How to Teach Kids to Tell the Truth Through Stories

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This article originally appeared on the website of our friends and colleagues at the Center for Scholars & Storytellers.

In 2020, it feels like the values of integrity and honesty are further away from our national character than ever before. We try to teach our children to be honest, but it’s challenging when they see grown-ups lying every day.

The good news is that stories can help inspire honest, upstanding behavior. But do the stories we tell our kids to teach them not to lie work? Surprisingly counterintuitive research demonstrates that for young kids, we may not be getting across the right message.

Researchers from the University of Toronto read children ages 3 to 7 one of three stories: "George Washington and the Cherry Tree," "Pinocchio," or "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." Only one of these stopped kids from telling a lie.

The story of George Washington telling the truth to his father about chopping down the tree and the pride he felt when his father praised his honesty was the only effective story. Why do the researchers believe this worked? Because this story, unlike the others, which feature high stakes and scary outcomes, emphasized positive consequences. In other words, instead of being scared, the kids focused on the lesson at hand: learning not to lie.

And while the researchers didn’t point to realism, decades of research demonstrates that for young kids, realistic, relatable stories are more effective (can you say Mister Rogers' Neighborhood?). So perhaps the fact that nearly any child can relate to wanting their father to be proud of them — rather than to an obscure story about a wolf eating them — was a reason they actually got the point of the fable.

How can you make sure younger kids will get the message you intend to get across? Young children think concretely and aren't ready for abstract ideas — kids typically can't get the moral of a story until they're about 9 years old. So focus on the main narrative and lose the subplots. And keep it realistic and relatable; folktales are not as effective.

Author Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D., is the founder and executive director of the Center for Scholars & Storytellers.

Tags: Toddlers, Education, Developing Skills & Character

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The Center for Scholars and Storytellers

The Center for Scholars & Storytellers (CSS) is an organization based at UCLA de... See Full Bio

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