Read more about what we've been working on and whether moral stories can teach children to be more honest (道德故事能教儿童诚实吗?) in the link below!
An english translation can be found here:
Does Telling Moral Stories Teach Children to be More Honest?
Ding Xiaopan, Cleo Tay
Honesty is necessary for developing trusting relationships within the family but children have an in-built propensity to lie. Research conducted in both Asian and Western countries show that children start telling lies when they are three years old (“I didn’t steal the cookie from the cookie jar!”), and their lies grow increasingly frequent and nuanced with age. Given the pervasiveness of childhood deception and its negative consequences, it is important for psychologists to find effective ways of reducing lying in children.
A common method is the telling of moral stories. Moral stories can be found in most societies and these short narratives have historically been used to impart values to children. One such example is the tale of “The Honest Woodcutter” from Aesop’s Fables, which originated in ancient Greek society and continues to be told in Singapore schools today. The Ministry of Education employs a “story-telling approach” in its current Character and Citizenship Education syllabus based on its belief that this approach “facilitates the internalisation of values” in primary school children (Student Development Curriculum Division, 2012). In class, children are read classic stories such as The Boy who Cried Wolf, George Washington and the Cherry Tree, and Pinocchio. These stories emphasise the virtue of honesty, but practically, do they actually reduce lie telling?
Prof Kang Lee from University of Toronto did the first empirical study on the effect of moral stories on children’s honesty in 2014. He found that only moral stories that emphasise the positive consequences of telling the truth, such as George Washington and the Cherry Tree, reduce children’s lying. In contrast, stories that emphasise the negative consequences of telling lies, such as The Boy Who Cried Wolf, do not help children become more honest.
My team at the Department of Psychology, National University of Singapore recently completed a research project involving 200 three to six year old children in Singapore to replicate Dr Kang Lee’s finding that only positive moral stories are effective in promoting honesty in children. As moral stories are vehicles through which cultural values are taught and children are socialized, they are subject to socio-cultural variation. Given this variation and the fact that all previous studies that examined the role of moral stories on children’s lying behaviour were conducted in a Western context with different cultural values (i.e., Canada), there is reason to believe that results may differ in Singapore.
In this project, we adopted the temptation resistance paradigm to test whether children would lie to conceal their mini transgressions. In this paradigm, a child plays a guessing game in which he is required to guess the identity of a stuffed animal based on the sound it makes. After two successful trials with prototypical animals and sounds (e.g. a dog that woofs and a cat that meows), the experimenter makes an excuse to exit the room for a short duration, leaving the child alone in the room with explicit instructions not to turn around and peek at the third animal while they are gone. The experimenter then places the third animal behind the child, and then plays instrumental music as she leaves the room. Given that music is not related to any sound an animal makes, the child will be tempted to peek at the stuffed animal (a teddy bear). Our study shows that the majority of children peeked at the toy while alone in the room.
When the experimenter re-enters the room, she proceeds to tell the child a story. For the positive moral story condition, the child listens to a story where the character is rewarded for his honesty. For the negative condition, the child listens to a modified version of the story, where the character is punished for his dishonesty. In the neutral condition, the character does not tell the truth or a lie. Finally, the experimenter will ask the child if they had peeked at the toy while alone in the room.
Our preliminary results replicated the findings of previous studies that only the positive moral story (Little George tells the truth and Daddy praises him), and not the negative moral story (Little George tells a lie and Daddy punishes him), helps promote children’s honesty. However, there is a significant age effect: the positive moral story only helps younger children (3- to 4-year olds) to be more honest. It has no effect on older children (5- to 6-year-olds).
In addition, we recorded the children’s facial expressions during the storytelling and tracked how their emotions change during different parts of the moral story. Using this facial emotion analysis, we hope to understand why the positive moral story makes children more honest. Were children who told the truth more joyful when they saw the parent praising the child for being truthful? Alternatively, were children who lied more afraid when they saw the child commit a wrongdoing? Our results show that children who express fewer negative emotions on hearing the protagonist admit his transgression are more likely to tell the truth themselves. In other words, children who approve of telling the truth and judge it to be a good thing are more likely to adopt the posture of the story’s protagonist when they are themselves faced with a dilemma of whether to tell the truth and confess their transgression or lie to hide it.
The results are enlightening. Going back to our question of why the positive moral story is an effective way of promoting children’s honesty: It is not because of the positive outcome accompanying the positive moral story. Instead, a child’s belief in the virtue of honesty in the moral story compels him to be more likely to be truthful about a transgression of his own. Moreover, this study shows that moral stories may not be an effective way of promoting children’s honesty with children older than five years. This suggests that more thought ought to be given to our current primary school Character and Citizenship Education syllabus, which incorporates telling moral stories as a way to impart values. Of course, moral story telling is not the only way to inculcate honesty in children. While it is common for children to tell lies, we still need to cultivate the virtue of honesty from an early age. There are several other ways that have been supported by scientific studies.
1. Refrain from harsh physical punishment. Research shows that punitive punishment has little impact on young children’s lying behaviour. In fact, children in a punitive environment are more likely to lie, and to lie secretly.
2. Rephrase our praises. Studies have found that children who receive generic praises about traits perceives as innate (such are “you are very clever!”) have a higher likelihood of lying compared to children who receive praise for a specific task done well. We need to give children praise appropriate to tasks done well, such as “You worked very hard on this test! You did a wonderful job this time!”
3. Be a good role model. Parenting by lying is common in Asia. However, telling your child that the police will come for him if he does not finish his dinner might not a good idea. Recent studies have shown that university students who grew up in families that frequently used parenting by lying report more mental health and social adjustment problems.