And The Moral Of The Story Is ... Kids Don't Always Understand The Moral

Jan 8, 2015
Originally published on February 19, 2015 7:28 pm

"Slow and steady wins the race."

"What's right for one may be wrong for another."

"Treat others the way you'd like to be treated."

Morals have long been the conclusion of fables and fairy tales aimed at kids. And today's TV shows and movies are no different — they often weave lessons for the younger generation into their narratives. But do children actually absorb these messages, or do these endings just help parents feel better about the media their kids consume?

Disney's Sofia the First is one of today's highest-rated TV shows among 2- to 11-year-olds. It's a bit of a twist on a very old tale: Sofia is a regular girl from the village who ends up living in the castle when her mother marries the king.

Rick Porter of Los Angeles says he likes that his daughter watches the show because it's "about being true to yourself and not letting the trappings of royalty change you." But if you ask his daughter about Sofia, Porter suspects she'd say: "She's a princess, she's happy and she has a pretty purple dress."

Now, both opinions are certainly valid, but is Porter's 2 1/2-year-old daughter getting the loftier message "Be true to yourself"? Probably not, says Seeta Pai, vice president of research at Common Sense Media, an organization that rates and reviews all kinds of children's media. "The capacity to understand a so-called moral of the story involves several cognitive and logical steps," says Pai.

The child needs to understand what a character's intentions are and what the consequences of those intentions are, Pai explains, "and then, they need to be able to make some sort of judgment about that sequence." But even when little kids connect those dots, she says, they still might not grasp the moral.

"Research among U.S. populations of kids indicates that this ability to articulate a moral theme develops fairly slowly," says Pai, "emerging only around age 9 or 10."

By that age, many kids have moved on to some pretty mature stories. Porter — whose daughter watches Sofia — is the editor of the ratings website TVByTheNumbers. He says the second-highest-rated cable TV show among 9- to 14-year-olds is The Walking Dead, a gory, post-apocalyptic series about zombies and humans battling each other.

Yvette Harris, a psychology professor and early childhood researcher at The Miami University of Ohio, says The Walking Dead might be OK for young adults, but 9- and 10-year-olds are unlikely to understand its underlying message. "Violence is sometimes justified," says Harris, "and it's the hero who actually can engage in violent behavior because — the justification is — the hero is protecting everybody and saving the world."

There is no formula for what sticks, says Jack Zipes, author of a number of books about fairy tales. "You cannot predict whether a child will really understand the moral or the message of a particular tale," he says. Zipes developed a storytelling program in Minneapolis where kids read and interpret classic tales like "Little Red Riding Hood." After some discussion, the teacher asks them to rewrite the stories based on a "what if" question. "For instance, 'What if Little Red Riding Hood knew karate?' or 'What if Grandma ate the wolf?' or 'What if the wolf were a vegetarian?' " says Zipes.

The exercise, he explains, helps children think more critically about the tale. But even then they might not be able to say what the moral is. And adults don't always grasp the moral of the story either; according to Zipes, a 17th-century version of "Little Red Riding Hood" was written as a cautionary tale about rape: " 'Little girls who invite wolves into their parlor deserve what they get.' Now that's a very clear moral and it's very sexist, obviously," he says. Today we might just say it's "Don't talk to strangers."

Fables and fairy tales — and their morals — have changed and evolved over the centuries. Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie, is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the evil fairy's point of view. It's really Maleficent's back story. Seven-year-old Grace Feldmann of Laurel, Md., says it's one of her favorite movies: "It has evil; I like evil. It has nice; I like nice," says Grace.

Maleficent certainly starts out nice — with her majestic wings, she grows up to be the strongest fairy of the Moors, an enchanted forest. But the human kingdom wants to conquer the Moors, and a soldier brutally cuts off her wings. That's when she turns evil. When the soldier becomes king, Maleficent puts a curse on his firstborn: "Before the sun sets on her 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of the spinning wheel and fall into a sleeplike death."

In this contemporary retelling, however, Maleficent ultimately repents and awakens the princess. She becomes kind again and reunites the two kingdoms. The message — that a person can be "both hero and villain" — is very powerful, says Harris. "It reflects the reality of the world and it also helps children understand the range of emotions and how emotions fit in to helping people walk through the world."

For Grace, however, it's a lot to take in. Here's how she describes the plot: "She gets angry. She turns back. She gets angry. It's kind of confusing sometimes." But Grace still loves the movie — she even dressed up as Maleficent for Halloween.

When kids read fables and fairy tales, they probably won't fully absorb their morals until they grow up — and maybe not even then.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel with some good, old-fashioned morals instilled in us from fables and fairy tales.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Slow and steady wins the race.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: What's right for one may be wrong for another.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Treat others the way you'd like to be treated.

