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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