From Wilbur the pig to Sylvester the donkey and Luna the bat, children’s books are chock-full of cuddly anthropomorphic animals designed to teach kids some lessons about how to live a moral life. But an increasing amount of scientific research is showing that dancing pigs and rabbits in T-shirts may not be the best way to teach kids values like sharing and empathy.
According to a study conducted at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), children who were read books with human characters were far more likely to share their belongings than peers who read stories featuring animals. Both groups read Mary Packard’s Little Raccoon Learns to Share, with one version featuring raccoons and the other featuring humans in the lead. A book about seeds served as the control group.
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Before they were read to, the children were allowed to pick 10 stickers to take home with them, while also being told that an anonymous child would not be receiving any stickers at all. If they were feeling generous, the researchers told them, they could donate stickers by putting them in an envelope when the experiment conductor was not looking. After story time was over, the children were given 10 more stickers and were once again asked if they would like to give some to their sticker-less counterpart.
While the children read the book with human characters became more generous with their stickers, those read the one with the raccoons or the seeds actually showed a decrease in sharing behavior. “After hearing the story containing real human characters, young children became more generous,” head researcher Patricia Ganea said. “In contrast, after hearing the same story but with anthropomorphized animals or a control story, children became more selfish.”
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The results of the study jar with conventional children’s book wisdom, as critters have long been the go-to population for children’s authors. A 2002 study of 1,000 children’s titles found that nearly half of them focused on animals or their habitats, with most of those animals anthropomorphized.
While Ganea affirmed that children’s book creators should pay attention to the study when crafting their works, many authors stressed the importance of substance over style when it comes to engendering good behaviors in kids. “The slight distancing that [anthropomorphizing] affords the young child does a number of important things,” said picture book author Tracey Corderoy. “But the initial ‘saving-face’ that using animals brings quite often results, I feel at least, in keeping a child reader engaged.”
Oi Frog and Friends author Kes Gray was a little less poetic. “Big hair, big eyes and pink twitchy noses should pretty much nail it,” he said.