Animals who dress and talk like humans are a common sight in children’s books. This is called anthropomorphism, and many authors who write moral stories starring human-like animals feel that it is a good vehicle to teach children ethical lessons. It creates a distance and makes moral stories more digestible. Authors also feel that anthropomorphic moral lessons have a greater impact than simple moral instruction, which will only have short term effects.

But what does the research say? Are unrealistic characterizations of animals an effective tool? Let’s find out!

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According to a study conducted by the University of Toronto, human characters are more likely to have an impact on children’s moral development. Two groups of children were given a book on sharing. While one group got a book in its original form starring anthropomorphic characters, the other group got a book in which the animal characters were swapped for human characters. The children were then asked to share their stickers with a stickerless child.

While children who read the book with human characters showed more generosity, there was no difference in generosity among children who read the book with animal characters. Thus books starring human characters seem to have a greater impact on children, at least in the short term. Maybe the distance that is used to make moral stories more digestible is allowing children to be indifferent. These results show that children do not need to be served sugar-coated, watered-down lessons on morality. They are capable of understanding values presented realistically.

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But that does not take away from the fact that anthropomorphic characters are endearing and likeable! However, other research has shown that unrealistic characterizations could negatively affect children’s conceptual understanding of animals. Cultural settings (rural vs urban) and age (5-year-old children have more exposure to anthropomorphic books than 4-year-olds) influence children’s conceptual understanding of animals apart from picture books. But children growing up in urban settings with limited exposure to farm or wild animals tend to attribute human-centric qualities to them as a consequence of anthropomorphic characterizations. These picture books confuse their understanding of the biological world.

The same study showed that storybooks that are contextually similar to the real world prompted children to transfer their learnings from the book to their own life. This is not the case with a book about a talking tree or animal. This could also be one of the reasons why instilling values through anthropomorphic tales had less impact on actual action among children. Existing evidence also suggests that adding fantastical elements like talking animals to a book that is meant to teach children novel traits of animals, may discourage the child from transferring knowledge from the book to the real world.

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While human-like animals are adorable and goofy, they—especially books that combine anthropomorphic pictures and language—might pose difficulties for some children. Parents, teachers and writers must be aware of this so that they can choose the correct vehicle for the required purpose. A writer once said that reading Charlotte’s Web prompted him to be a vegetarian. This goes to prove that anthropomorphic books can encourage children to treat animals with kindness and respect. But if the intention is to transfer that kindness to the human world or to teach children more about biology and nature, then there are better ways to go. These findings are not definite, more studies need to be done in the field, but being aware of these facts can definitely help us provide better aid to our children!