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When you choose a story to read to your child, do you care if it has a moral? Even when the story doesn’t have a moral, do you make one up anyway? Is it important to you that children “get the point” of the consequences of the main character’s actions?

A lot of traditional stories seem to be built with the moral in mind. Aesop’s fables are particularly explicit in this regard. Think of the fable the Hare and the Tortoise and the moral “slow and steady wins the race.” The story of Little Red Riding Hood seems an elaborate warning to stay on the path and not talk to strangers. In fact, the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears bothers us just a bit because nothing really happens to Goldilocks who broke into the bears’ home and destroyed their possessions. It’s as if we’d rather Goldilocks got eaten by the bears instead of being allowed to escape out the window.

Many modern books for children revolve around a moral, especially the storybooks parents can find at the supermarket and other big box stores. The Curious George books have morals that are gently emphasized. Recent titles in The Berenstain Bears series are more heavy-handed. The question is, does all this moralizing pay off? Do children pick up on the moral of a story and use that to guide their own behavior.

The answer is, “It depends.”

A recent study with children aged three to seven found that some classic tales that emphasize a moral failed to have the intended effect. For example, stories that hinge on the bad outcomes resulting from telling a lie did not reduce children’s own impulse to lie. Here’s how the study worked.

Over 260 preschoolers were asked to play a game in which cheating would have made them a winner but no one would know if they actually cheated. A videotape of the process revealed who did cheat and, later, who lied about cheating when asked. Next, children were read a story that illustrated the consequences of lying, like Pinocchio or The Boy Who Cried Wolf. (If you’ve forgotten, Pinocchio’s nose grows longer when he lies and his lying leads to other bad consequences; in The Boy Who Cried Wolf, a boy is not believed when he reports that a wolf is approaching the village because he lied about this in the past.) Then the children played the cheating game again. The result? Children were as likely to cheat and as likely to lie about cheating after hearing the stories as before.

A second experiment used the same cheating game but a different story, the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. In this tale, the young future president is confronted with a ruined tree and, instead of covering up his deed, admits to it, saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” In this experiment, children were much less likely to lie about cheating and much more likely to admit that they cheated.

So here’s the take-away: morals that depict terrible consequences for lying (and perhaps for other misdeeds as well), do not reduce bad behavior but stories that depict a main character resisting the temptation to behave badly do reduce bad behavior. Morals work, but only if they present positive choices.

The implications of this reach beyond the realm of reading aloud to children. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Rather than threatening punishment if your child makes a bad choice, promise a celebration for a good choice.
  2. Be quicker to celebrate good decisions than to punish bad ones. We do get what we pay attention to, so pay attention to the good things.
  3. When you choose books and movies for your children, avoid those with heavy moral messages, especially those that illustrate the negative consequences of bad behavior. These don’t improve behavior and are unpleasant for their audiences. Even children know when they’re being manipulated and don’t like it at all.
  4. When you tell personal stories, of your own childhood or of what happened during your workday, tell stories not about how someone got away with something or how they were punished for what they did but tell stories about how someone make a good choice, even when it was difficult.

Children learn to make good, moral decisions through observation. They watch what happens and over time develop their notions of how the world works. Morals that hinge on positive decisions teach best.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at

Kim Estes, expert on child safety, relays this incident from a mother, who wrote, “I recently had to stop play dates between my child and a schoolmate when I discovered that the child’s mother had not once, not twice but three times had either asked my child to keep a secret or had offered to ‘not tell your mom’ about something that had happened on a play date.”

Would you have done the same? Is the impulse to keep secrets from you so serious a problem it’s a reason to limit a friendship?

Well, yes. And here’s why. Anyone who asks a child to keep a secret is asking the child to lie. Obviously, this is a problem. In addition, someone who asks a child to keep a secret is teaching the child to practice deceit and trickery. This is confusing to child who in all innocence doesn’t see her parents as “the enemy” or as people from whom she needs to conceal what she’s doing.

Children keep secrets, of course, and the older the child the more secrets he will have from you. Just as you have secrets you don’t share with your children – or even with your best friend – so will your older child or teenager grow to distinguish between facts she wants to share and facts she wants to keep private. This ability to edit information for various audiences is an indicator of her growing social sensitivity and it usually doesn’t mean your child has anything earth-shaking to conceal.

But it’s different when the child who would share something with you is required not to. Sometimes a child is coerced into silence by a playmate who threatens to end their friendship if the child tells. Sometimes a child’s impulse to be truthful is held hostage by a friend’s parent or older sibling, who implies that telling will bring shame and unhappiness down on the child’s head. Embarrassment and shame are keen emotions among elementary school kids. The threat of exposure – even of something the child doesn’t understand was improper – is a powerful brake on your child’s conscience. Anyone who asks your child to keep something “our little secret” doesn’t have your child’s best interests at heart.

And that’s the real danger. Even though the first secret your child is asked to keep from you may not be very important, the second might be. This is how child sexual abuse is perpetrated and this is how kids are introduced to pornography, drugs, and shoplifting. Children are easily led. They go along with something unwittingly, then find themselves committing to secrecy. Parents who said they never knew are parents whose children swore never to tell.

You want to keep the lines of communication open. You want your children to believe they can tell you anything, anything at all, and you won’t go ballistic. You want your children to be able to look a would-be conspirator in the eye and think to themselves,

“No, I can’t keep this quiet. My Mom and Dad will want to know.”

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.