of lesson. But do they work? Do these stories actually promote honest behaviour? In the three stories used in the study, the main character has to take responsibility for their decietful behaviour. But the outcome for each of the characters is quite different. Pinocchio suffers a number of consequences from his nose growing at each lie to having his feet burnt. In “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, the little boy dies!
Professor Kang and his colleagues believed that children would be more likely to tell the truth after hearing the story of Pinocchio and The Boy Who Cried Wolf because the characters experienced nasty consequences from their lying. Surely no child wants to have their feet burnt off or die! However, they were wrong. The story that gleaned the most truth telling from the children, was the story of George Washington. Interestingly, in this story, George’s honesty is celebrated.
So what do we learn from this? Ideally we should be highlighting the positive reasons for being honest when they’ve done the wrong thing, rather than focusing on the negative consequences. When you think about it, it’s kind of obvious. The whole, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar” scenario. However, when faced with a deceitful child, sometimes it’s challenging to keep a level head and calmly explain the positive reasons to take responsibility for their poor behaviour. Especially when all you want to do is throttle them!
You can read the full research article here and the PDF is free to download.
Special thanks to R John Wright Dolls for allowing me to use the picture of their Pinocchio doll for my blog post. Check out their other lovely dolls at http://www.rjohnwright.com