SIEGEL: In today's world, TV shows and movies aimed at children often weave lessons into their narratives. NPR's Elizabeth Blair wanted to see whether children actually get these messages.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Let's take one of today's highest-rated TV shows among 2- to 11-year-olds.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SOFIA THE FIRST")

ARIEL WINTER: (As Sofia) (Singing) Oh, I was a girl in a village doing all right. Then I became a princess overnight. Now I got to...

BLAIR: Disney's "Sofia The First" is about a regular girl from the village who ends up a princess. Rick Porter of Los Angeles likes that his little girl watches the show because it's...

RICK PORTER: about being true to yourself and not letting the trappings of royalty change you.

BLAIR: And what does he think his daughter would say about Sophia?

PORTER: She's a princess. She's happy, and she has a pretty purple dress.

BLAIR: Now of course both opinions are valid, but is Rick Porter's daughter getting the message be true to yourself? Let's ask an academic.

SEETA PAI: The capacity to understand a so-called moral of the story involves several cognitive and logical steps.

BLAIR: Seeta Pai is a researcher with Common Sense Media, which rates and reviews all kinds of children's media. She says to get the moral or lesson of a story, a child needs to first be able to understand what a character's intentions are and then the consequences of those intentions.

PAI: And then they need to be able to make some sort of judgment about that sequence.

BLAIR: But even when they do, says Pai...

PAI: Research among U.S. populations of kids indicates that this ability to articulate a moral theme develops fairly slowly.

BLAIR: Not until about age 9 or 10, says Pai. And by that age, a lot of kids have moved on to other stories. Rick Porter, whose daughter watches "Sofia," is the editor of the ratings website TVByTheNumbers.

PORTER: I was surprised to see this, the number two show among 9- to 14-year-olds is "The Walking Dead."

BLAIR: "The Walking Dead," number two among cable shows for 9- to 14-year-olds, is a gory, post-apocalyptic series about zombies and humans battling each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD")

ANDREW LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) Come on. Come on. Stay close.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Character) Carol.

LINCOLN: (As Rick Grimes) Stay close.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Zombie) (Growling).

BLAIR: Psychology professor and early childhood researcher Yvette Harris of the Miami University of Ohio says the show might be OK for young adults, but 9 and 10-year-olds are unlikely to understand "The Walking Dead's" underlying message.

YVETTE HARRIS: Violence is sometimes justified. And it's the hero who actually can engage in violent behavior because the justification is this hero is protecting everybody and saving the world.

JACK ZIPES: You cannot predict whether a child will really understand the moral or the message of a particular tale.

BLAIR: Jack Zipes has written several books about fairy tales. He also developed a storytelling program in Minneapolis where kids read and interpret fairy tales like "Little Red Riding Hood." After some discussion, the teacher asks the kids to rewrite the story based on a "what if" question.

ZIPES: For instance, what if Little Red Riding Hood knew karate? Or what if grandma ate the wolf? Or what if the wolf were a vegetarian?

BLAIR: Zipes says the exercise helps children think more critically about the tale. But even then, they might not be able to say what the moral is. But he says, adults aren't always clear about the moral of the story either. A 17th century version of "Little Red Riding Hood, says Zipes, was written as a cautionary tale about rape.

ZIPES: Little girls who invite wolves into their parlors deserve what they get. Now that's a very clear moral (laughter), and it's very sexist obviously.

BLAIR: Today, we might just say it's don't talk to strangers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MALEFICENT")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Let us tell an old story anew, and we will see how well you know it.

BLAIR: "Maleficent," starring Angelina Jolie, is a retelling of "Sleeping Beauty" from the evil fairy's point of view. It's really Maleficent's back story. Seven-year-old Grace Feldmann of Laurel, Maryland, says it's one of her favorite movies.

GRACE FELDMANN: It has evil, which I like evil. It has nice, which I like nice.

BLAIR: "Maleficent" starts out nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MALEFICENT")

ISOBELLE MOLLOY: (As Young Maleficent) It's not right to steal, but we don't kill people for it.

BLAIR: With her majestic wings, she grows up to be the strongest of the fairies. But the human kingdom wants to conquer her enchanted forest kingdom. A soldier brutally cuts off Maleficent's wings, and that's when she turns evil. When he becomes king, she puts a curse on his first born.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MALEFICENT")

ANGELINA JOLIE: (As Maleficent) Before the sun sets on her 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep-like death.

BLAIR: But in this retelling, Maleficent repents and ultimately awakens the princess from her sleep-like death. She becomes kind again and reunites the two kingdoms. The message, a person can be both hero and villain, is powerful says Yvette Harris.

HARRIS: It reflects the reality of the world. And it also helps children understand the range of emotions and how emotions fit in to helping people walk through the world.

BLAIR: But for 7-year-old Grace Feldmann, that's a lot to take in.

GRACE: She gets angry. She turns back. She gets angry. It's kind of confusing sometimes.

BLAIR: But she still loves the movie. She was Maleficent for Halloween. When kids learn fables and fairytales, they probably won't fully absorb their morals until they become adults; maybe not even then. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.