There’s been a right old furore recently over the use of the word naughty.

There have been two camps in this argument – the ‘I was called naughty / children need discipline / how else will they learn right from wrong / snowflake generation’ camp, and the ‘emotional intelligence / learn through explaining / labelling isn’t helpful’ camp. You can probably guess which one I’m in.

So why can using the word naughty be an issue? And what do we do instead? Let’s take a look at some of the arguments and consider what the evidence says.

‘Children need to learn right from wrong / need to know they’re being naughty / need discipline’

I wholeheartedly agree (if we’re using the true definition of discipline, which is to teach – not to punish). And it’s our job as parents to teach them. But – you don’t have to use the word naughty to do that. In fact, I’d argue that when you tell them they’re naughty, they don’t actually learn anything about why they shouldn’t do those things in the future (apart from the fact that they’re naughty).

Let’s take a look at what children learn when they’re told they’re naughty:

Behaviour Explanation
Hits someone Naughty
Throws something Naughty
Drops food on floor Naughty
Bites someone Naughty
Snatches something Naughty
Doesn’t share Naughty
Runs off Naughty
Won’t wear coat Naughty
Won’t get into car seat Naughty

What learning is happening in all of the above situations? What are they learning about why they shouldn’t do those things? What emotional intelligence is being built? What connections are happening in the brain?

The answer is: not a lot. Because we’re not actually telling them anything.

What does naughty even mean?! I struggle to define naughty, because it is basically a ‘catch-all’ term for ‘badly behaved’. Which again, doesn’t mean very much as there are so many behaviours that are ‘bad’. And what’s ‘bad’ for one person won’t be for another. Or it may be ‘bad’ in one social situation, but acceptable in another. As adults, we can navigate the tricky world of rules and boundaries and how those might apply in different places. It’s incredibly hard for children to do that – especially when they don’t know why they shouldn’t be doing something.

‘We didn’t have this in our day. This is what’s wrong with kids / society nowadays.’

Just going to say – rose tinted glasses.

But also – let’s remember that historically, discipline involved control and fear (which is why the true meaning of the word has almost got lost). Frightened children don’t behave badly, because they’re scared of what will happen if they do. That’s not something we should be proud of and certainly not something we should want to get back to.

Also, there isn’t anything ‘wrong’ with children who display ‘naughty’ behaviour. In fact, a lot of behaviours that we label as naughty are typical developmental behaviours, caused by a brain that isn’t matured, a need for control, or an urge to learn about the world.

Children’s brains are immature. The neocortex (the rational / thinking part of the brain) isn’t fully connected. What does this mean in terms of our children’s behaviours?

Empathy? Not typically seen until age 4 at the earliest (and some children won’t display it until age 7). Empathy involves being able to see / experience the world from someone else’s perspective. So when your two year old hits you / their sibling / their friend, they’re not being malicious. They don’t understand that they’ve hurt them – because they’re not hurting themselves. They’re not upset, so nobody is.

Impulse control? The part of your brain that stops you hitting someone even though they’ve really pissed you off? Again, an immature part of your child’s brain. Your toddler can’t control those impulses. They just react – typically with quite primal, fight-or-flight responses like hitting, biting, screaming, running away etc.

Both of these also mean that they’re not capable of sharing. Not only do they ‘see it, want it, take it’ – but they have no concept of why it might be kind to give someone else something that they’re enjoying (and let’s face it, a lot of the time when we talk about sharing, what we’re actually teaching them is ‘give that to someone else’ – no wonder they don’t like it).

Additionally, some of these ‘naughty’ behaviours are also an act of resistance against the control we exert as parents. If you think about what control a child actually has in their life, it’s not much at all. They’re always working to someone else’s timetable (a lot of the time with no idea what that timetable is or where they’re going and when). They don’t get to choose where to go or what to wear or what to eat. That’s really hard for them – and their reaction is to push back and try and exert control themselves.

Not wanting to get in their car seat. Not wanting to hold hands. Not wanting to brush their teeth. Not wanting to go to bed. Not wanting to eat dinner. Not wanting to wear their coat. All ways that they can get a little bit of control back.

Finally, many behaviours are actually our children learning about the world through performing their own little experiments. Throwing objects? Trajectory schema. Repeatedly climbing on the table? Orientation schema. Mixing their dinner with their drink? Transformation schema. Not naughty. Not in the slightest.

