Talking Animals Are Not Good at Teaching Moral Lessons to Kids

CC BY 2.0. anjanettew

At least, they're not as effective as human characters in stories, according to this study.

If you hope to impart a moral lesson to a child while reading a story, then it should have human characters in it, rather than animals. This discovery, from the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), is intriguing, since anthropomorphic animals are commonly used in children’s books and are usually thought of as a good way to make moral messages accessible to kids. Apparently, this is not the case.

The U of T researchers read one of three children’s books to 100 children between the ages of four and six. One used animals to teach that sharing is good; another replaced the animals with humans; a third was a control book on seeds. Prior to reading, the children were given 10 stickers and told they could donate stickers to an anonymous child who had none by placing some in an envelope when the researcher wasn’t looking; after reading, they were given another 10 stickers and told the same. From the Guardian:

“Those children who were read the book with human characters became more generous, while ‘in contrast, there was no difference in generosity between children who read the book with anthropomorphised animal characters and the control book; both groups showed a decrease in sharing behaviour,’ [the study authors] write.”

Patricia Ganea, a professor of early cognitive development, says that while “a growing body of research has shown that young children more readily apply what they’ve learned from stories that are realistic ... this is the first time we found something similar for social behaviors. The finding is surprising given that many stories for young children have human-like animals.”

Animals are immensely popular in children’s books. Looking around my kids’ room, I can see Winnie the Pooh, Ferdinand the Bull, collections of Bill Peet and William Steig books, Charlotte’s Web, Llama Llama, Alison Uttley’s Tales of Little Brown Mouse, Beatrix Potter, and (dreaded) Scaredy Squirrel, among many others. Talking animals feature prominently in stories – over 50 percent, according to one estimate, with only 2 percent of books depicting animals “realistically” – and they’re often placed in roles where adults presume their presence will soften a moral message.

This discovery is particularly interesting in light of an article I wrote earlier this week, about how a process of subconscious reeducation occurs throughout childhood to change kids’ perspectives on animals. They go from feeling attached to being taught an animal’s ‘correct’ place in the world – on their plate. It would be interesting to know which animals are most often anthropomorphized in stories and whether that reflects the three categories into which animals are usually divided by adults for children’s comprehension – wild, pet, and edible.

As for this question of morality, though, I can’t help but wonder why imparting a moral lesson is considered so important. To put it bluntly, who cares? Kids should be reading books for the sake of reading, because they are interested and amused, not because there always has to be a life lesson takeaway.