Peter Rabbit, the Cat in the Hat, Winnie the Poo, Charlotte and Wilbur share one commonality: they are all anthropomorphized animals. According to new research, those characters could be doing more than just keeping kids entertained and helping them think creatively about the world. They might also be skewing children's understanding of wildlife.
As Wired UK reports, authors of a recent study decided to test whether or not humanized portrayals of animals in picture books impacted the views of young kids. The researchers recruited 62 three- to five-year-olds and read to them from one of two books. In one book, a mother animal goes about her business much as she would in the natural world, foraging and tending to her young. In the other book, the mother animal talks to her babies and wonders to herself about what to feed them that day, Wired describes. After story time, the researchers asked the kids a few questions. The children who had heard the anthropomorphized version of the story, they found, were more likely to answer the fact-based questions incorrectly.
As National Geographic points out, however, this does not mean that parents should burn all of their kids' animal books. The findings instead imply that some real-world lessons are also needed to temper the fantasy ones. As one of the study authors told NatGeo:
People have gone crazy out there. They think we are saying, don't read books that interweave fantasy with reality. That's not the message from this. It's if you want your children to learn more facts about animals, it would be better to use books that are more realistic. Of course parents should read a variety of books to their children. Fantasy is important for their imagination and their cognitive development.
However, as the authors point out, it's not just kids who tend to antropomorphize animals. Adults do it, too. But whether or not children who read books about human-like animals then grow up to be adults who continue to wrongly assign those traits to animals would require a long-term study to establish whether or not that connection exists.