‘I was called naughty and I’m fine / bloody snowflakes’

Firstly – these ‘snowflake’ parenting suggestions don’t tend to be plucked from thin air. They usually have a pretty solid evidence base. If you automatically dismiss anything ‘different’ or ‘new’ because that’s not how you did things, and you don’t want to listen to the evidence of psychologists and neuroscientists who spend their careers researching brain development and how parenting shapes the brain, then I would argue that you’re not fine.

Secondly – apparently snowflakes are easily offended and ‘triggered’. Let’s just consider for a moment whose voices have been the loudest, most angry, and most offended since the naughty story was featured. Yep, it’s people who think the whole thing is ridiculous and a load of nonsense. So not the ‘snowflakes’. Also – if being a snowflake means valuing my children’s emotional intelligence and raising them in a way that is substantially more work for me and takes a lot of investment and time (but which pays huge dividends), then yep – snowflake right here.

So what can we do instead?

It’s all well and good me saying all this – but what about the practical suggestions? What are the options if we don’t use the word naughty?

What we want to do is help our children to learn, by building lots of brain connections. Children learn far more from how we act and what we do than what we tell them – so model the behaviour that you want to see. If they do something that isn’t acceptable, tell them that they can’t do that and explain why. Keep your language simple and short. Remove them from a situation if you need to – and then explain. Stay close if you know that they’re a hitter / biter / pusher so that you can intervene quickly.

The really tough part of this sort of approach is that it takes time. A long time. So long that your child will still be doing those things, while you’ll feel like a broken record saying the same thing to them over and over. But keep going – because what you’re doing is sending consistent, clear messages and building strong connections in their brains. And when their brain becomes mature enough to understand and act on those connections, then that’s when you’ll see the result of all those messages you’ve been sending.

Let’s take another look at that list from before.

Behaviour Explanation
Hits someone ‘Hitting hurts people. Use gentle hands *model gentle hands* ’
Throws something ‘That might break. If it hits someone, it will hurt them. Throw this instead *if appropriate / acceptable*’
Drops food on floor ‘Food gets dirty when you drop it on the floor’.
Bites someone ‘Biting hurts people. Be gentle with your mouth *model gentle mouth – kissing* ’
Snatches something ‘Billy is upset because you took that from him. He’s playing with it. You can have a turn when he’s finished’.
Runs off ‘You must stay with mummy. You could get lost or hurt’.

What about those typical developmental behaviours that we see? What do we do about those?

With empathy and impulse control, you can’t teach those things. They come with time, as the brain matures. But how well they develop is hugely influenced by the types of messages we’re sending through our parenting, as explained above.

Sharing? Try taking turns instead. It’s fair, and they know they just need to wait to get a go. It also means that we’re not teaching them that it’s ok for others to take things that we’re enjoying – they need to wait their turn as well.

All the experiments they’re doing that maybe aren’t in an acceptable way / place / time? Provide opportunities (that are acceptable for you) for them to explore these schemas and develop their learning.

They’re trying to wrestle back control from you? Avoid this by giving them as much control as you can in all areas of their lives. Let them choose their clothes, let them climb into their car seat (if they can), give them choices at dinner. Let them learn through natural consequences. It’s cold but they don’t want to wear a coat? Let them get cold. They’ll ask for their coat if they need it (so take it with you and when they ask for it, bite your tongue if you feel like saying, ‘Told you so!’)

Taking the easy way out

According to those who disagree with this, this is ‘not parenting properly’.

Is this an easy way to parent? Definitely not – and I would argue that in fact it is a far harder way to parent than telling your child they’re naughty.

But if we think about discipline as teaching and our children as learning, then making the most we can of those opportunities just makes sense (and also helps to develop their brains to their full potential). And I’d certainly define that as ‘parenting properly’.


by Sarah | founder / consultant | Nurture Parenting

Sarah runs workshops and meets centred around all aspects of parenting, families and children, from pregnancy to school-age.

She’s a mum of 3 who really hates the cognitive dissonance that’s often displayed whenever parenting strategies get discussed in the media.

She wants to support families to make informed, educated choices when it comes to parenting their children. 


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