What’s the Best Way to Tell a Story that Teaches Kids to Tell the Truth?

Child Lying

‘It wasn’t about politics. It was the underlying values’

Joe Biden about John McCain

In 2018, 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 everyday.

The good news is stories can help inspire honest upstanding behavior. But do the stories we tell our kids to teach them not to lie work? Surprisingly counter-intuitive 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, 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 about George Washington telling the truth to his father about chopping down the tree, and the pride he felt that when his father praised his honesty, was the only effective story. Why did the researchers believe this worked? Because this story, unlike the others which feature high stakes and scary outcomes, featured 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 (cough, can you say Mr Rogers Neighborhood?).  So perhaps the fact that nearly any child can relate to wanting their father to be proud of them, rather than 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? See below for some basics.

Child Psychology Insight