Cherry Trees & Honesty

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How do we get our children to have moral integrity and tell the truth, at least when it really matters?  Most of us have a hard time telling the truth ourselves, let alone teaching a child the intricacies of truth telling and the importance of  being honest.

Kang Lee, a professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, has been studying this subject for years.  He notes, Talking to kids about the moral importance of honesty and the moral negativity of lying has no impact on kids’ tendency to tell the truth.

Lee and his colleagues understand that the developing mind of children along with their imagination leads them to tell very interesting and fantastical stories.  However, the researchers studied not only the kinds of behaviors that teach children how to lie but also if young children, who know how to lie, can tell when others are lying and how this affects their ability to learn about morality.

One of their decade long studies, published in the journal Psychological Science, tested whether children could effectively learn about honesty from childhood stories that had morals at the end such as Pinocchio or George Washington and the cherry tree.

They studied children ages 3 to 7 years old and asked them to identify familiar toy sounds such as a dog bark.  They then played a sound that was harder to identify and told the children they had to step out of the room for a moment. The child of course was told not to peek at the toy.

When the scientist returned she covered up the toy and had the child turn around.  She then read one of three childhood tales (George Washington and the Cherry tree, Pinocchio, or the Boy Who Cried Wolf. A control group heard “The Tortoise and the Hare”, which has no moral ending.

The children were then asked if they peeked at the toy while the researcher was gone. About 90% of 3-year-olds peeked. More than 60% of 7-year-olds did, too. Overall, 65% lied about peeking.

Surprisingly, however, those who heard the George Washington tale only lied about half the time, a significant improvement over the other groups. Those who heard “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” were just as likely to lie as those in the control group.

The researchers speculate that the children were responding to the positive benefits of telling the truth rather than the negative consequences of getting caught lying.

Some words of wisdom from the researchers into embedding morality into your children.

1.  Model Honesty –  Admit when you made a mistake instead of scapegoating it. Instead of listing all the things you had to do before work, which “made” you late, say “I should have gotten up earlier.”

2. Reward honesty don’t punish it. Say a child/teenager gets a bad grade – address how they can go about improving their grade and what kind of help they might  need. But if a child/teenager lies about getting a bad grade then punish the lie not the grade (after all they could have been trying their hardest).

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